It is no secret that Persians like a great party with food, wine, dancing and music! King Ahasuerus of 4th century Persia, was no different, throwing a 180-day-long drunken festival in celebration of his vastly growing Persian Empire in its capital, Shushan. Iran under the Pahlavi Dynasty, beginning in 1925, mirrored the comfortable and liberal lifestyle of Persia under Ahasuerus. Both parties, however, were cut short upon the arrival of hate-driven politicians, challenging the status quo.
Comparatively, both the story of Purim and modern Iran share a monarch who was essentially indifferent to the Jewish people. Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, as well as his father who preceded him as Reza Shah Pahlavi, allowed Jews in Iran to own property, participate in political decisions and flourish both economically and socially. Prior to the Pahlavi reign, Iranian monarchs prohibited Jews from obtaining such power within the nation, instead restricting them to menial jobs and living in ghettos. Under King Ahasuerus, the Jewish people could practice Judaism openly and maintain a strong Jewish community. As articulated in the Book of Esther, Jews like Mordecai were also able to have close connections to the government and work in broader society.
Similarly, during the Pahlavi dynasty, Jewish people moved out of the ghettos, bought more property and built large and beautiful synagogues within their communities. Neither government was critical of the Jewish people within the empire or country until provoked by an outside party. In 4th century BCE Persia, it was Haman who disrupted the peaceful relationship between the Jews and Persians, which parallels 20th century Iran, in which Ayatollah Khomeini initiated a revolution that has since destroyed the connection Iran has with the Jewish people.
Upon Haman’s promotion to prime minister of Persia, he prompted a strong anti-Semitic policy to be implemented by the King. When Haman’s demands from the Jewish people were not met, he initiated his scheme to exterminate the Jewish people within the Persian Empire; an empire that spanned across the Middle East, North Africa and even parts of Asia. According to the Book of Esther, Haman offered King Ahasuerus 10,000 silver talents in exchange for permission to exterminate the Jews, as their demise would deprive the empire of taxes and other economic revenue. Ahasuerus refused to take the money and granted Haman permission to carry out his plan for free. Upon hearing Haman’s description of a people who kept to themselves and disobeyed laws of the empire (such as bowing down to Haman), the King did not question Haman’s plot, nor did he defend the Jewish people. Regardless of their contribution to society and the economy, Ahasuerus was completely indifferent to the Jews. If not for Mordecai’s righteousness and Esther’s bravery, the Jewish people would have been massacred.
Similarly, when Ayatollah Khomeini led the revolution to overthrow Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in January of 1979, the progressive Iranian society came to a standstill. Not only were minorities such as the Jews targeted, but all communities who differed from the Shi’ite Ayatollahs were persecuted. Jews living in both the marginal cities and the capital city of Tehran felt the tension and lack of protection of their rights, as Iranian citizens, by their government. Again, although the Jews were significant contributors to Iranian economy, culture and society, the new regime did not recognize them as an asset, but instead, as a hindrance.
According to The Iran Chamber Society, the Shah was losing more power, as protesters challenged his authority, and governmental leaders abandoned his policies. The Ayatollahs were taking over Iranian society, promoting the need for a revolution and end to the Pahlavi Dynasty. When the Shah was forced out of his monarchy, Ayatollah Khomeini took control of the nation and immediately began executing supporters of the Shah and implementing Shariah law, therefore making all non-Muslims, including Jews, second-class citizens. The Iranian Jews sensed the instability of the newly established authority and fled the nation they had called home for the last 2,000 years.
Although biblical Persia and modern Iran share many similarities in their treatment of the Jewish people, the differences between the two governments are drastic. As the story of Purim tells us, the Jews were ultimately saved because of the righteousness and bravery of both Esther and Mordecai. Of course, Ahasuerus was also an indolent king who realized the significance and loyalty of the Jewish people within his kingdom; and so he stopped Haman from implementing his anti-Semitic plot by ordering that Haman be hanged on the very gallows that Haman had specially built for Mordecai. Ahasuerus reversed his original decree by allowing the Jews to protect themselves and kill their attackers, and rewarded Mordecai for his loyalty. Thus, Mordecai established the 14th of Adar, a day that would have been remembered as the day Jews were massacred in the Persian Empire, as a day of celebration with food, drink, dance and song, known today as Purim.
Unfortunately, the story of modern Iran does not end nearly as cheerfully as does the triumphant story of Purim. As recorded by the Jewish Virtual Library, during the Pahlavi Dynasty, there were approximately 100,000 Jews living in Iran; after the revolution and change of government policies, there are currently about 10,000 left in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Most Jewish Iranians fled the country they called home for generations out of fear of being implicated as Jews in an Islamist nation. Jews had less freedom under the Ayatollahs than under the Shah’s reign — economically, socially, and most of all, religiously.
Furthermore, since the 1979 Revolution, the leaders of Iran have been anti-Semitic, funding terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which have vowed to “wipe Israel off the map.” Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a prime example of a modern Haman; he publicly denied the Holocaust in 2005 and repeatedly called for the erasure of Israel and the Jewish people. Current president, Hassan Rouhani, is no different, having described Israel as an “occupier and a usurper (tyrannical) government.” Thus, the current regime has left an indefinite Haman in office who not only thwarts the freedom of Jews, but anyone who averts from his political policies.
It may seem as though the festivities have ended, but one thing that everyone knows about Persian Jews is that we never leave a party early! The Jews who left Iran after the revolution have since established thriving communities, with the greatest populations in Israel, Los Angeles, and New York. As Jews, we continue to celebrate holidays like Purim, Passover and Shavuot, regardless of the Hamans trying to rain on our parade. This Purim, do not just remember the Jews of the Persian Empire (or modern Iran), but the Jews all over the world whose spirit and identity prevail through the constant challenges against their freedom.