Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Some Episodes of History For the Attention of Mr. Netanyahu

By: Khodadad Rezakhani (Freie Universität, Berlin)

In his recent controversial speech in front of the joint houses of the US Congress, Mr. Binyamin Natanyahu, uttered the following:
We're an ancient people. In our nearly 4,000 years of history, many have tried repeatedly to destroy the Jewish people. Tomorrow night, on the Jewish holiday of Purim, we'll read the Book of Esther. We'll read of a powerful Persian viceroy named Haman, who plotted to destroy the Jewish people some 2,500 years ago. But a courageous Jewish woman, Queen Esther, exposed the plot and gave for the Jewish people the right to defend themselves against their enemies.
The plot was foiled. Our people were saved.
Today the Jewish people face another attempt by yet another Persian potentate to destroy us. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei spews the oldest hatred, the oldest hatred of anti-Semitism with the newest technology. He tweets that Israel must be annihilated -- he tweets. You know, in Iran, there isn't exactly free Internet. But he tweets in English that Israel must be destroyed.”
(Transcript of the Speech, Washington Post, downloaded 16:26, 4 March 2015)

Here, I am going to ignore the other part of the speech where he says: “Now, if Iran threatens to walk away from the table -- and this often happens in a Persian bazaar -- call their bluff.” (op. cit.), which is plain racist and would have been condemned and prosecuted if it was uttered by anyone else. What offends me here is not Mr. Netanyahu’s hate speech against Iranians, but rather his abuse of history, and since history has no lawyers but us historians, I shall put on my gown and defend my field, although I myself think that using history for proving anything about the modern period is absolutely pointless. Unlike Mr. Netanyahu then, I am not seeking to “score any points” here, neither am I interested in glorifying anything. All I am interested to demonstrate is that history has many stories, and if you chose to tell one, in this case a fictional one, to amuse your chorus, you better be aware of another side of it as well.

There are two stories that those thinking like Mr. Netanyahu and those who oppose him pick from among the pages of history. One is a fiction that Mr. Netanyahu presents as historical facts, and the other one is a historical fact that has become almost a cliché from the use and abuse. I will mention both, but then bring more examples to show that unlike what is presented by Mr. Netanyahu, the history of Iranian/Persian relations with the Jews has not been all conflict and enmity, rather mostly friendship, and sometimes even less—than-moral alliances. 

Mr. Netanyahu’s story is well known to all my Jewish readers who read it this very night of Purim. The story of Esther, out of the Book of Esther, a latter part of the Old Testament, is the tale of a Jewish Queen of the same name married to the “Persian” King Ahasueros. Discovering a plot by the evil minister Haman, Esther and her uncle and leader of the Jewish community, Mordecai, foil the plot after exposing it to the Persian King, who is – please note – supportive. The king then removes Haman from his post and executes him, and as a reward, allows Esther and Mordecai to kill anyone whom they feel was part of the conspiracy. So, other than the fact that the story ends with Jews escaping the plot and conducting a slaughter of their own, it also is clear that the highest authority, or what Mr. Netanyahu calls a “Persian potentate,” is actually on the side of the heroes! Mr. Netanyahu, who has misrepresented this story on more than one occasion, often drops these parts from the telling of the story. 

Now, while the above is actually fiction (there never was a Persian king called Ahasueros, despite possible similarities of the name to Old Persian Artaxshathra, nor is there evidence of the presence of a Jewish queen), there is another interesting story that is real. This one is over told, and just like the other one, the last part of it is often dropped, not because it is problematic, like the story of Esther’s ending, but just out of pure negligence. This is also from the Bible, but it is about Cyrus the Great’s conquest of Babylonia, a real event that took place in 539 BC. This one is told to us in the Book of Ezra, who himself was alive when Babylon was conquered by Cyrus who then put an end to the Babylonian Captivity of Jews. The Babylonian Captivity was the result of the conquest of Judea by the Chaledean Emperor, Nebuchadnezzar II and the forced removal of the Jews to Babylon and the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. Upon entering Babylon and setting Jews and many other captives free, Cyrus got the title of messiah from Ezra and other future writers of Biblical books.

But the story gets more interesting, since Ezra, now one of the leaders of the Jews returning to Judea under the protection of the Persian Emperor, also tell us that Cyrus returned all of the gold and silver that was taken from the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar. He also provided funds for the rebuilding of the Temple. This latter task took two generations, but was done under the auspices of the Persian appointed governor of Judea (Achaemenid satrapi of Yehud) and was completed on the sixth year of the reign of Darius I (516 BC). This, in case it was not clear, is the famous Second Temple, what the second temple Judaism, the root of the version of Judaism which Mr. Netanyahu follows, is named after.

A Half-Jewish Persian King

But not all Jews left Babylonia and returned to Judea. Many chose to remain and prosper in Babylonia, the centre of Near Eastern political and economic world and the seat of the Persian governments for over 1000 years thereafter. Jews lived in southern Babylonia, the area of southern Iraq, under the protection of the Achaemenid, Seleucid, and Arsacid kings. Under the Arsacids, they depicted themselves and stories of the Bible, including the tale of Esther incidentally, on the walls of a synagogue in Dura Europos. This is not only interesting because of the story itself, but because the Jews are shown wearing Persian (or Parthian) clothes, like the rest of the population, and are in fact fully part of the society.

It was under the protection of the Arsacids (219 BC- 224 AD) and the Sasanians (AD 224-651) that Jewish rabbis started composing their major compilation and commentary on the Jewish laws, better known as the Babylonian Talmud or the Bavli. The Bavli is the major part of the Talmud, while the Palestinian Talmud, which was compiled by the Jewish rabbis in the Holy Land is the smaller part of the compilation.

Based on the evidence of the Middle Persian geographical treatise called “The Provincial Capitals of the Domain of Iran” (MP Shahrestaniha-i Eranshahr), Narseh (AD 293-302), the seventh Sasanian Emperor of Iran, is called Jehudzad “Son of the Jewess,” so at least one Persian Emperor was thought to be half Jewish. Another one, Yazdgerd I (AD 399-420) is much praised in the Talmud as a supporter of the Jews, and by Christians as a supporter of the Nestorian Christians of Iran, and several rabbis are said to have been considered high officials of his realm. He is also said to have married Shushandukht, the daughter of Rash Galota “the Head of the Exiles,” or the official governor of the Jewish community of Iran. In the social set-up of the Sasanians where each religious group received internal autonomy on judicial matters, the Rash Galota was considered a major political power of the government.

Sasaniand and the Jewish Kingdom of Yemen

But the most interesting, if morally suspect, episode in the history of the Persian relations with the Jews was the episode of the Jewish kingdom of Yemen. Upon the collapse of the ancient kingdom of Himyar in the fertile valleys of western and northwestern Yemen at the beginning of the sixth century AD, a Jewish warlord named Yusuf and known as Dhu Nuwas, managed to capture the throne of Himyarite Yemen with the financial and political help of the Sasanians (ca. 523-527 AD). Soon after taking the throne, Dhu Nuwas started forcing the Christians of Yemen to convert to Judaism, and when he did not succeed, he proceeded to conduct a general massacre of the Christians in the northern city of Nejran, a centre of Arabian Christianity. Among the massacred was St. Aretas (al-Harith), an Arab Christian saint of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Dhu Nuwas proudly, and with teeth cringing detail, wrote about this massacre to his overlord, the Lakhmid king of al-Hira (the highest Sasanian official in charge of Arab matters) and the Sasanian Emperor, Kavad I himself. 

The episode of the massacre of Christians in Nejran so shocked the region that the Axumite king of Ethiopia, with the help of the Roman Emperor Justin I, proceeded to invade Yemen. Dhu Nuwas was removed and executed, and many of his Jewish camp were removed from the power or imprisoned. The Sasanians, however, continued to support the Jews of Yemen, and it was partly to this need, as well as the strategic importance of Yemen, that the Sasanians invaded Yemen in AD 560, on the even of Muhammad’s birth, and ruled it for 80 years. The presence of the Sasanians provided improved situation for the Jews of Yemen, and as historian Glen Bowersock puts it, this Sasanian support of the Jews continued undiminished.

So, if Mr. Netanyahu wishes to demonstrate an ancient enmity between the Iranians and the Jews, or the antiquity of the wishes of Persian Potentates to destroy Jews, he should consider the cases of the ones who did exactly the opposite, and supported the Jews even in morally compromising situations. Either read your history well, or don’t mention it at all; as a historian, my advice is to just leave history alone.


  1. What a shame your blog is only in Persian! What a shame I cannot read Persian!

  2. uhhhm, I think the post on which you left a comment, namely this one, is in English?

  3. Hi Khodadad,

    Your old blogging friend David here. :)

    I was looking at your Iranologie site recently and it led me here. Its nice to see you posting a blog in English again.

    Btw, Happy Norooz! :D I am currently enjoying springtime in Indiana. The past two winters here have really sucked!

    I suppose I should talk some about your post. ;) I think I told you at some point that half my ancestry is Jewish, not that I subscribe to that or any other dogmatic form of religion. Regarding Mr. Netanyahu, I have had a very negative opinion of him for many years. I was quite disappointed that he will continue to be Prime Minister of Israel. But, anyway, I don't wish to post a diatribe on Israeli politics or policies.

    Your history lessons involving Jews and their interactions with the Persian Empire are quite interesting.

    I have a clear recollection of dressing up in a Mordecai costume for a Purim event at my Temple when I was about 6 years old. I had a long beard of cotton. :)

    I never knew that Cyrus the Great was called Messiah after he freed the Jews in Babylon. But, I have never read much of the Old Testament. Also, I did not know that Judea became a province of the Persian Empire, or that the Empire funded the building of the Second Temple. It seems that I am somewhat confused about the history of the Jewish Temples. I have thought for years that Herod built the Second Temple. So, you motivated me to read the Wiki page about the Temple. I learned there that Herod renovated and expanded the Second Temple.

    I never heard anything about a Jewish Kingdom in Yemen. Were there still Jews in Yemen in recent times (early 20th century, before the creation of the State of Israel)?

    The thought occurs to me Khodadad that some of your distant ancestors may have helped and protected some of my distant ancestors. Perhaps they were even friends. :)