Iran’s com­mu­nity prefers to stay

The Jewish Chronicle - - WORLD NEWS - BY MARC PEREL­MAN

AT A time when Tehran and Jerusalem trade threats, the 25,000 Jews of Iran at­tend syn­a­gogue, send their chil­dren to Jewish schools, buy meat in kosher butch­ers and are even ex­empt from bans on al­co­hol. This is the re­sult of a com­pact whereby Jews are per­mit­ted to prac­tise their faith on the con­di­tion that they re­main out of pol­i­tics and do not speak out in favour of Is­rael.

The He­brew Im­mi­grant Aid So­ci­ety, Is­rael and some Amer­i­can Jewish lead­ers have urged Ira­nian Jews to leave. But so far they have stayed put. Ac­cord­ing to HIAS, 152 out of 25,000 Jews left Iran be­tween Oc­to­ber 2005 and Septem­ber 2006 — down from 297 the pre­vi­ous year. Sources said that the ma­jor­ity who have left cited eco­nomic and fam­ily rea­sons.

Some ob­servers claim that the main rea­son Ira­nian Jews have cho­sen to stay is that they are mostly free to prac­tise their faith. “Ira­nian Jews have a com­fort­able Jewish life,” said Meir Javedan­far, an Ira­nian-born Mid­dle East an­a­lyst now liv­ing in Is­rael.

Other Ira­nian ex­pa­tri­ates dis­pute this. Sam Ker­ma­nian, sec­re­tary gen­eral of the Ira­nian Amer­i­can Jewish Fed­er­a­tion, as­serted that the ma­jor­ity of Jews in Iran are el­derly, only speak Per­sian, and are thus less in­clined to em­i­grate.

Af­ter the 1979 Is­lamic revo­lu­tion, sev­eral Jews were ex­e­cuted on charges of Zion­ism and about 80 per cent of the com­mu­nity left the coun­try in which Jews have lived for nearly 3,000 years.

Now, Jews, Zoroas­tri­ans and Chris­tians have rights en­shrined in the Is­lamic con­sti­tu­tion, and they each elect their own mem­ber of par­lia­ment.

Mau­rice Mo­tamed, the Jewish MP, and Haroun Ye­shaya, chair­man of the Jewish Cen­tral Com­mit­tee of Tehran, who have reg­u­larly crit­i­cised Is­rael, have also pub­licly con­demned Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad’s views.

But the regime’s anti-Zion­ism has at times pro­voked an­tisemitic in­ci­dents. Last sum­mer, a news­pa­per pub­lished pho­to­graphs of peo­ple wav­ing Is­raeli flags in syn­a­gogues to cel­e­brate Is­rael’s In­de­pen­dence Day. The pa­per falsely as­serted that this was in Iran, prompt­ing as­saults on two syn­a­gogues.

The com­mu­nity is closely mon­i­tored by the Min­istry of Cul­ture and Is­lamic Guid­ance and by the Min­istry of Intelligence and Se­cu­rity. Seven years ago, 13 Ortho­dox Jews were ac­cused of spy­ing for Is­rael, prompt­ing an out­cry that led to their re­lease.

But for all his in­flam­ma­tory rhetoric, Mr Ah­madine­jad has been care­ful not to sin­gle out Iran’s Jews.

“There is a gen­uine in­ter­est to keep the Jewish com­mu­nity in Iran to demon­strate to the world that the gov­ern­ment is anti-Is­rael and not an­tiJewish,” said Amir Cyrus Raz­za­ghi, a Tehran-based com­men­ta­tor who is not Jewish. “This is es­pe­cially im­por­tant to a gov­ern­ment that strives to be not only the leader in the Is­lamic world, but also a key re­gional and global player.”

The re­sult is a rare Jewish com­mu­nity liv­ing un­der an avowedly Is­lamic regime. In Tehran there are six kosher butch­ers and about 30 syn­a­gogues. The Jewish hospi­tal has a Jewish di­rec­tor and is funded by do­na­tions from the di­as­pora, al­though the vast ma­jor­ity of its staff and pa­tients are Mus­lim. Chil­dren at­tend Jewish schools where they are taught He­brew and re­ceive re­li­gious train­ing.

Al­though Jews are al­lowed to leave Iran, they have to sub­mit their re­quests to a spe­cial sec­tion of the pass­port of­fice. Ira­nian Jews travel to and from Is­rael via a third coun­try with the full knowl­edge of the au­thor­i­ties.

“It might seem strange,” said Mr Javedan­far, “but they can travel to Is­rael and other places, come back [to Iran] and have a com­fort­able Jewish life, as long as they keep quiet about Is­rael.” An edited ver­sion of this ar­ti­cle orig­i­nally ap­peared in the For­ward (www.for­ward. com). It is reprinted with per­mis­sion.

Benny Mor­ris, Com­ment&Anal­y­sis

Ira­nian Jewish women pray in the Youse­fabad syn­a­gogue in Tehran

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