The story of the biblical queen Esther and her cousin Mordechai is among the most dramatic and moving in the Old Testament: After the pair learn of a plot to destroy the Jews hatched by the evil vizier Haman, Esther uses her wiles and beauty to persuade her husband, the Iranian emperor Xerxes, to save her people.
Two and a half millennia later, Jew-haters threaten a shrine and tomb dedicated to Esther and Mordechai in Hamadan, Iran, and there sadly is no Xerxes to protect Jewish memory. Last week, an assailant entered the tomb and attempted to set fire to it. Mercifully, the result was only minor smoke damage.
Iran’s state-run Islamic Republic News Agency confirmed the attack but then scrubbed the story from its site, according to the Times of Israel. If some elements in the regime or its Western apologists do eventually get around to shedding crocodile tears: Don’t buy it. The shrine has been neglected and vulnerable to attack since the 1979 revolution that brought the Islamic Republic to power.
The reason: It reminds the nation of a 2,500-year-old bond between Iranians and Jews.
In 2011, anti-Jewish mobs rioted at the shrine, which had been restored by a Persian-Jewish architect under the shah, because the structure contains a Star of David (visible in satellite imagery) and because its fence design likewise incorporates the Jewish star. As recently as February, the regime’s Basij paramilitary forces threatened to storm the site.
The threat to the shrine is of a piece with a wider pattern of attacks on minority religious sites in Iran over the last few days. Arsonists, most likely groups associated with the regime, also targeted a Hindu temple in Bandar Abbas and a Christian cemetery in Eslamshahr.
Such vandalism and hatred are in the regime’s DNA. The Islamist revolutionaries who took over Iran in 1979 began their reign of terror by targeting the Jewish community. Habib Elghanian, a successful businessman, was one of the first Iranians to be executed in May 1979. The triumphant revolutionaries picked him simply because he was the symbolic head of the Iranian Jewish community.
Thus began a terror that would eventually encompass not only Jews, but also Baha’is, Christians, Sunnis, Sufis, Zoroastrians, secular Iranians and anyone deemed an enemy of the republic.
The intensity of repression ebbs and flows, depending on the regime’s sense of insecurity. Today, the Islamic Republic is recuperating from a November 2019 popular uprising, while the economy remains in the doldrums as a result of sanctions, the coronavirus and the regime’s own mismanagement and generous outlays on Mideast terror groups like Hezbollah.
The regime seems to be renewing its assault on religious minorities to send a warning to the population at large at a restive moment. In a recent speech, former President Mohammad Khatami, a supposed “reformer,” spoke of widespread “dissatisfaction” in society that could trigger public violence, inviting a regime crackdown in turn.
Iranian Jews are especially vulnerable. There are fewer than 10,000 Jews left in Iran, and the regime can use them as hostages in response to Western pressure.
If tensions rise further, the regime might also use priceless religious sites such as Esther and Mordechai’s tomb as a negotiating chip. Which is why Team Trump must not exclude religious and human rights from any prospective nuclear negotiations — as this would mean surrendering to the regime’s strategy.
The Trump administration has spelled out 12 requirements from the Islamic Republic as the basis of any new negotiations between Washington and Tehran. Respect for human rights and religious minorities should be added to that list. America has enough leverage to demand not only a better nuclear deal, but also better behavior by the Islamic Republic toward its own people.
Meanwhile, Iranian Jews, and their non-Jewish compatriots, await the arrival of a righteous protector in the mold of Xerxes and his grandfather, Cyrus, the only non-Jew referred to as “messiah” in the Bible, for having restored the Jews from their Babylonian exile: “Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped … ”
Alireza Nader is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Benjamin Weinthal is a research fellow.