The Story of Esther and Netanyahu’s Attack on Iranian History

Esther denouncing Haman (Ernest Normand)

by Sina Toossi

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently declared that he believes it is “possible” that President Trump was sent by God to protect the Jewish people from Iranians. Pompeo’s remarks came during an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, after he was asked if “President Trump right now has been sort of raised for such a time as this, just like Queen Esther, to help save the Jewish people from an Iranian menace.” In likening Trump to Esther, Pompeo added that he was “confident that the Lord is at work here.”

Aside from the preposterous notion that President Trump enjoys divine support, Pompeo’s remarks distort the story of Esther and demonize the Iranian people and their history. Nor is Pompeo’s framing of this Biblical story new. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long twisted the Old Testament’s book of Esther to advance a hawkish agenda on Iran. Such rhetoric from Pompeo and Netanyahu is demagogic hyperbole at best and dangerous incitement against the Iranian people at worst.

Importantly, Pompeo’s comments occur in the context of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, marked by a unilateral withdrawal from the July 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the imposition of draconian U.S. sanctions that are impoverishing ordinary Iranians, and senior Trump officials exploring options to launch U.S. military strikes.

For his part, Netanyahu has sought to cynically and erroneously frame the story of Esther to reflect an age-old Iranian enmity for the Jewish people. Although Iranian officials have for 40 years engaged in deplorable anti-Israeli vitriol and threats, Netanyahu’s narrative of the story of Esther goes beyond censuring the Islamic Republic. Instead of targeting the current Iranian government, Netanyahu has chosen to go after Iran’s pre-Islamic past.

Netanyahu has long connected the story of Esther to modern times and suggested that Iranians have sought the Jewish peoples’ destruction since the days of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. During the Jewish holiday of Purim in 2017, for instance, he asked a group of school children, “Who wanted to kill us?” After garnering chants of “Persia,” he exclaimed: “Today in Persia they also want to destroy us.”

Netanyahu said on another occasion in 2017: “There is an attempt by Persia’s heir, Iran, to destroy the state of the Jews.” In March 2015 too, during his controversial address to Congress in which he lambasted President Obama’s nuclear negotiations with Iran, he proclaimed: “Today the Jewish people face another attempt by yet another Persian potentate to destroy us.”

Claiming that the story of Esther portrays Persians as wanting to wipe out the Jewish people, or that Iranians have had an eternal and unceasing animosity toward the Jewish people, is wholly unfounded. As Jewish author Yoram Hazony details in his book God and Politics in Esther, the vast Achaemenid Persian Empire was tolerant for its time. As Hazony explains, Esther was a Jewish Queen in the court of the Persian King Ahasuerus, which some religious scholars believe to be Xerxes I of the Achaemenid Empire. Ahasuerus, Hazony notes, had done away with the Persian tradition of consensus-driven decision making and delegated immense authority to a courtier called Haman.

Contrary to assertions made by Netanyahu that Haman was a “Persian viceroy,” he was in fact not Persian but an Amalekite, according to Hazony. A perennial enemy of the Jewish people in the Old Testament, the Amalekites were, like the Jewish people, a nation exiled by the Babylonians. Haman had risen to his position years after the Persian King Cyrus the Great famously conquered Babylonia and liberated the Jewish people and other persecuted groups.

With his powerful status in Ahasuerus’s court, the vociferous anti-Semite Haman hatched a plan to exterminate all Jews within the realm. Ahasuerus, whom Hazony portrays as a “bumbling and insecure” king, initially tolerated the genocidal plot. However, Esther convinced the king to abandon the plan and execute Haman. Ahasuerus then helped orchestrate the destruction of Haman’s allies who were bent on wiping out the Jews. According to the Bible, 75,000 were killed throughout the empire as a result.

The story of Esther is ultimately one of a Persian ruler helping to save the Jewish people, not unlike Cyrus the Great. Notably, despite the restrictions and repression that most Iranians face in modern-day Iran, the country today has the largest community of Jews in the Middle East outside of Israel. It is home to dozens of active synagogues, kosher stores, and a Jewish member of Parliament.

Netanyahu’s framing of the story of Esther is not only a misrepresentation of the traditional tale, but also evokes ugly episodes in history of leaders using religious texts to demonize enemies and advance their political ambitions. Too often, such rhetoric has led to nothing more than needless conflict and loss of innocent life. In today’s context of dangerously high tensions in the Middle East and the Trump administration’s aggressive Iran policy, fear-mongering using the Bible only heightens the potential for a catastrophic war that would have devastating consequences for U.S. interests and all regional people.

Sina Toossi is a Research Associate at the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). He tweets @SinaToossi.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
avatar

Guest

Articles by guest writers.

SHOW 5 COMMENTS

5 Comments

  1. Great analysis. Middle East irony at its best. How does Bibi’s accusation of intended genocide survive the Jewish-designated Member of Parliament and public Synagogue activities? Worse than blind. Intentional.
    Same across the region. In 1976 I filmed the rescue of hundreds of Jews from their synagogue refuge in Beirut, in the field of fire during the Lebanese civil war. The rescuers? Yasir Arafat and the PLO. The attackers? Lebanese Christian militias. No wonder Trump loves the Middle East.

  2. There’s a bit more to the story than the author reports. y. Haman was indeed supposedly a descendant of the Amalikites according to the story, but his animosity is dismissively attributed to “anti-Semitism” when in fact the Amalikites were the victims of a Biblical genocide by the ancient Jews, wherein God ordered the genocide of all the Amalikite people; men, women, children, pets and farm animals.

    Furthermore Esther actually requested that the King not only allow a genocide by the ancient Jews against their enemies for a time period, but to also extend it a bit more. I believe the Bible story reports 70,000 dead including all of Haman’s sons and family.

    But more significantly, in comparing Iran with Amalekites, Netanyahu is invoking a Biblical justification for genocide in the modern era, a dog-whistle for End Times lunatics not just in the US but also in Israel. Daniel Luban wrote about this on this very site in 2009: lobelog.com/goldberg-and-the-amalekites/

  3. Fact that,today in 21 century, there are people who use Bible(or any religious book)as foundation for international order and state policy is something we should be worried…Only idiot can do that,peoples of that age were in completely different position, without knowledge we have now and without perspective we have….and most importantly without military capacity to destroy 100 times this planet …So,I would say we have maniacs on power ….well guest what,there are many of us doesn’t believe,70 virgins are waiting for us after death or there is some garden where everyone is happy..and we would like to live nicely without killing… Irony is,every religious leader and authority talk about peace that their religion or their cult promote, but yet every fucking evil on this planet happened because someone do bad things in the name of his religion, cult,race….and there is one connection between all these events….in every of those events, people are killed because they are different at some way…religion, cult,race…or whatever… So I would say it is same sheet…every time some idiot think he and his followers are better,chosen,have right or deserve something …so from planet earth with love…go fuck yourself…you and your seek brain…there is no god(if exist) which will promote,approve or forgive killing …taking from others..etc and even if there are virgins and gardens somewhere, you will not be there for sure…

  4. Bibi have offered help to Iran during natural disasters in the past, but Iran have refused it.

  5. First, the whole idea of pretending old stories apply now is unjustified, but “Although Iranian officials have for 40 years engaged in deplorable anti-Israeli vitriol and threats” is a vast exaggeration of a few mistranslated sentences, and does ot compare with the actual offensive actions of Israel against Iran (Stuxnet, murder of scientists…) and the very dangerous actions of the USA under the instructions of Netanyahu to the “US Congress” and POTUS.

Comments are closed.