Netanyahu’s gift to Obama jeopardized the 2800-year-old bond between two peoples

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By Sheda Vasseghi,

During their most recent meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave President Barack Obama a copy of the Book of Esther as a symbol of his fears for Israel if the Islamic Republic of Iran becomes nuclear.

While this gesture effectively telegraphed to the American public the message he wanted to deliver them, it did violence to the historical truth which is that the people of Israel and the people of Iran are not enemies.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President Barack Obama in the White House on March 5.

It is very disappointing when politicians such as Netanyahu, who are well-versed in their nation’s history, blatantly and before the global Internet-viewers manipulate and revise history to meet a military agenda.

Islamists are criticized for using the Koran for political purposes and the same expectation goes for Prime Minister Netanyahu, who should not use the Scriptures for similar reasons.

The Iranian people sympathize with and share the same fears that Israeli people have of militant Islamists. The Iranian people’s fears are further enhanced as they watch misrepresentations being made of the historical relation between their country and freedom of religion. That is, as a people who played a key role in implementing “tolerance” as a necessary practice for advancement of human civilization, Iranians are seeing politicians make far-fetched and erroneous comparisons between “Iranian history” and “mullahcracy.”

At least as early as 9th century BCE the Assyrians deported and settled large Jewish populations in Iran. Therefore, even before a Persian Empire, Jewish people have lived in Iran as part of the fabric of that nation. According to the world’s first human civil rights decree dating to 6th century BCE ordered by Cyrus the Great (the Cyrus Cylinder), the Jewish captives were given their freedom to return home and rebuild their temple that was destroyed earlier by the Babylonians.

That is why the Persian king Cyrus is praised in the Old Testament numerous times. Cyrus was not acting on impulse or some new revelation. He was a byproduct of a culture that followed a philosophy involving free will and freedom — a philosophy that history has named Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism with its famous motto of “do good, think good, say good” is the Iranian people’s ethnic religion, and a way of life that is still strongly present in their culture. As a matter of fact, it is the basis of the Iranian national identity.

It was under the Persian Empire as the first world empire that some 28 nations were brought under one central government with law and order while people were guaranteed freedom of religion, language, and even the form of government. (For example, Darius the Great (r. 522-486) ordered the Ionian Greeks be allowed to keep their form of democracy.) Because the Persian central government was relatively mild compared to those before it, their empire of about 3,000,000 square miles lasted for 220 years with relatively minimal rebellions. The Achaemenids frequently settled Jewish soldiers and their families in garrisons to serve as a buffer or border patrol. That is, Jewish communities were often pro-Persian policies.

Even with the second Iranian empire created by the Parthians (247 BCE-224 CE), the policy of the Iranian government towards Jews remained unchanged. As a matter of fact, the Parthian era lasting almost 500 years was considered one of the best times in Jewish history. Hence, the famous 1st century Jewish sage Rashbi, forced to go into hiding for criticizing the Romans, said “if a man saw a Parthian horse tethered to a gravestone in Palestine, he should listen for the footsteps of the Messiah.”

As for Christianity, early followers lived in Iran since the beginning of its conception. After the birth of Jesus, he was visited by the three Magis — Iranian Zoroastrian priests — whose remains are kept at Cologne Cathedral in Germany as a First Class Relic. By early 5th century, the Sasanian Persian Empire established the Eran Catholicos, effectively paving the way for Iranian Christians to practice and nurture their faith.

The third Iranian empire before the invasion of Muslim Arabs was the Sasanian Persian Empire (224-651). Jewish queens (as well as Christians), such as Shapur II’s mother and Yazdgerd I’s wife, were not uncommon. These women did not have to convert in order to marry Zoroastrian Persian kings serving as evidence that Iranians remained liberal in such matters. And most importantly, let’s not forget that it was Sasanian king Khosrow II Parviz, who in 614 established a Sasanid Jewish Commonwealth after conquering Jerusalem. Prior to that, the Romans had crushed Jewish rebels in the region abolishing their hegemony.

So when did a conflict begin between a 3000-year-old Iran and a newly established 65-year-old Israel? The conflict started some 1400 years ago when the new religious sect of Muslim Arabs took control of Arabia from Christian ruling families and a large Jewish Arab population. Since Islam divides the world between Muslims and non-Muslims, Zoroastrian Iranians were ill-treated as much as the Jews. Today under an Islamic constitution in Iran one can see how religious minorities such as Christians and Bahais are persecuted.

The friction that Islamism created in Iran was finally addressed with the rise of a nationalist leader Reza Shah Pahlavi, who took control of a devastated Iran in 1925. It was only then under a new Iranian government based on nationalist interests and culture that the minorities were finally freed from the yoke of dominating Islamists.

Further, it was because of an Iranian nationalist government in place that during the Nazi occupation of France, an Iranian diplomat A.H. Sardari (1895-1981) vigorously worked to appeal on behalf of Iranian Jews living in France to protect them from anti-Semitic laws. An unconfirmed report by Sardari’s nephew, Fereydoun Hoveyda, claims that Sardari issued some 1500 Iranian passports to endangered Jews during 1942. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has noted Sardari’s deeds while working on confirming the issue of fake passports.

During the 1973 Arab-Israel conflict, despite all Arab oil-producing countries having banned business with Israel, it was the Iranian government under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (1919-1980) that sold the badly-needed oil to Israel knowing that Iran was endangering its national interests with bordering Muslim countries harboring fundamentalists.

This quick look at the chronology of Iranian-Jewish relations is to clearly show that the current Israeli Jewish problems are with Islamists not Iranians. Prime Minister Netanyahu should distinguish between the two. That is, the Persian-speaking mullahs in Iran are Islamists. Their 1979 Constitution clearly states that the resources of the nation will be used to further Islamic militant politics, not Iranian. They do not represent the people of Iran. They are the ones having a problem with the Iranian people as well as the world.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israeli government must make the best decision for their safety and national interests. However, war is not necessarily the answer. The people of Iran have risen since 2009 with empty hands in trying to show the world that they are not with the regime, and that the regime is illegitimate. The people of Iran have repeatedly stated during demonstrations that their interest is to free their country from the Islamists and rejoin the Free World. The people of Iran have continuously shouted “Not Gaza, Not Lebanon, I only die for Iran” meaning their only concern is Iran and its freedom and advancement.

During a meeting with a Roman envoy, Sasanian king Khosro I Anushirvan (r. 531-579) stated, “Wisdom overcomes the force of arms for the reason that, whereas the power of war is such that it cannot survive the act of war (unless it feeds on itself), wisdom, having no material existence, protects not only itself but also the man who possesses it.” Prime Minister Netanyahu should recall that many top Israeli politicians and intelligence officers such as former head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, also stand against military action.

At a time when the world is facing bankruptcy, unemployment, inflation, housing crisis, and much more, leaders such as Prime Minister Netanyahu should not add a World War III to the mixing bowl and rip apart some 2800-year-old bond between the peoples of Iran and Israel. Israel should stand with the people of Iran in their endeavor to overthrow the regime in Teheran.

Sheda Vasseghi is on the Board of Azadegan Foundation, and is a regular contributor to and on Iran’s affairs. Join The Official Site of Sheda Vasseghi on Facebook.