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Iran's foreign minister says Netanyahu got Jewish scripture wrong

Mohammed Javad Zarif.
Mohammed Javad Zarif.
Johannes Simon/Getty Images

This is a weird one: Iran's foreign minister has been giving bible lessons to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

NBC's Ann Curry interviewed Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif on Wednesday evening, quizzing him on Netanyahu's controversial speech to Congress this week. Zarif took offense at Netanyahu's comparison between Iran and a biblical genocide-monger.

"Tomorrow night, on the Jewish holiday of Purim, we'll read the Book of Esther," Netanyahu said in Tuesday's speech. "We'll read of a powerful Persian viceroy named Haman, who plotted to destroy the Jewish people some 2,500 years ago."

He added: "Today the Jewish people face another attempt by yet another Persian potentate to destroy us."

The Iranian foreign minister brushed off this assertion of modern-day genocidal intent, and endeavored to correct the Israel's prime minister on Jewish scripture while he was at it:

It is unfortunate that Mr. Netanyahu now totally distorts realities of today. He even distorts his own scripture. If-- if you read the book of Esther, you will see that it was the Iranian king who saved the Jews.

That's technically true, but incredibly misleading.

Briefly, for those of you who didn't go to Hebrew or Sunday school: the Book of Esther is about a Jewish woman, Esther, who marries the Persian King Ahasuerus after he angrily disposes of his last queen, Vashti. Ahasuerus' chief advisor, Haman, was a nasty anti-Semite. After Esther's cousin Mordecai refuses to bow to him, Haman draws up a plan to kill all of the Jews in Persia — one that Ahasuerus initially approves. At the last minute, Esther reveals her previously secret Jewish identity, and asks the king to spare her people. Ahasuerus agrees, Haman is hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai, and the Jewish people are saved.

So yes, it is technically true that the Persian king saved the Jews — but only because he called off a genocide that his own government was planning.

It is certainly not fair to imply, as Netanyahu did, that this millennia-old Biblical story somehow proves modern-day Iran can't be trusted. Still, his interpretation of it does support a broader point he made in the speech, that Jews can only depend on themselves to defend against would-be killers.

In response to Netanyahu's comparison between the current Iranian regime to Haman's government, Zarif points to the fact that Iran has a significant Jewish population, as well as a Jewish member of parliament, to prove his government isn't like its Biblical-era predecessor.

The 1979 revolution that founded the Islamic Republic sparked a mass exodus of Iran's Jews, but the country is still home to thousands of Jews. The extent to which Iranian Jews live their lives freely is hotly contested. Despite living under a regime that has said Israel should be destroyed, many Jews there report a thriving communal life. Others speak of discrimination at work and in education, and by law, Iran's religious minorities are banned from senior government and military positions.

The Iranian government's rhetoric and policy towards Israel, without a doubt, crosses the line from anti-Zionism into anti-Semitism. Still, that of course is not the same as Tehran intending to launch a genocidal war against Israel, as Netanyahu implied.

Actual reality, as it turns out, is just a touch more complicated than a biblical morality tale.

Update: This post initially stated that there are 20,000 Jews living in Iran. While this number is within the range of common estimates, the exact figure is disputed. For example, AFP, citing a 2011 Iranian census put the number at 8,736. The Associated Press reports a 20,000 estimate. And the Washington Post reports that the number is between 20,000 and 30,000.

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