I grew up in the 1970s, when the U.S. first had overtly negative dealings with Iran. In 1953, we had helped to topple the democratically elected Mosaddegh administration, installing a puppet government in power, that of Shah Reza Pahlavi, which was advantageous to Western powers like Britain and the United States. Decidedly modern and Western-aligned, the Shah’s regime was still far from perfect, as you will discover if you ask any of his political adversaries who wound up prisoners of conscience.
In 1979, a group of “students” representing a revolutionary government theocratic in nature, stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking and holding 52 hostages, and this inaugurated the next four decades of hostility between the U.S. and Iran, former allies. Many Iranians then emigrated to the United States, fleeing the oppressively theocratic regime under Ayatollah Khomeini.
The stream of dissidents and emigres has not stopped, some still coming seeking religious freedom, others to be with family already here. But many Americans are ignorant of both the former amicable relationship between the countries, as well as the importance of historic Persia to the existence of Judaism and the Judeo-Christian tradition upon which America claims to be founded. Some assume that we have always been at war, and some even imagine Iran as the diametric opposite of Western and Christian values. They could not be more wrong. While we should be mindful of the current conditions which have given rise to the recent unrest between our countries, it is important to remember that Iran is filled with good and innocent people(1) who are the descendants of the nation that saved ancient Judaism from extinction. Without them, Judaism would not exist today, nor would its offspring, Christianity.
In 587 BCE, the Empire of Babylon conquered the Kingdom of Israel – the northern part of which had previously been conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BCE – sparking a period of social and theological upheaval in which the Israelites faced utter enslavement and disenfranchisement for the first time since Moses led the Hebrews back to their ancestral homeland and helped establish a nation that would subsequently be unified under King David.
For several centuries after the start of the Davidic kingdom which unified north and south under one monarchy and made Ancient Israel a military power to be reckoned with, they were free and independent. Their concept of theodicy, or divine justice, was simplistic: do good and receive good; do bad and suffer for it. Anyone that had ill befall them was likely an ill-doer, or at least was hiding some kind of secret sin, as was Job believed by his friends to have done(2). In Deuteronomy 6:4, we see that God will not allow his righteous ones to suffer unjustly, and this convinces Israel that nothing ill can befall them, as long as they are righteous and follow God’s will.
But this rapidly began to change over the next few centuries as foreign empires began to gobble up Israel’s former holdings. And in the year 587 BCE, the unthinkable happened. The Empire of Babylon entered Israel, destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem – which was built by Solomon several centuries beforehand – rendering Israel’s center of cultural, governmental and religious identity neutralized, and then deported its aristocracy and leadership to the city of Babylon to serve as slaves, in an event called the Babylonian Exile or the Babylonian Captivity.
The peasantry, however, remained in the land, leaderless and broken, ruled by the Babylonians and later spoken of as the Remnant of Israel. Some Biblical authors, prophets, and priests speculated that the people had done something wrong and had offended God, causing him to punish them. All in all, their simplistic theodicy (much along the lines of a modern theology within certain forms of modern Christianity called Prosperity Gospel or Prosperity Doctrine) was challenged by world events and caused them to rethink their former confidence that they could do no wrong and, like Job, were forced to wonder why or how God could abandon them and allow his house to be destroyed.
And while the Israelites were in despair, divided and without leadership or serving a foreign master in a foreign land – as slaves once again like their ancestors in Egypt – this period did not last long. Within only a few generations, in 540 BCE, the Empire of Persia in turn conquered the Babylonians, and as an act of mercy and toleration, Cyrus, the King of Persia, liberated the Israelites from their bondage in Babylonia, returning them to their homeland, and helping the Israelites to rebuild their temple. As part of his rule, he established religious freedom throughout his kingdom, and he would be the first non-Israelite to carry the title of the Messiah, or God’s Anointed (Isaiah 45:1), paving the way for later usage of this term in the context of Christianity.
Even though Cyrus was not an Israelite, he was seen by the nascent Jewish nation as an instrument of God’s peace, and his monotheistic religion of Zoroastrianism caused him to look upon the tribal deity of Israel as identical to his own universal deity, Ahura Mazda. The two nations now looked upon each other as allies, one being the savior sent by God to protect the other – both worshiping the same universal creator, God of the universe.
During this time, called the Persian Period, the formerly henotheistic (3) Israelite religion transformed into what we now call Judaism, a monotheistic faith that is the flagship of the other Abrahamic faiths that would come to dominate the Middle East and most of the modern world. It was during this time that most of our Hebrew Bible was codified and compiled, shaped by the monotheism of the Persian Empire, and during this period, Jewish thought and theology flourished, nurtured by relatively benevolent masters. True, Israel had not regained autonomy, still serving a foreign king, but it was largely viewed as a beneficial age when the ruler was not a servant of a foreign deity, but a fellow servant of the same God, now re-imagined as the all-powerful King of the Universe.
Ultimately, Persia would fall to Alexander’s Macedonian empire within two centuries, to be later supplanted by various Hellenistic kingdoms, one fighting for dominance over the other, and again be supplanted by Rome. Israel would suffer the final demolition of her temple under Roman rule, only to be scattered throughout the Mediterranean, becoming exiles once again. But the subsequent rise of Christianity and that of Islam, as well as the ultimate survival of Judaism, would never have taken place without the crucial efforts of Cyrus, the King of Persia, the champion of Israel and the promulgator of religious tolerance.
It would be well for us to remember this before we label Iran as the eternal and perennial enemy of the West and of Judeo-Christian culture and ideals, and further to remember the tens of thousands of Jews who still reside in Iran in relative comfort, as have their ancestors over the last two millennia(4). Whatever enmity may exist between leaders of our nation states, their people are the descendants of a kingdom that was believed by the prophets of Israel to be their savior and their champion. We should seek peace with these, our cousins, our siblings.
L. Arik Greenberg, Ph.D., is President, Institute for Religious Tolerance, Peace and Justice.
(1) See the documentary Bam 6.6, by Jahangir Golestan Parast about the incomparably hospitable treatment of two American travelers (one of whom was Jewish) who were caught amid the deadly earthquake that hit the Iranian city of Bam in 2003, and in which their Iranian hosts cared for these travelers often to their own detriment, putting their own safety last for the sake of their guests. http://www.golestanparastproductions.com/bam66/
(2) Job 4:7-8
(3) See Gregory J. Riley, The River of God (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), p. 31.