It’s like that joke about the hot dog vendor outside the bank. Business is brisk as he services the employees of three office buildings. One day an old friend stops by and asks if he can spot him twenty bucks until Tuesday. “Sorry, Phil,” he says. “It would be a violation of my deal with the bank.” “Really, how’s that?” The street peddler explains: “They promised not to sell hot dogs and I promised not to lend money.”
We had hoped that when we attacked Iraq and left Iran in business, this would be the agreement: they could sell the Persian rugs while we handle the regional statesmanship. Instead the vaporings of Ahmadinejad on all matters great and small echo bizarrely through the bazaar.
Still, it doesn’t do to acknowledge his blithering blather. King Solomon wrote (Proverbs 26:4,5): “Don’t answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” The major commentators explain this to mean that you need to make a judgment. If the foolish argument is advanced in a hostile and thoughtless way, then don’t engage or you end up in a shouting match. If he advances it in an intellectual way, then you need to engage, so he does not walk away thinking that he won a debate. Clearly, Ahmadinejad, by that standard, should best be ignored.
But his most recent outburst, whether founded in the garrulous froth of madness or some Machiavellian manufacture of regional tension, is worth our analysis and response. Not because we need to engage him but because there is an absolutely fascinating historical lesson coupled with an exquisite irony, and it serves us well to see that they register.
For some time, he has been tarring Israel as an “illegitimate regime.” This has provided a handy new tag phrase for Arab and other agitators, and a quick Google search yields oceans of prose as stilted and purple as Barney the Dinosaur. (The Iranians are not Arabs but Persians. According to Biblical history and Jewish tradition, the Persians stem from Japheth, the third son of Noah, while the Arabs descend from Ishmael, son of Abraham, whose line originates with Shem, first son of Noah.) Several days ago, he added a new wrinkle: Israel is an arbitrary transplant from another continent in contravention of two thousand years of Middle East history.
Well, the Talmud says: “People who insult others use their own flaws for insults.” All of us have, at one time or another, been called ignorant by the ignorant and selfish by the selfish. Well, how about this for a classic example of that phenomenon? Ahmadinejad is casting aspersions on a regime for being out of synch with the past two millennia. Okay, let’s have a look at his own little operation.
In 1979, his band of Islamic thugs deposed the last Shah, Reza Pahlavi. Shah was the Persian word for monarch, related to such historic titles as Caesar, Czar and Kaiser. (In the guttural Farsi enunciation, it comes out sounding like Shvah, which explains the Talmudic pun of referring to it as Shavur, meaning ‘broken’ in Hebrew.) The startling thing about this particular kingdom is that it enjoyed the longest consecutive reign in the recorded saga of mankind. Although their power was somewhat eclipsed by the suzerainty of the Ottomans, then the British, it is essentially correct to say that they ruled uninterrupted for 2500 years.
To review: first they were local. They built strength, made a power sharing deal with the Medes, and conquered Babylon (Iraq) about 150 years later. Since Babylon had destroyed the first Temple of Israel, the fate of the Jews was now under Persian control. King Cyrus of Persia gave permission to begin construction on the second Temple. The building was completed under King Darius, and most of the Jews moved back to Israel.
About a century later, the Greeks defeated Persia and stripped its holdings. Then came the Romans, who eventually demolished the second Temple. From that point forward, until the State of Israel emerged 1880 years later, the Jews never again had significant autonomy in their homeland.
So whose claim is weaker? Who is guiltier of spurning history? The Jews who reinstated the government that they lost long ago, but who made sure to rebuild it in ways that reflected the rhythms of the contemporary era? Or the Khomeini clones who tore down the last true monument to ancient civilization and who undid the modernity that that strikingly adaptable kingdom had embraced? Ahmadinejad and his gang managed to wipe out a great legacy and take their people back to the Dark Ages in one paradoxical maneuver.
Here’s some advice, Mr. Commoner, Mr. Pretender, Mr. Usurper. Best not to bring up pedigree.