Ishaan Tharoor of The Washington Post sets out to disparage U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (Nov. 1, 2019) – and by association, President Donald Trump – in his comments on Pompeo’s October 29, 2019, tweet in praise of Cyrus the Great, who ruled the Persian Empire in the 6th century BCE.1 Tharoor correctly notes, “[a]ccording to sources including biblical scripture, Cyrus allowed the Judeans deported and exiled following the ravages of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II to return to their homeland.”2 Perhaps unintentionally, this affirms important historical truths, thereby dashing what has become part of standard Palestinian narrative. Yet Tharoor’s distortions call for correction:
The Edict of Cyrus Is Not the Balfour Declaration.
The Edict of Cyrus does not declare a “Jewish national home,” as did the Balfour Declaration, commemorated on November 2. It stipulated a Temple, a place of worship (sacrifice). That is clear. However, it was President Harry S Truman who compared himself to Cyrus and metaphorically said, “I am Cyrus!” at a meeting at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York shortly after his presidency ended. In this sense, Cyrus was no more a political Zionist in the modern Herzlian sense than were the British, who called for a “Jewish national home” – not a state. They were both imperial powers.
As a matter of context, when Cyrus conquered the Near East (with the exception of Egypt, captured by his successor, Cambyses) in 539 BCE, he allowed peoples to rebuild their temples and worship their gods. This policy was the opposite of that of the Babylonians, whose conquests were marked by destruction of temples and local gods. This was a smart policy on the Persians’ part because it tended to prevent revolts.
The Jews were a different case because the majority of them were exiled from their homeland to Babylonia. The Babylonians had destroyed the (First) Temple and Jerusalem, the capital city of the Kingdom of Judah (Yehuda in Hebrew; Yehud, according. to the Persians) in 586 BCE. As the Edict of Cyrus (2 Chronicles 36:23 and Ezra 1:2-3) states: “Whosoever there is among you of all His people – his God be with him – let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah and build the house of the Lord, the God of Israel, He is the God who is in Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:3). In other words, it seems that Cyrus regarded the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of Jerusalem as building a Temple to a local god in a Temple-city, whereas the Jews always view God as the universal God who is the God of Israel as well. That being said, Cyrus was not a theologian, but a king, and this was his political policy. It is clear that the Jews were neither independent nor sovereign and that they remained under Persian rule.3
Cyrus Perpetrated War Crimes
Pompeo’s tweet was also aimed at the tremendous popular response that the ancient King of Persia still evokes among Iranians, which stands diametrically opposed to the ideology of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The reference to excesses in battle is an attempt to discredit his standing as “proto-national hero.” Cyrus was a conqueror and not a humanitarian, though his policies included religious tolerance – as is evident from the sources. No one claims that he did not commit “war crimes.” All ancient kings were brutal, and there were always civilian casualties and collateral damage. After all, during World War II, the Allies bombed cities, and during the Civil War, the Union burned down Savannah, etc. Many Muslim caliphs were notorious killers. There is no need to make modern comparisons and dismiss Cyrus because of what he did to the Babylonians.
Disparaging Evangelical Christians’ Reading of History
Evangelicals have their way of interpreting the Bible. They are not “obsessed” with anyone with the exception of Jesus of Nazareth. All leaders like to compare themselves to previous significant figures (or not so great figures) whom they admire. There are countless examples. Didn’t Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey declare at the anti-Brett Kavanaugh hearings last year, “I am Spartacus!”? If Truman and Trump chose to think of themselves as Cyrus, it is historically flawed but well-intentioned, and I would not pay too much attention to it. For those who wish to vilify Israel, anything that can be invoked against Israel is useful for the cause. The Washington Post has really outdone itself this past week.
Oddly enough, this Washington Post criticism of the comparisons to Cyrus reminds the world that the Temple was in Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, and acknowledges the Jewish presence here long before Islam and the Palestinians. This runs counter to the mendacious Palestinian narrative, which claims that the Jews are not the indigenous people and are usurpers who lack a historical claim to the land.
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3 Eric Meyers & Sean Burt, “Exile and Return: From the Babylonian Destruction to the Beginnings of Hellenism,” in: Ancient Israel, 3rd edition, ed. Hershel Shanks, Washington, D.C., BAR, 2011, 216-235. Cyrus – 216-220.