Thursday, March 8, 2012

Iran: Lessons from an Ancient Homeland

Esther - Edwin Long (1878)
For many of us, Purim is a time for forgetting sadness and worrisome topics, and enjoying a good story. It is a time for reveling in a tale for which we already know the ending. We’re able to boo Haman’s evil designs and cheer on Esther’s amazing courage without even a consideration as to whether this story could ever turn out differently. We’re able to turn away from history’s brutal lessons and for one full day be swept away by a tale that takes place in a land and a reality far away from our own.

This year however, Purim arrives with a dose of reality. Persia, Queen Esther’s homeland, after all, is not a land in a far, far away place, or an allegorical figment of our imagination, but the origins of present-day Iran. Try as we might to ignore it, the tale of Esther has an uncomfortable ring to it, as if it carries a message that we’re meant to heed.

And it does.

Protests against planned speech at Columbia - David Shankbone
Each year, we reread the Book of Esther, not just for its levity and joyful outcome, but because it reminds us to listen to that inner sense as Jews. Its “street-smart” message nudges our consciousness and reminds us to be attuned to the world around us and those who might mean to do us harm. It begs us to listen to history and warns us against the follies of complacency.

This message hasn’t been missed by journalists in past weeks, who have been quick to remind us of the gravity of a nuclear Iran. Even Prime Minister Netanyahu took advantage of the timing of Iran’s nuclear aspirations by providing President Obama with a copy of the Megillah Esther, as if to demonstrate that the Jewish people had walked this path before and took its history, and its lessons, seriously.

But while the story of Purim carries a valid warning against complacency, I wonder if we aren’t missing another part of the Megillah’s message.

Our recount of the rally against Haman begins not with a preemptive strike against the Persians, but with dialogue. It is Esther’s disclosure to the king that brings about a change in the political balance and the rescue of the Jewish people from destruction. Esther’s bravery is personified by her willingness to go against protocol and use her position to win the king’s ear.

Iranian Jews, 1917 - Public Domain
Anecdotal recounts of history rarely tell the whole story. They offer insight, but they often miss the human quotient, especially when dealing with the opposing side of the story. While the story ends happily for the Persian Jews, it is far from a bloodless accomplishment.

“It is said that 75,000 Persians died” in the ensuing battles, says author Eli Ajzenman on his blog JewTribe. “It has been argued this has not really been such a great moment with so many deaths.”

The information we are afforded is scant, but as Ajzenman points out, Iranian-Jewish author Roya Hakakian has summed up the issue with a point that make historians squirm.

“(By) bombing Iran we would be bombing a portion of Jewish history,” said Hakakian, in a recent interview with YnetNews. Hakakian fled Iran with her family in 1979, and now lives in the United States. She frequently writes on the state of affairs in Iran.

It is estimated that as many as 25,000 Jews still reside in Iran. Historical monuments such as the shrine to the Jewish prophets Habakkuk and Daniel and of course the presumed tomb of Esther and Mordechai still stand in Iran.
Mausoleum of Esther and Mordechai, Iran - Philippe Chavin

But Hakakian has offered another reason for reconsidering a preemptive strike: Jewish ethics, which urge us, said Hakakian, to regard others’ fates with compassion.

According to Hakakian, a strike on Iran would force the Iranian Jewish population to go into protective hiding and “would weaken Israel’s position in the region.” It would be the populations that would suffer, not the regime, which is already on tenuous ground in a country that is “ripe for revolution.”

This may be why Obama has been stressing patience. He knows the ramifications of a war with Iran would cost Israel, as well as many innocent victims in Iran. He knows it would do little to engender a source of support for Israel’s existence in the region, a source that Israel needs badly.

The Megillah Esther helps us to see the benefits of avoiding complacency in our dealings with others. It reminds us of who we are, and of our unity as a people. It is determining how we use that information, and still retain our compassion toward others however, that truly tells our story as a people.

Man praying in synagogue, Shiraz Iran - Dept. of State (US)

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