Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a joint news conference with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo, Japan on 7 December 2016 Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

Iran's foreign minister rebuked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday (12 March) night after he claimed that Tehran is committed to annihilating the Jews.

In a Twitter post, Mohammad Javad Zarif attacked statements made by Netanyahu in a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow last week.

After Putin wished Netanyahu a happy Purim, the Israeli leader took the opportunity to blast Tehran, saying its goal is to wipe out the Jewish state.

"Some 2,500 years ago in ancient Persia, there was an attempt to wipe out the Jews, which did not succeed, and which we commemorate with this holiday," said Netanyahu.

"Today there is an attempt by Persia's heir, Iran, to destroy the state of the Jews," he added. "They say this as clearly as possible and inscribe it on their ballistic missiles."

Zarif hit back at the Israeli prime minister's "lies" in a strongly worded statement. "Once again, Benjamin Netanyahu not only distorts the realities of today, but also distorts the past – including Jewish scripture", he wrote.

"It is truly regrettable that bigotry gets to the point of making allegations against an entire nation which has saved Jews three times in its history.

"The Book of Esther tells of how Xerxes I saved Jews from a plot hatched by Haman the Agagite, which is marked on this very day; again, during the time of Cyrus the Great, an Iranian king saved the Jews – this time from captivity in Babylon; and during the Second World War, when Jews were being slaughtered in Europe, Iran gladly took them in."

Netanyahu's comments were also strongly criticised by Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani, who said he had "distorted the Iranians' pre-Islam historical era and attempted to misrepresent events.

"Apparently, he neither is familiar with the history nor has studied the Torah," Larijani added, according to the government's 'semi-official' Fars News Agency. "Of course, nothing more than presenting such lies is expected from a wicked Zionist."

Purim 2016
Ultra-Orthodox Jews and a boy read the book of Esther at a synagogue in the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh Menahem Kahana/ AFP

Is Zarif historically correct?

According to Sidnie White Crawford, a professor of Hebrew Bible and Chair of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Esther, a young Jewish woman, is the heroine of the book named for her.

In the Jewish Women's archive, Crawford writes: "By astutely using her beauty, charm, and political intelligence, and by taking one well-placed risk, Esther saves her people, brings about the downfall of their enemy, and elevates her kinsman to the highest position in the kingdom. Esther becomes the model for the Jew living in exile."

Zarif's second reference claims that "during the time of Cyrus the Great, an Iranian king saved the Jews – this time from captivity in Babylon".

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, "Cyrus holds a special place in the history of Israel."

Cyrus "appears both as one destined to save Israel and to fulfill for it a certain mission on behalf of the God of Israel (Deutero-Isaiah), and as one whose edict and command served as a foundation for the return to Zion and the erection of the destroyed temple (Ezra)."

While it is difficult to ascertain a precise figure on how many Jews were saved by Iran during the Second World War, thousands of Iranian Jews and their descendants owe their lives to Abdol-Hossein Sardari, according to a 2012 book.

The 'Muslim Schindler', who was an aristocratic Iranian diplomat, is credited with helping up to 2,000 Jews flee wartime France and escape the Nazis, the book claims.