On March 20, or Adar II 14 on the Jewish calendar, Jews around the world will observe Purim, a joyous celebration of the deliverance of the Jews of the Persian Empire from annihilation more than 2,400 years ago. However, for the Jews of modern Persia—otherwise known as Iran—this year’s Purim may be anything but a joyous celebration. This year in Iran, Purim will be observed by Iranians as a day of mourning for the ancient Persians who—according to the Iranian version of the story being broadcast by the state news agency Fars—were massacred by the Jews under the command of the Jewish Queen Esther.
The events that led up to the first observance of Purim are recorded in the biblical book of Esther. However, the Iranian version of the story leaves out all the pertinent details found in the biblical account—except of course, the death of Persians near the end of the book—and instead presents a rewritten story in which Esther and her uncle, Mordecai, perpetrated a holocaust against the Persians. This rewritten version of the original story is not only being broadcast by the state news agency, but has been taught to Iranian schoolchildren for years.
The Iranian version of Esther leaves out significant events in the story such as a decree legalizing the annihilation of the Jews of Persia. It also neglects to mention that in response to that decree, Esther only asked that the authorization for the destruction of the Jews be overturned. She did not ask for permission to kill anyone, and she certainly did not have the authority to perpetrate a so-called holocaust without the consent of the king. And finally, the rewritten version fails to report that it was the king—not Esther—who came up with the idea of a counter-decree allowing the Jews to defend themselves against those who came to murder them.
According to the biblical version of the story, the Jews of Persia were not allowed to attack anyone. But—they were allowed to defend themselves. Consequently, the only Persians who died were those who attempted to annihilate Jews.
However, with flagrant disregard for the information recorded in the original story, the Iranian news agency continues to report that Esther and Mordecai were responsible for the slaughter of 75,000 Iranians. As a result, this supposed massacre of ancient Persians is referred to as a holocaust. In retaliation for this so-called holocaust, the historical identity of the tomb of Esther and Mordecai in the city of Hamadan is being denied and instead, it will become a holocaust memorial to the supposed victims of Esther and Mordecai. The sign identifying the mausoleum with the figures of Esther and Mordecai has already been torn down and the tomb’s status as an official Jewish pilgrimage site has been removed as well.
The fact that these events are taking place in the country whose president demonstrates his hatred of Jews as he repeatedly threatens to wipe Israel off the map is not a coincidence. It is not a coincidence that the story of Esther has been completely rewritten in the country whose president attempts to rewrite history as he repeatedly denies the abundantly documented Holocaust of European Jews. And it is not a coincidence that the Iranian version of the story of Esther perverts the term holocaust by using it to refer to the death of Persians at the hand of Jews.
None of this is coincidence, and it is not new. This same hatred animated Haman in his quest to annihilate the Jews of the Persian Empire, first expressed in his slanderous council to King Ahasuerus:
There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.
Haman’s virulent anti-Semitism sets the stage for the enduring lesson that we must learn from the book of Esther and the celebration of Purim: the responsibility of individuals to do what they can to prevent impending evil, and the victory that is possible when those who are targeted for annihilation have the freedom to defend themselves.
The current events in Iran are but a small example of how this ancient story is replaying itself today. Worldwide anti-Semitism, with its accompanying discrimination and violence against Jews, is at a level the world has not seen since the events preceding the Holocaust. This ever-increasing phenomenon is accompanied by a world-wide anti-Israel sentiment, which includes, and is fed by, a growing political and media censure of Israel’s acts of self-defense against those whose stated intent is the destruction of the State of Israel.
Rather than acknowledging the facts on the ground—which include multiple, daily attacks on Israeli citizens by those who intend to drive Israel into the Sea—the western world chooses to either be willfully ignorant of the facts, or to distort the facts, as it sits in judgment concerning actions Israel is forced to take to protect the lives of her citizens. As a result, world opinion not only denies the State of Israel the right to protect her people, but ignores the basic human right to self-defense against those who intend to murder.
One night, King Ahasuerus can’t sleep; he has his servants read to him from the book of records. As it happens, they open to the record of Mordecai saving the king’s life by uncovering an assassination plot. A pivotal moment in the rescue of the Jews results from this undistorted history. Even if Iran will not learn from its own history, we must.
Tricia Aven has a Masters in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Hebrew Bible at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, CA. She is writing her dissertation on the biblical book of Esther and its relevance to the current worldwide rise of anti-Semitism, as well as the right of the State of Israel to defend herself against those who intend to annihilate her.