Iranian officials harshly criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his accusations against Iran over a biblical story from 2,500 years ago.
During an open session of parliament March 12, Speaker Ali Larijani said, “It is necessary to discuss two points about the leader of the Zionist regime [Israel]. First, he has distorted the history of pre-Islamic Iran, and he has reversed the events.” Larijani continued, “Apparently, he knows neither history nor has he read the Torah. Of course more cannot be expected from a nefarious Zionist to spread lies like this.”
In this vein, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted March 12, “To sell bigoted lies against a nation which has saved Jews 3 times, Netanyahu resorting to fake history & falsifying Torah. Force of habit.” Zarif’s tweet was accompanied by a screenshot of text that cites the Persian Kings Xerxes I and Cyrus the Great, who stopped a plot to kill Jews and freed Jews from Babylon respectively, and also World War II, in which Iran took in Jews fleeing Europe.
This particular row was sparked by comments from Netanyahu with respect to the Jewish holiday of Purim, which is believed to involve Xerxes I. During a March 9 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Netanyahu cited Purim and said, “There is an attempt by Persia’s heir, Iran, to destroy the state of the Jews.” Putin dismissed those remarks, saying that those events took place in the 5th century B.C. and “we live in a different world now.” Some Iranian media outlets particularly enjoyed Putin’s dismissal of Netanyahu’s concerns. Then, on March 11, a video also surfaced of Netanyahu speaking to children celebrating Purim saying, “Today in Persia they also want to … destroy us.”
Netanyahu’s narrative of Purim, much like most of his analysis on Iran, misreads important parts of the story, which comes from the Book of Esther from the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament. Though much of the story cannot be corroborated by history, it recounts how a Persian king’s viceroy, Haman the Agagite, plotted to kill all the Jews in Persia over a personal vendetta against a Jewish subject, Mordechai, who correctly assessed the threat against the Jews. The queen, Esther, reveals to the Persian king that she is Jewish and what the viceroy had plotted. The king then allows Mordechai and Esther to take revenge on Haman and his men by killing them.
This isn’t the first time Netanyahu has invoked Purim to make geopolitical attacks against the Iranian leadership. In 2012, Netanyahu gave President Barack Obama a copy of the Book of Esther. Later, in a 2015 speech — a time when relations with Obama had already soured — Netanyahu made his appeal to the US Congress. In the speech, he recounted the story of Esther, drawing a link to Iran’s leaders today, especially Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iran’s main ally in the region, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. Zarif had also responded to those comments in 2015, saying that it was “the Iranian king who saved the Jews.”