Happy Purim, Mr. President?

05/25/2011 12:25 pm ET

The media and Senator Barack Obama's campaign have rightly reported on or mocked Senator John McCain's apparent foreign affairs ignorance, or gaffe if one is to be generous, during his recent trip to the Middle East -- ignorance which led to him state (repeatedly) that "everyone knows" that Iran is supporting Al Qaeda in Iraq. As witnessed on television, Senator Joe Lieberman came to the hapless McCain's rescue by whispering something in his ear, perhaps something along the lines of "no, no, you idiot, Iran is Shiite!" As bad as McCain's belligerent ignorance, or outright lies were, another gaffe less reported, one that is perhaps even more telling of the Republican nominee's grasp of Middle Eastern history and culture, was his comparison of the Jewish holiday of Purim to Halloween. Yes, Halloween. Again, Senator Lieberman came to his rescue, offering that it was his fault for comparing the festive nature of Purim to Halloween, presumably in explaining what Purim is in the first place to Senator McCain who might have been curious in hearing the word during his trip to Israel.

Purim, as perhaps not everyone knows, is a Jewish holiday that commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people (of Babylon, which had become a part of the ancient Persian Empire) from a plot to annihilate them. The plot was uncovered and foiled by Queen Esther, wife of Xerxes and herself Jewish, and Mordechai, a Jewish courtier. Since that time, Jews have continuously lived in Persia, now known by its original Farsi name Iran. And of course, naturally, Purim is, to Iranian Jews at least, one the most important holidays in the calendar. But why, one might wonder, should a Gentile American Senator, or even a presidential candidate know this story? One reason might be that Purim also explains, to some degree, why Iran still has the second largest population of Jews in the region outside of Israel. It might explain why the Iranian parliament has a Jewish MP, why there is a Grand Rabbi in Tehran, and why synagogues exist openly in Iran. Iranians of all religions, including fundamentalist Shias, tell the story of a Persian king and his Jewish queen with much pride, as evidence to them of the Iranian national character, a character that produced the first declaration of human rights (under Cyrus), and a character that they maintain believes in justice.

Now one might argue that that is all well and good, but Iran today is no picnic for Jews, or that Iran's present Holocaust-denying government is rabidly anti-Semitic and bent on the destruction of Israel. Or that Iran is at odds with the U.S. and is a dangerous nation that threatens our very security. But even if that is all true, then shouldn't the commander-in-chief know a little about the history of that nation? A history that in this case, is also an important part of the history of the Jewish people? Should he not know that Iranians have great pride in their past, that every Iranian schoolchild can recite their ancient history and that that history partly forms their worldview? Perhaps not. Perhaps if one merely intends to bomb a nation, it is unimportant. But if the next president of the United States wants to engage in dialog and diplomacy with Iran, if he or she wants to find a way to come to some sort of understanding with what we think of as our great adversary in the region without resorting to war, then the president needs to know who Iranians are beyond the label 'Shiite' whispered into his ear at an opportune (or inopportune) moment. President Ahmadinejad, and whomever is the next president of Iran (who will be elected six months after our new president takes office), may not actually celebrate Purim today while their Jewish countrymen do, but they know what it means, they take pride in its significance, and they know it's not Halloween.