I am not sure what exactly is it about Mr. Ahmadinejad’s recent anti-Jewish pronouncements that grate on me. Is it his courage that speaks truth to power and all those who have turned the cause of Zionism and Jewish imperialism into a sacred cow? Or is it that he has managed to tear the curtains of hypocrisy and show to the world an elemental aspect of the psyche of majority of Iranians that is decidedly anti-Jew, if not vocal and in public, then in the quiet and private? Or is that his statements make a mockery of each of the three reasons that most Iranians of my generation always offered as evidence that Iranians are not Jew-haters.
The Moslem Iranian does not hesitate to remind one that Islam considers the Jews to be a people with a Holy Book (Torah) and so they are okay, as are the Zoroastrians (Avesta) and Christians (Bible). Then there is the proof of Iran’s cultural and political tolerance of the Jew in the provision of the constitution that provides for a representative of the Jews of Iran to be elected by them to the Iranian Parliament; additional provisions protect Jewish, Christian and Zoroastrian religious practices and customs. Then there is the evidence in the story of Purim and works of Kyrus the Great.
I begin with the story of Purim, a Jewish festival commemorating the survival of the Jews that, in the 6th century BC, were marked for death by their Persian rulers. Probably fictitious – told in The Bible’s Book of Esther – the story opens with King Ahasuerus (Cyrus?) being told by his minister Haman that the Jews were rebelling against the Persian authority and they and their chieftain Mordechai ought to be slaughtered. This news upset King Ahasuerus’ wife, Esther, who won over the King’s favor and secured the reprieve of the Jews. The irony of the story is that then the Jews were allowed throughout the Persian Empire to attack their enemies on the 13th day of the month of Adar in the Jewish calendar – around March)! Now there was a khar-tou-khari (dog eat dog) of the first order!
In 586 BC the Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzar captured Jerusalem and burned down the Jewish temple. Much of Judah’s population dispersed and many were deported to Babylonia. Though they like to refer to themselves as being in “captivity” the Jews in Babylon, tough without a temple, continued to worship Yhwh and the Babylonian Jewish community conducted prayers, fasts and confessions and held assemblies for the study of the Torah.
In about 550 BC the Jews of Babylon began to look upon the Persian king Kyrus as the instrument of God’s salvation. Kyrus did not disappoint. In October 539 BC Kyrus conquered Babylon and allowed the Jews who wished to do so to return to Judah and rebuild the Temple.
While the scriptures tend to glorify the Kyrus as one who “liberated” the Jews from Babylon, it is entirely probable that Kyrus encouraged their return to a place from which they had come. If he was not so keen on repatriating the Jews farther out to Judah, he well could have let them build a temple in Babylon!
Eventually some 40,000 eventually made their way back but for one reason or another the Temple was not built in Kyrus’s lifetime. In the reign of his successor Cambyses, the Jewish mercenaries formed the main body of the Persian troops at Elephantine (modern: Jazirat Aswan, in Egypt).
By the time Darius the Great ascended the throne in or about 522 BC, one Zerubbabel, who was the governor of Judah, became the embodiment of messianic expectations. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah had begun to foretell the imminent overthrow of the heathen Persian Empire. To hasten the day of reckoning, the Temple was finally finished but Zerubbabel mysteriously disappeared from the scene.
In 519 BC Darius the Great authorized the building of the Temple in Jerusalem in accordance with the earlier decree by Kyrus. When the repatriated Jews again fell into disarray, in 458 BC the priest Ezra arrived from Babylon to provide the community with a rule of the laws of the Torah. After a number of misfires, finally under an edict from the Persian and Achaemenian king Artaxerxes in 444 BC the Torah was promulgated as the law of the land for the province of AvarNahra (Beyond the River).
During the reign of Darius II (ruled: 423-404 BC) the Egyptians became hostile to the Jewish colony at Elephantine on religious grounds. The Egyptian priests bribed the Persian commander and sacked the Jewish temple there in 410 BC.
I fast forward to my youth in Iran. I was a Moslem who attended a school managed by Catholic priests and had friends and neighbors from all religions and regions of Iran. On the basis of the impressions I gained then, I always felt that the predominant Iranian culture is profoundly anti-Jewish. I know this because of the various cultural references that I recall from my own childhood in Tehran. When an Iranian talks of a Yahudi she means a child of the god Yhwh (pronounced Hahweh), a student of the holy book Torah, a follower of the prophet Moses, a speaker of Hebrew. When an Iranian speaks of a Juhud, even where it is a linguistically permissible substitute for Yahudi, he is deriding the Jew.
The Juhud is the archetype of coward and miser. If one were a fearful type, who cowered, one was a like a Juhud-e tarsou (a frightened Jew). If one freaked over the sight of blood or physical harm, one was likened to a Jew who had seen blood (Juhud khoon deed). The night of the day when the Israeli national soccer team defeated the Iranian national team in Tehran, I remember, people went around Tehran’s Jewish neighborhoods throwing rocks into windows and scratching cars. Every joke in Farsi/Persian/Irani in which the set up is about a miser invariably has the Jew as the penurious one (khasis). I have heard that in the Qajar times it was quite common in Shiraz to see the Jew derided in a festival-like procession. Naturally, every Iranian Jew is a closet Israeli spy!
I fast forward to December 2005. Mr. Ahmadinejad said that the Jewish holocaust might not be true. Then he said that the Jewish holocaust is a fabrication, a hoax. First he said that Israel ought to be wiped off the map. Then he said it should be moved to Europe. Later he said that Israel should be moved to the United States or Canada! The messages in these pronouncements by the elected president of the IRI are neither new nor particularly Iranian. Anti-Semitism (read: anti-Jewry) is rampant around the world and it has its adherents in the United States as well as in other Western democratic countries. In some jurisdictions it has gotten so bad that the government has legislated a historical view as “legally sanctioned fact.” In Germany, for example, one can go to jail for denying the Jewish holocaust.
The crying shame about Ahmadinejad’s pronouncements is that none of it is original. The Germans had a policy of exterminating the Jew (anti-Semitism) under Adolf Hitler. The Russians did their level best to persecute the Jew. The call for the destruction of Israel (anti-Zionism) is still a part of the charter of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, even though the late once-terrorist Yaser Arafat had pledged to have it formally removed from the document. In recent memory David Duke in Louisiana, Farrakhan in New York, and Joerg Haider in Austria have at some time or another spewed hatespeak against the Jews. The former Secretary general of the United Nations, Kurt Waldheim, had a Nazi past, as did apparently the current reigning Pope. The current governor of California’s daddy may have been a Jew-hater too.
The idea of establishing a Jewish state anywhere but Palestine, too, is an old one. One of its early proponents was none other Iran’s own Nasser ed-Din Shah. In his 1889 travels to Europe, he met up with Baron Rothschild in London and had this to say to the Jewish banker: “I have heard that you and your brothers have a thousand kurors. Heed me: Give fifty kurors of it to a small or large country and buy a piece of land the size of a province and put all the Jews in it, so that they may not remain so dispersed and anxious.” “We laughed a lot,” wrote the Shah in his diary, “though he said nothing in return.” (Sardar Salehi, ed., Az Pass-e Shanaiy-e Shah: Seyri dar Safar Farangestan-e Nasser ed-Din Shah (Rotterdasm: Dena Publishing Center 1997, 1997, pp 208-209).
The difference between Nasser ed-Din Shah and Ahmadinejad is that Nasser ed-Din Shah said what he said at a time in history when the Zionists were looking for a homeland and all options were on the table. Ahmadinejad is uttering nonsense in the face of a political and legal fact established under the United Nations, of which Iran was a founding member.
Named after one of the hills of ancient Jerusalem, Zionism referred to the nationalist attachment of the Jews and Jewish religion to Palestine. In the 16 and 17th centuries a number of movements came about to lead the Jews of Eastern and Central Europe (including Russia) to Palestine. In the 18th century, the Haskala (Enlightenment) movement however urged the Jews to assimilate into the cultures of the societies they resided in the West. That proved impossible and so the Eastern European Jews formed the Hoveve Zion (Lovers of Zion) to promote the settlement of the Jews in Palestine… Enter, Theodore Herzl, an Austrian. He had believed originally in assimilation of the Jews in the secular Western societies, but later realized that the survival of the Jews was better ensured in getting as large a number of them in pone location. In 1897 he convened the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, which adopted the platform of creating for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by public law.”
The Ottoman Empire refused to grant autonomy to a Jewish Palestine, Herzl turned to Britain and in 1902 Britain offered 6,000 square miles of uninhabited Uganda for settlement of the Jews. The Zionists would not hear of it – Palestine or Bust! By 1914 there were about 90,000 Jews in Palestine; 13,000 settlers live din some 43 agricultural settlements many of whom were supported by none other than the French Jewish philanthropist Baron Edmond de Rothschild!
Nor is Ahmadinejad’s call for the destruction of a member state of United Nations a big deal. The Reagan Administration called the Soviet Union “the Evil Empire.” President Reagan himself stood before an open microphone and said “Let the bombing [of the Soviet Union] begin.” He stood before the Berlin Wall and asked “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” President George H. W. Bush is often credited for destroying the Soviet Union. But I digress.
The twenty thousand or so Jews who live in Iran are for the most part the remnant of an ancient pre-Islamic Iranian civilization. While many Iranian Jews have migrated westward, the ones in Iran represent a line closest to the Persians and Medes of ancient Iran. Ahmadinejad’s ignorant anti-Jewish diatribe plays kaka-politics with the nerve and fate of this endangered group of Iranians.
The Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi did not recognize the State of Israel formally and had no diplomatic relations with it. There were however trade, consular, military and intelligence relations between Tehran and Tel Aviv. The Ayatollah Khomeini himself never regarded Israel as an enemy that needed to be wiped off the map or destroyed. In fact, the Ayatollah dealt with Israel and much of Iran’s ability to withstand the surge of the Iraqi attacks on Iran in the Eight Years’ War was due to the Israeli sale of arms to the Ayatollah.
What is of concern about Ahmadinejad is his unhealthy Messianic complex. He has openly embraced the coming of the Mahdi (the Savior), the Hidden (12th) Imam of the Shiites, whose appearance is supposed to hasten the coming of the Day of Judgment. Ahmadinejad would like to precipitate that coming very much. This is not unlike the Orthodox Jew or Fundamentalist Christian who would like to see the coming of the Messiah in his lifetime. In a recent audience before Ayatollah Khamenei, Ahmadinejad described how when he was addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York that he felt an aura of light surrounded him and that the delegates too noticed it, as he delivered the message of the IRI. On the other hand, George W. Bush has admitted that Jesus Christ wanted him to be the president of the United States!
Megalomania in the Iranian political leader often reaches delusional levels of brush with divinity. The text on the golden goblet of Ariaramnes found at Hamadan makes no secret of the fact that he was the king of Persia (Fars) “by the favor of Ahuramazda.” Arsames proclaimed “Ahuramazda … made me king.” While no inscription by Kyrus is found to contain such claims, the Behistun inscription by Darius the Great expressly said “by the favor of Ahuramazda I am king; Ahuramazda bestowed the kingdom upon me.”
Nasser ed-Din Shah Qajar was known as Ghebleh-e Aalam. Aalam means “world,” and ghebleh is the direction in which one turns to pray (pivot). Mecca, for example, is the ghebleh.
In Mission for My Country the late Mohammad Reza Pahlavi described how his father was a religious man, who often visited the shrine of the 8th Imam Reza; when he desired success he would pray to God or to one of the Shiite saints (p. 47). Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, however, had visions — three of them to be precise (pp.54-55). First, soon after his investiture as Crown Prince and during a bout of typhoid fever, Mohammad Reza dreamed of Imam Ali, the third most revered figure among Shiites after Allah and the Prophet Mohammad. The bowl of elixir that Ali offered him in the dream cured him of the fever.
Next — One day at Emamzadeh (shrine of saint) Davoud in north of Tehran, Mohammad Reza fell from a horse and when he came to he recollected to the disbelief of the fawning courtiers that he was spared injury by the Shiite saint Abbas (p.54). The irony of this story is that Davoud is the Arabic and Farsi name for the same name as David, the King of the Jews! Lastly – One day walking near the palace in Shemiran, Mohammad Reza saw a man with a halo around his head. “I knew him at once,” he wrote, “he was the Imam or descendent of Mohammad who, according to our faith, disappeared but is expected to come again to save the world.
Nothing visualizes better the religious nature of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi than his depiction on the cover of the book by Gerard de Villiers called L’Irresistible Ascension de Mohammad Reza Shah d’Iran. He appears in his pilgrim’s grab on the visit to Mecca. Then the question ought be how did this man, a hajji, one hwo had even gone to Hajj in Mecca, lose his throne? Aha! He lost it to Ayatollah Khomeini, who had more than visions to back his claim to Godliness. He was an ayatollah, literally meaning “the sign of God.” His name being Rouhollah (Sprit of God) did not hurt his chances in claiming the crown either.
Mohammad Reza was not a Jew-lover, nor a Jew-loather. He admired how Israelis managed to make the desert bloom and so he encouraged some in Iran to reclaim the agricultural potential of the periphery of the Lut Desert. He admired Israel’s military prowess during the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War and sought to emulate it by beefing up the Iranian Air Force. But then, one day, when asked about the continuity of supply of Iranian oil to Israel, the Shah of Iran replied, “I am not Israel’s Godfather.” Urban myth or not, in October 1973, Israel had already turned from the Shah because the Iranian airspace was used by the Soviet Union to ferry help to the Arabs.
Ahmadinejad is not dumb. He is playing the Jew card for the sake of garnering a larger stake for Iranians in Middle Eastern politics. After 400 years of outright supremacy, the Iranian Shi’ism is about to lose its leadership position to the Iraqi Shi’ism, one that is qualitatively different from the Iranian one. For one thing, Shi’ism began in what is today Iraq. Second, Iraqi Shi’ism is Arab, not Iranian. Third, Iraqi Shi’ism has the support of the United States and controlled by it. Fourth, the United States and its allies do not favor Iranian Shi’ite clerical establishment. Ahmadinejad needs to keep Iran relevant and so he has begun to sing the tune of the Sunnis in the Middle East whose primary cause is the struggle against Israel, the Jew and, by implication, the United States.
If there is one thing about Ahmadinejad’s anti-Jew pronouncements that bothers me most is that such hate-and-denial ideology sews its own seeds of destruction and in the process, if not eradicated by Iranians themselves and soon, it also will bring about the demise of the body politic that tolerates it – possibly and ultimately leading to the destruction of the country as a whole. If his intention is to goad the United States or Israel to strike Iran, so that he can then make a point about their barbarity, he may well be presiding over self-fulfilling prophecy about which he will not be around to boast.
Guive Mirfendereski is a professorial lecturer in international relations and law and is the principal artisan at trapworks.com. Born in Tehran in 1952, he is a graduate of Georgetown University's College of Arts and Sciences (BA), Tufts University's Fletcher School (PhD, MALD, MA) and Boston College Law School (JD). He is the author of A Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea >>> Features in iranian.com