The New York Times Opinion
Skip to article
NYTimes.com Welcome, golin - Member Center - Log Out
Editorials/Op-Ed Home Editorials Columnists Contributors Letters New York/Region Opinions
Op-Ed Contributor

The Ghost of Purim Past

Published: March 14, 2006

Washington

THREE years ago, while visiting Tehran, I was introduced to a charmless man named Muhammad Ali Samadi, who, I was told, would parse for me the Iranian theocracy's peculiar understanding of Judaism and Zionism. Mr. Samadi said that Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, held no brief for anti-Semitism. Then, a moment later, he deployed an epidemiological metaphor to explain the role of Jews in history. "There are always infections and diseases in man," he said. "In the world there is an infection called international Jewry."

A year later, Mr. Samadi became the spokesman for the Esteshadion, or Seekers of Martyrdom, a group that has as its mission the training of young Iranians to kill Salman Rushdie, commit acts of suicide terrorism against Americans in Iraq and blow up Jews everywhere. "The Zionists should know that they aren't safe so long as they are an affront to God," he said. I asked him if, by "Zionists," he meant Israelis or, more generally, Jews. "Jews, Zionists, Israelis," he said, only semi-ambiguously.

I was not visiting Iran in order to collect the anti-Semitic leavings of second-tier terrorists, though I did buy a knapsack's worth of Jew-obsessed pamphlets and books, including a copy of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" in Persian. I was in Iran mainly to cross over into Iraq, whose dictator was about to be deposed by the United States Army. Saddam Hussein had once promised to "make fire burn half of Israel" — and he tried, ineffectually, to do so in the 1991 gulf war.

As chance would have it, it was on Purim that I tried to cross from Iran to Iraq. Purim is the famously disorderly holiday, celebrated today, that commemorates the hairbreadth escape of Persia's Jews from annihilation at the hands of the evil vizier Haman. The Purim story is recounted in the Scroll of Esther, which was read last night, Purim eve, in synagogues all over the world — including those in Iran, which is home to a remnant of a great and exceedingly old Jewish community. Judaism predates Islam in Iran by 1,000 years.

Purim is the ne plus ultra of the "They Tried to Murder Us, They Failed, Let's Eat" subcategory of Jewish holidays, and it is a self-consciously raucous day, a Jewish Mardi Gras when even rabbis are expected to drink themselves oblivious. It is possible to imagine, though, that Iran's intermittently persecuted Jews, living today under a president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who denies the historical truth of the European Holocaust while threatening a new Middle Eastern one, might see Purim not as a story of tragedy averted but as one of tragedy foretold.

The Purim story is suspenseful, ribald, comic and almost certainly false, a fantasy of revenge and redemption. Scholars generally agree that it is a pseudo-history introduced into Judaism about 2,400 years ago, at a time when the memory of Jerusalem's conquest by the Babylonians was still laying Jews low. In the story, the supercilious King Ahasuerus chooses the beautiful Esther to be his queen. Esther, who keeps her Jewishness hidden, has an uncle, the stoic and brave-hearted Mordechai, who does not conceal his faith, and who earns the wrath of Haman when he refuses to bow down before him.

Haman, in his anger, decides to visit his retribution not only on Mordechai but on all his tribe. "There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom," Haman tells Ahasuerus. "It is not for the king's profit to suffer them." The king agrees to have his Jewish subjects exterminated.

To save her people, Esther reveals to him that she is Jewish. Shocked into understanding, the king orders Haman hanged on the gallows originally built for Mordechai. But he is powerless to reverse his genocidal edict, so instead he allows the Jews to arm themselves in self-defense, and, on the day of the planned extermination, they do the slaying.

It is an outlandish story on several counts, not least of which is that ancient Persian kings tended to tolerate other gods and the men who worshipped them. Such tolerance, it must be said, is one of the main attributes of polytheism; Jews were not seen as threats to the theological order of pre-Islamic Persia.

The Muslim Middle East of today, alas, is a more plausible backdrop for the sort of anti-Jewish plot outlined in the Scroll of Esther than was the Persia of antiquity, the story's actual setting. The Iranian regime, after all, parades Shahab-3 missiles through Tehran draped in banners that declare, "We will wipe Israel from the map." The head of one of Iran's leading clerical councils, Hashemi Rafsanjani, said in December 2001 that the "application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel but the same thing would produce minor damages in the Muslim world." And the supreme leader himself, Ayatollah Khamenei, said of Israel in 2000, "We have repeatedly said that this cancerous tumor of a state should be removed from the region."

There are multiple tragedies here. Persian civilization, pre-Islamic and otherwise, has not been notably hostile to Jews. In fact, one of the great heroes of Jewish history is Cyrus, the Persian king who restored the Jews to Israel after the fall of the First Temple. And the Islamic Republic of Iran, though no Semitic utopia, has not been Poland, either. Even today, the febrile ranting about Jews one hears among the intelligentsia in Beirut and Cairo is mostly absent in Tehran, except among the clerical elite, who understand the utility of anti-Semitism in their effort to gain favor with Arab Muslims.

Which is not to say that the clerics don't believe what they say. This brings us back to Mr. Samadi's unfortunate metaphor. The terminology of disease control has now thoroughly infiltrated anti-Semitic discourse in the Middle East. Four years ago, a Hezbollah leader in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley named Hussein Haj Hassan told me that Jews function "in a way that lets them act as parasites in the nations that give them shelter." The leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad speak in much the same manner.

One worries about overreacting, but such language echoes the passage of "Mein Kampf" in which the Austrian Haman compares the Jew to "a sponger who like a noxious bacillus keeps spreading as soon as a favorable medium invites him."

I still assume that the Jews, and the Jewish state, will survive their encounter with the Iran of Mr. Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei. Iran's leaders don't yet have the bomb, and eschatologically minded though they are, they might not be entirely immune to the charms of rational deterrence theory. And, of course, both parable and history teach that Jews somehow always manage to survive.

Nevertheless, a great many people, in Iran and beyond, believe that the Jewish state is a cancer, and it is foolish to believe that this is an idea without consequences. As one Islamic Jihad leader told me not long ago, "Everyone knows that the cure for cancer is radiation."

Jeffrey Goldberg, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is the author of the forthcoming "Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide."