Jeffrey Goldberg. Photographer: Evan Sung/Bloomberg
Jeffrey Goldberg. Photographer: Evan Sung/Bloomberg

This past weekend, Jews celebrated Purim, the boisterous holiday that commemorates the escape by their forebears in Persia from certain annihilation.

The Scroll of Esther, which is read each Purim, recounts the unraveling of a genocidal plot initiated by the dyspeptic vizier Haman, who convinces his king, Ahasuerus, that a certain stiff-necked group should be expunged from his realm: “There is one nation scattered and dispersed among the nations throughout the provinces of your kingdom, whose laws are unlike those of any other nation and who do not obey the laws of the King. It is not in the King’s interest to tolerate them,” Haman tells Ahasuerus, according to the story. “If it please the King, let an edict be issued for their destruction.”

The counterplotting of two brave and canny Jews, Mordechai and his cousin Esther (who, as it happened, was married to Ahasuerus), saves the day, and Haman ends up hanging from the rope meant for Mordechai. All’s well that ends well. For a while, at least.

Leap forward with me now a couple of thousand years, from the quite possibly apocryphal past to the very real Persian present -- to the corridors of power of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the latest incarnation of the Persian Empire.

The leaders of this would-be empire, just like those in the period of the Purim story, find Jews intemperate, obstinate and fit for elimination. The desire of Jews for national equality in their traditional homeland -- a desire not to live, as they did for so long, at the sufferance of foreign kings -- infuriates the leaders of Iran. Most everything about the Jews, in fact, seems to infuriate these leaders.

Targeting Jews

Purim seems like the appropriate moment to review some of the Islamic Republic’s Haman-like attacks on Jews and their state over the past year or so. Although Iran’s terrorism-support infrastructure has been preoccupied in Syria -- where it is desperately trying to maintain in power the mass murderer Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s only Arab ally of consequence -- its Jew-targeting program is still robust.

On Feb. 5, the government of Bulgaria publicly implicated Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanon-based subsidiary, in a July bombing that killed five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian bus driver in the city of Burgas. Operatives associated with the Quds Force, the overseas-terrorism arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, have been implicated by intelligence agencies in recent attempts to kill Israelis in Thailand, India, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

On Feb. 21, in a courtroom in Cyprus, a Hezbollah operative testified that he had been ordered to track the landing times of Israeli flights and other tasks. Cypriot prosecutors think Hezbollah was attempting to stage a Bulgaria-style attack on their island. Last week, Nigerian security officials said they arrested three men for associating with Iranians in a “high profile terrorist network.” The Iranians had allegedly instructed the men to gather intelligence on hotels visited by Israelis and Americans to plan attacks.

Of course, Iran is also the primary rocket supplier to both Hezbollah and Hamas, which recently launched attacks on Israeli civilian targets.

Rhetorical Attacks

While seeking the physical elimination of Jews, the Iranian government has only deepened its rhetorical attacks. Spokesmen for the government argue that the regime isn’t opposed to Jews, only to “Zionists,” who, in their understanding of the term, would include the 45 percent or so of world Jewry that lives in Israel and the vast majority of Jews outside Israel who support its existence.

The attacks directed at “Zionists” aren’t motivated by opposition to, say, the Israeli government’s settlement policy on the West Bank, but to the idea that Jews are worthy of a state at all. Even so, the regime’s credulous (or cynical) apologists in the West often argue that official Iranian opposition to Israel is motivated only by concern for the benighted Palestinians.

This is nonsense, and we have to thank -- as ever -- Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s unhinged, misanthropic (and, as a bonus, Holocaust-denying) president, for proving that it is nonsense.

In a speech in August, Ahmadinejad announced that justice and freedom would only be achieved on our planet if “Zionists” were eradicated. Here is the idiosyncratically worded account of his speech from his English-language website: “Ahmadinejad said that a ‘dreadful Zionist current’ has been managing the key international affairs over the past 400 years and ‘behind the scene of the world’s main powers, media, monetary and banking centers.’”

The speech goes on to note that “people around the world have the right to enjoy justice, respect and freedom with no discrimination and exception, urging all freedom-seeking and justice-seeking nations to adopt a measure to rout the epitome of the Zionist hegemony, with the final purpose of establishing justice and freedom across the globe.”

Yes, the defeat of “Zionists” would bring about the reign of freedom and justice, not just in the Middle East but also in every corner of the earth. Only an eliminationist anti-Semite would speak this way. And only an eliminationist anti-Semite would blame “Zionists” for 400 years of global misery. Zionism is a political movement that is roughly 130 years old. Before Zionism, there was simply Judaism and Jews, and these are what Ahmadinejad and the regime actually loathe. It is the official position of the president of Iran that Jews are a plague, and should thus be removed from the world. Other Iranian officials argue that Jews should at least be suppressed and returned to their traditional second-class status, if the world is to be made whole.

It is a mistake to overreact to such prejudice. But it would be a mistake, as well, to write off Purim as an enjoyable holiday about an archaic phenomenon, particularly when Haman is trying to get a nuclear weapon.

(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)