Russian President Vladimir Putin told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stop living in the past Thursday, after the Israeli premier tried to tie tensions with Iran to an upcoming Jewish holiday about a thwarted genocide of Jews in ancient Persia.
In a meeting with Putin in Moscow, Netanyahu said Persia had made “an attempt to destroy the Jewish people that did not succeed” some 2,500 years ago, an event commemorated through the Jewish holiday of Purim, which Israel will celebrate starting Saturday night and lasting in some places until Monday.
“Today there is an attempt by Persia’s heir, Iran, to destroy the state of the Jews,” Netanyahu said. “They say this as clearly as possible and inscribe it on their ballistic missiles.”
Adopting a conciliatory tone, Putin said that the events described by Netanyahu had taken place “in the fifth century BCE.”
“We now live in a different world. Let us talk about that now,” Putin said.
The exchange highlighted the radically divergent world views of the two leaders: Netanyahu has said he sees himself as the guardian of the Jewish people against existential threats, most notably from Iran and its nuclear program.
Putin, on the other hand, has sought to maintain positive ties with Tehran, including by selling the country the advanced S-300 anti-aircraft system over Israel’s objections.
The holiday of Purim commemorates the biblical tale of Jews Mordechai and Esther thwarting a plan by Persian viceroy Haman to slaughter the Jewish people, and is celebrated by reading the Megillah of Esther, dressing up in costumes, exchanging packages of food and festive eating and drinking. Scholars are generally divided over the historically accuracy of the Purim story.
Netanyahu has used the Purim story in arguments to world leaders to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions in the past, including during a controversial speech to Congress in March 2015, a day before Purim.
“Tomorrow night, on the Jewish holiday of Purim, we’ll read the Book of Esther. We’ll read of a powerful Persian viceroy named Haman, who plotted to destroy the Jewish people some 2,500 years ago. But a courageous Jewish woman, Queen Esther, exposed the plot and gave for the Jewish people the right to defend themselves against their enemies. The plot was foiled. Our people were saved,” he said at the time, to applause from the US lawmakers. “Today the Jewish people face another attempt by yet another Persian potentate to destroy us.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif responded shortly after the speech that Netanyahu was mistaken as “if you read the book of Esther, you will see that it was the Iranian king who saved the Jews.”
Zarif was referring to the fact that the order to stop the genocide in the story came from King Ahasverous, though he is portrayed in the book as little more than a figurehead, easily manipulated first by Haman and later by Esther.
There was no immediate Iranian response to Netanyahu and Putin’s exchange.