The Sages expressed mixed feelings towards the Persian people. On the one hand, Rabban Gamliel admired them for their modesty and refined manners. But the Talmud also quotes the opinion of Rav Yoseph, who condemned the Persians as a people “consecrated and destined for Gehinnom.” Why such bitter words for a refined and cultured people?
When we see a primitive people who rob and plunder, we attribute their actions to their savage and uncultured nature. But when dealing with a civilized nation, we expect that such a nation will recognize the value of just and equitable dealings.
When a highly developed society is gripped by a belligerent spirit of conquest and oppression, like the Persians who subjugated the Jewish communities under their control, then they are destined to be judged harshly by the Eternal Judge.
The expression “consecrated and destined for Gehinnom” indicates that this judgment is not due to a primitive nature, but rather the result of a willful choice. The cultured Persians should have chosen the path of goodness, but instead chose the path of violence and persecution.
This idea may also be heard in King David’s call for Divine justice against evil nations:
“The Eternal has made Himself known, executing judgment... The wicked will return to the grave — all nations who forget God.” (Ps. 9:17-18)
This portrayal of “nations who forget God” indicates that in fact these nations ought to remember God. They have the potential and sophistication to know God and emulate His ways of kindness and justice. But instead they chose to pursue a path of moral treachery, so they are called “nations who forget God.”
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I on Berachot 8b (1:111))