The foreign minister says his country is friendly to Jews. But his country seeks the elimination of the country in which nearly half the world’s Jews live.
The Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, wants Jews to know that he, and the country he represents, are their friends. In an interview with Ann Curry, he accused the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, of intentionally misreading Jewish scripture in order to make the case that Iran is malevolently predisposed toward Jews: “If you read the Book of Esther, you will see that it was the Iranian king who saved the Jews,” Zarif said. “If you read the Old Testament, you will see that it was an Iranian king who saved the Jews from Babylon. Esther has a town in Iran where our Jewish population, which is the largest in the Middle East, visits on a regular basis.”
It is true that, at different times, and in different ways, Persia has been a friend of the Jews. Cyrus the Great (the Iranian king mentioned by Zarif in the interview) restored the Jews to their homeland in the Land of Israel after their Babylonian exile. President Harry Truman, who recognized the state of Israel in 1948, 11 minutes after it was reborn, later proclaimed proudly, “I am Cyrus.”There is dark humor (or a lack of self-awareness) in Zarif’s citation of Cyrus as proof of Iranian philo-Semitism, because today’s Iranian leadership does not recognize Jewish sovereignty in Israel, as Cyrus once did, but instead seeks the annihilation of the Jewish state.I am in favor of a negotiated agreement that will keep Iran at least a year away from a nuclear weapon in part because, in the post-Holocaust era, it is crucially important to keep such weapons out of the hands of those who promise to do Jews real harm. As I’ve written, it is not likely that Iran would launch a preemptive nuclear attack on Israel, but it would almost certainly redouble, under the protection of a nuclear umbrella, its work toward Israel’s eradication, with disastrous consequences. (We’ll have the argument over whether the agreement now taking shape is the best possible deal in another post. Suffice it to say that the parameters of the current, still-unfinished deal are cause for some worry.)
Netanyahu’s deployment of the Holocaust to make his case against Iran (and against the current deal) is controversial. There are many aspects of Netanyahu’s approach I find disagreeable and counterproductive (most, actually), but an Israeli prime minister who does not recognize that extinction-level threats directed at Jews have sometimes been more than aspirational is not fulfilling his responsibilities.