From Haman to 'Ahmad-i-nejad'

The Purim story has played itself out more than once in Jewish history.

haman rembrandt 88 (photo credit: )
haman rembrandt 88
(photo credit: )
The Purim story, which takes place at the very end of the Babylonian Exile, has a good historical core: Ahasuerus is Xerxes I - in Persian Chashavarsha - who spent his first years subduing Egypt and failing to conquer Greece. Thus he could only marry Esther in his seventh year, perhaps to console himself for his defeat in Greece. Ahasuerus spent the rest of his reign building palaces, and for that he needed money. With Haman's help he tried to raise cash from the Jews, which Haman promised to get out of them within the year, which was the term of his chancellorship. Under the Persian system the courtiers took it in turns to rule the cabinet for one year. Why was Haman anti-Semitic when the Persian Empire as a whole showed tolerance and acceptance of other cultures? The empire was so large, stretching from India (Hodu) to Nubia (Kush) that conformity was impossible. Xerxes and his father, Darius, had imported foreign craftsmen to build their palaces in Susa, and these included Jewish gold and silversmiths. They lived well - better than the local peasants. This element probably joined with the many other Jews who had remained behind from the Exile after the destruction of the First Temple. They had become wealthy merchants and even bankers, living in the mighty Persian cities. They kept to themselves in business as well as in religion and their success must have attracted envy and even hatred in such centers as the royal Persian summer capital of Shush. CHANCELLOR Haman planned to exploit this and made his move, to raise money under threat of death, from the hated Jews of Susa. Haman was a foreigner, an Agagite, but he had had the sense to make his name attractive to the ruling class by adopting one that was the core of "Hachamanish," founder of the royal Persian dynasty of the Achaemanids. He also had the good sense to marry a local girl, whose name, Zeresh, in Persian means "the golden one." Haman, in fact, had made himself more Persian than the Persians. As chancellor he now promised to boost royal revenues before the end of his term - the end of the Hebrew month of Adar. He used the tool of anti-Semitism to fuel his dastardly plan, but thanks to his exposure by the queen it failed. But the hatred engendered in the royal summer capital of Shush outlasted his own death, and the Jews had to fight for their lives, particularly in Shushan. THE THEME of Purim, the threat of annihilation and ultimate salvation, has played itself out over and over again in Jewish history. In happened, for instance, in Ptolemaic Egypt, according to the Third Book of Maccabees, when Ptolemy IV Philopator turned against the Jews. After his stunning victory over the forces of Antiochus III at Rafiah in 217 BCE, he visited Jerusalem in triumph and requested to enter the Temple and the Holy of Holies as a mark of gratitude. To his astonishment, Ptolemy was refused by the priests. Such an insult was not to be borne and Ptolemy took his revenge on the Jews of Alexandria by concentrating them all in the Hippodrome and forcing them to stay there until he had mustered his army and their elephants to trample them to death. Came the auspicious day and the troops plied their elephants with drink to egg them on to charge into the crowd of defenseless Jews - men, women and children. As the order to advance was given, the drunken elephants hesitated, turned and stampeded over their tormentors, crushing the Egyptian army underfoot and leaving the Jews standing in wonder. THEN THERE was Purim in Frankfort-on-Main in 1612. The good citizens and artisans petitioned against the Jews of the ghetto, to whom they were in debt, to have the standard rates of interest reduced on their loans. The local senate did not agree and hatred of the Jews festered, enabling the local guildmaster, Vinzenz Fettmilch, to send a petition to the emperor accusing the senate of protecting the Jews. The petition was rejected, but Fettmilch incited the rabble to attack the ghetto. The gates were torn down and for their own protection the Jews were herded into the cemetery while the rabble went on the rampage and ransacked every house in the Jewish quarter. Eventually the mayor and his troops evacuated most of the Jews out of the city, but not until two of their number had been killed. The matter came to the court, the emperor sided with the Jews, had Fettmilch and four accomplices tried and beheaded, and ordered the Jews to be brought back to their ghetto to the sound of pipes and drums. That was in March 1616, five days after the festival of Purim. MODERN TEHERAN is less than 500 km. from Shush. Its present ruler, Ahmadinejad, is aiming "to wipe Israel off the map." It is not clear why he maintains this mantra, but it seems to be to keep himself in power without having the bother of helping his own people to better their living conditions. He denies the Holocaust, which killed millions of Jews, while seeking nuclear weapons to make it a reality anew, even if only by threats. He strives for this weaponry in order to become champion of the Arab world. But he is no Arab, he is a Persian, a Farsi, one of the Arabs' age-old enemies. So he has adopted an Islamic name, meaning "most praiseworthy‚" in Arabic, plus "son of" in Persian. Ahmadinejad is a Persian thriving on a manufactured anti-Semitism foreign to the history of his own people. However hard he tries, he cannot deny his own roots, which are not the roots of Islam; and thus he is likely to fail in his ambition to lead the Arab world. With his pretensions to be an Arab his people will reject him and seek to divert the enormous funds now earmarked for nuclear capability to social projects and the rebuilding of Persian cities like the ancient Bam, devastated by earthquake and other natural disasters. Haman was a foreigner who tried to be more Persian than the Persians, and failed. Ptolemy tried to be too close to the Jews, was rejected by the custodians of the Temple, turned against the Jews, and failed. Fettmilch tried to be more anti-Semitic than his emperor, could not carry the establishment with him, and failed. "Ahmad-i-nejad" is a Persian who is trying to be more Arabic than the Arabs. Let us pray he also fails. The writer is a fellow at the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem.