In his March 3 speech before the US Congress, where he made the case against a US nuclear deal with Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recalled the life of Esther, also known as Haddasah, and the Persian plot to “destroy the Jewish people 2,500 years ago.”
According to the biblical narrative, Esther discovered the plot and ordered the hanging of the Persian viceroy Haman and his sons. That part of Esther’s biblical story became the basis of Purim, one of the most important Jewish celebrations. This year, this festival of salvation is celebrated today, March 4.
Like Haman, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is also bent on destroying the Jewish people and their homeland of Israel, Netanyahu said.
What Netanyahu did not mention was that Esther, was married to Ahasuerus, also referred to as Xerxes, a Persian ruler of the pre-Islamic Achaemenid Empire. Following her marriage, Esther, an orphan and adopted daughter of her uncle Mordechai, became the Jewish Queen of Persia, according to the Book of Esther.
Both Esther and her adoptive father Mordechai are buried in the Iranian city of Hamedan, at an ancient brick memorial that also house a synagogue.
Netanyahu also did not mention in his speech how Cyrus the Great of Persia freed the Jews from exile, after he conquered Babylon, now part of modern day Iraq. Cyrus also allowed the Jews to practice their religion freely.
Throughout history, the Jewish experience in Iran went through ebbs and flows. At times they occupied high office, and were trusted administrators, while in other times they were banished from their homes and declared as “unclean”.
During the reign of the Pahlavi dynasty in early 20th century they prospered as doctors, scientists and educators. But tens of thousands of them migrated to Israel, following its establishment as a state. After the 1979 Islamic revolution, their population shrank even further, worsened by the execution of a Jewish business leader, who was accused as an Israeli spy.
Fast forward today, Jews remain part of the Iranian society, and are protected by the Islamic Republic’s constitution. One seat in parliament is reserved for the Jewish population.
Steve Inskeep of the US public broadcaster NPR recently visited Iran, and reported on the Jewish population there.
There are an estimated 9,000 Jews, who remain in Iran today. Many of them live in the capital Tehran. But others have remained in ancient cities like Esfahan, Shiraz, Tabriz, Yazd and Hamedan.
In Esfahan, not far from from Al-Aqsa Mosque along Palestine Street, stands a synagogue but is hidden from the street behind a one-story high concrete fence.
Along Chahar Bagh Street, Jewish shops openly sell their wares. One shop owner said that many of his relatives have moved to Israel and the US. But for him, Iran is still home.