Iran’s community prefers to stay
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