The Cylinder and the Jews
Jonathan S. Tobin
In recent years, discussion of the Jewish festival of Purim—whose observance begins Saturday night—has been linked to the nation of Iran. That has had little to do with the fact that the saga of the Book of Esther takes place in ancient Persia or that the places that are believed by some to be the tombs of Esther and Mordechai are located in what is now Iran. Instead, the association with Iran has more to do with the clear link between the exterminationist agenda of Haman, the villain of the Purim tale, and that of Iran’s present day rulers. Both Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who deny the truth of the Holocaust while plotting another genocide of the Jews with their nuclear project, are easily added to the list of evildoers who have been seen as latter-day Hamans throughout the long and often tragic course of modern Jewish history.
But for those who wish to either whitewash the Islamist regime or to dismiss the legitimate fears of their existential threat to Israel (as well as to the stability of the region and the security of the West), the identification of Iran’s tyrannical rulers serves to demonize a great nation that should be understood and not confronted. For veteran Iran apologist and New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, the onset of Purim should cause us to think about other, more appealing Persians. Thus, Cohen devotes a column published today to the ancient Persian King Cyrus, whose famous cylinder is about to leave the British Museum on a tour of the United States. The cylinder that has been dubbed the first bill of human rights is proof, Cohen tells us, of the benign nature of the nation of Iran. The topic makes it possible for him to write an entire piece about the country without once using the “n” word–that in this case is “nuclear” and not a racial insult.
But this attempt to divert us from the deadly threat emanating from Iran is not only disingenuous; it misses a crucial point about the history of the nation that he is so desperate for us to love.
Any discussion of Cohen’s writings about Iran and the Jews must begin (and perhaps end) with the mention of the series of columns he wrote in early 2009 in which he set out to prove that the country was a nice place for Jews to live. As I discussed in detail in the May 2009 issue of COMMENTARY, Cohen toured the country and was allowed to speak with some of the remnant of a once great Iranian Jewish community by his government minders. But in the worst tradition of blind Westerners being deceived by totalitarians he fell hook, line and sinker for the line of baloney he was sold. The result was a disgrace that invoked the memory of Walter Duranty, the Times writer who won an undeserved Pulitzer Prize for telling the West that tales of Josef Stalin’s mass murders were untrue. Despite the deluge of justified criticism to which he was subjected for this journalistic atrocity, Cohen continues to pontificate at the Times, where he inveighs against Israel and often criticizes the efforts to rouse the West to isolate the Tehran government that he served so well. Indeed, in his current column he even slams the movie “Argo”—which depicts the Iranian hostage crisis—for promoting “negative stereotypes” about Iran.
One might think his discussion of Cyrus, the Persian conqueror that defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return to their homeland after their first exile, would be uncontroversial. But any attempt to identify that historical figure with present day Iran is absurd.
As Alex Joffe wrote in Jewish Ideas Daily in 2011, the notion of the Cyrus Cylinder being a Persian Magna Carta is probably more hype than history. But even if we are prepared to buy into the traditional praise given Cyrus, as Joffe points out, the desire of the Iranian regime to identify itself with his legacy is highly offensive. When the cylinder was brought to Iran for a showing, an actor wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh greeted it as part of an effort to appropriate him into the current version of Persian nationalism that is so shamelessly exploited by the ayatollahs.
Though Cohen doesn’t mention this, he plays the same game as he writes of the cylinder being an apt symbol of Iranian culture. But what he fails to mention is that when Islam swept through Persia, it eradicated any trace of the religious toleration that characterized the Cyrus tradition. The reason why the “n” word is so important to any discussion of Iran is because of the intolerance of the regime and the steady stream of anti-Semitic vituperation that flows from its media and permeates its society. It is not just that Iran’s leaders have threatened to wipe Israel off the map while working to create a nuclear option to do just that. It is that this is a government that has made Jew-hatred the singular theme of their foreign policy.
Let us hope that someday we will live to see the ayatollahs overthrown by an Iranian people that will reject their hatred and that wishes to live in peace with Israel and the rest of the world. On that day, we will do well to think of Cyrus. But until then, and especially as Iran draws closer to the realization of their nuclear goal, it will take more than the feeble writing of a Roger Cohen to prevent us from thinking of Haman when we discuss Iran.