People Are Strange, When You’re a Stranger

Living in Iran ain’t exactly a picnic for anybody, especially women, gays, political dissidents, or those accused of breaking one of the trillion laws issued weekly by the Islamic Republic. But is life particularly hard for the native Jewish population? Yes, according to the major organs of neocon propaganda, who (along with their useful idiots) have lately been spreading rumors of an incipient Holocaust in Persia.

Superficially, it seems plausible enough, given the Western media’s coverage of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statements about Israel and the Holocaust – coverage that is brought into question by their initially uncritical acceptance of the yellow badges story. But the world, as Jim Henley notes, is stranger than we know, and the status of Jews in Iran is not necessarily as awful as our prejudices might lead us to assume.

An examination of Internet resources on Iranian Jews yields complicated, and sometimes contradictory, data. The Jewish Virtual Library (JVL) takes a generally negative view, though its reliability is somewhat undercut by its lowballing of the Iranian Jewish population (they say 10,000, while virtually every other source I have seen says 25,000 or more). Nonetheless, it provides a useful, though very condensed, historical sweep of Jews in Iran going back to the 6th century BC. It notes that pre-Islamic Persians had good relations with Jews, and though things apparently changed for the worse after Persia’s Islamization in the 7th century AD, the entry mentions no major incidents of persecution until the 19th century. The reign of the Pahlavis is depicted as a sort of golden age that ended with the revolution of 1979, after which tens of thousands of Jews fled the country. The entry goes on to document various ways in which Jews are treated differently than Muslims (suspicions of disloyalty, special restrictions on travel, etc.), but they strike me as pretty standard police-state stuff, which in all likelihood applies in varying degrees to all Iranians.

Perhaps the most telling evidence of persecution from the JVL entry is the following (emphasis mine):

    On the eve of Passover in 1999, 13 Jews from Shiran and Isfahan in southern Iran were arrested and accused of spying for Israel and the United States. Those arrested include a rabbi, a ritual slaughterer and teachers. In September 2000, an Iranian appeals court upheld a decision to imprison ten of the thirteen Jews accused of spying for Israel. In the appeals court, ten of the accused were found guilty of cooperating with Israel and were given prison terms ranging from two to nine years. Three of the accused were found innocent in the first trial. In March 2001, one of the imprisoned Jews was released, a second was freed in January 2002, the remaining eight were set free in late October 2002. The last five apparently were released on furlough for an indefinite period, leaving them vulnerable to future arrest. Three others were reportedly pardoned by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

I’m sorry, but this doesn’t sound like the Third Reich to me. First, to paraphrase Woody Allen, even paranoid tyrants get spied on. I’m sure that Israel, for perfectly understandable reasons, has plenty of spies and other operatives in Iran. I’m equally sure that these particular fellows were railroaded, given the fact that they were released so quickly. But that’s the amazing part – three were acquitted right off the bat, and all had been released, three under direct pardon from the Aya-freaking-tollah, within a few years of their arrest. The entry does go on to say that 13 Jews were executed between 1979 and 1998, but again, a lot of people are executed in Iran for a lot of reasons, and 13 isn’t genocide.

Now perhaps things have gotten much worse for Iranian Jews since that 1998 execution figure, but the JVL hasn’t felt the need to update it in the intervening years, which might tell us something. A more balanced report from that same year appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, headlined “Jews in Iran Describe a Life of Freedom Despite Anti-Israel Actions by Tehran.” The whole thing’s worth reading, but here are some key parts:

    One of the most striking of many murals in Iran’s capital, Tehran, is a towering portrait of Fathi Shkaki, a leader of the militant Palestinian group, Islamic Jihad. He was assassinated by Israeli agents in 1995 after he masterminded a series of suicide bombings against Jewish civilians. A slogan beneath his face hails him as a hero of the Islamic revolution in Palestine. Yet, stroll a little farther along Palestine Street and you come to the Abrishami Synagogue, the biggest of 23 synagogues in Tehran. It is regularly attended by some 1,000 worshippers. It comes as a surprise to many visitors to discover that Iran, a country so hostile to Israel and with a reputation for intolerance, is home to a small but vibrant Jewish community that is an officially recognized religious minority under Iran’s 1979 Islamic Constitution. “[Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini didn’t mix up our community with Israel and Zionism – he saw us as Iranians,” says Haroun Yashyaei, a film producer and chairman of the Central Jewish Community in Iran. Like Iran’s Armenian Christians, Jews are tolerated as “people of the book” and allowed to practice their religion freely, provided they do not proselytize. They elect their own deputy to the 270-seat Parliament and enjoy certain rights of self-administration. Jewish burial and divorce laws are accepted by Islamic courts. Jews are conscripted into the Army. “We are one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world,” Mr. Yashyaei says. “When Muslims came to Iran, we had already been here for centuries.” “Take it from me, the Jewish community here faces no difficulties. If some people left after the revolution, maybe it’s because they were scared,” says Farangis Hassidim, a forceful but good-humored woman who is charge of the only Jewish hospital in Iran. She adds: “Our position here is not as bad as people abroad may think. We practice our religion freely, we have all our festivals, we have our own schools and kindergartens.” For her, the well-equipped hospital in central Tehran is a model of religious harmony. “We have about 200 staff, 30 percent of them Jewish,” she says. “These days, I’d say about 5 percent of our patients are Jewish, the rest are Muslims.” A sign outside the hospital reads in Hebrew: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” …                

    Privately, there are grumbles about discrimination, much of it of a social or bureaucratic nature. Some complain it is impossible for Jews to get senior positions in Iran Air, the national airline, or in the national oil company. A woman teacher says she has been passed by for promotion several times because she is Jewish and now hopes to emigrate to Los Angeles. A car-parts dealer says Jews have to wait much longer for travel documents and exit visas. The most pressing complaint is that, despite many petitions to parliament, Jewish schools must open on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath. …

    Why leave? At an antiques shop in central Tehran, Isaac, the elderly owner, says many Jews who once owned shops along the broad, bustling avenue have left in the past 20 years. He has not seen his sister since she emigrated to Israel 16 years ago, but he has no plans to leave. “The Jewish community has been here for centuries, and this shop has been in the family for more than 50 years,” he says, reeling off the famous customers who have visited. “Gen. [Charles] de Gaulle was here.”

    “But look at this,” he adds, brandishing an old black-and-white photograph of himself with his arm around curvaceous 1950s film star Gina Lollobrigida, who sports a beehive hairdo. “Really, it’s OK here, and it’s home,” he says.

Yes, this piece is several years old, but whenever the U.S. government and media go into a frenzy about how horrible some place or another is, it’s helpful to read accounts that predate the frenzy and aren’t so swayed – consciously or unconsciously – by the professionally crafted propaganda behind it.

A more recent report, from September 2001, provides deeper historical background than either of the previous pieces, including specific hardships faced by Iranian Jews over the centuries. I encourage you to read it, as well as this overview from the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture. Some choice bits from the latter:

    It is one of the many paradoxes of the Islamic Republic of Iran that this most virulent anti-Israeli country supports by far the largest Jewish population of any Muslim country. …
    Iran’s Jewish community is confronted by contradictions. Many of the prayers uttered in synagogue, for instance, refer to the desire to see Jerusalem again. Yet there is no postal service or telephone contact with Israel, and any Iranian who dares travel to Israel faces imprisonment and passport confiscation. “We are Jews, not Zionists. We are a religious community, not a political one,” [Parvis] Yashaya said.
    Before the revolution, Jews were well-represented among Iran’s business elite, holding key posts in the oil industry, banking and law, as well as in the traditional bazaar. The wave of anti-Israeli sentiment that swept Iran during the revolution, as well as large-scale confiscations of private wealth, sent thousands of the more affluent Jews fleeing to the United States or Israel. Those remaining lived in fear of pogroms, or massacres.
    But Khomeini met with the Jewish community upon his return from exile in Paris and issued a “fatwa” decreeing that the Jews were to be protected. Similar edicts also protect Iran’s tiny Christian minority. …
    Jewish women, like Muslim women, are required by law to keep their heads covered, although most eschew the chador for a simple scarf. But Jews, unlike Muslims, can keep small flasks of home-brewed wine or arrack to drink within the privacy of their homes – in theory, for religious purposes. Some Hebrew schools are coed, and men and women dance with each other at weddings, practices strictly forbidden for Muslims.
    “Sometimes I think they are kinder to the Jews than they are to themselves. … If we are gathered in a house, and the family is having a ceremony with wine or the music is playing too loud, if they find out we are Jews, they don’t bother us so much,” [Nahit] Eliyason said. “Everywhere in the world there are people who don’t like Jews. In England, they draw swastikas on Jewish graves. I don’t think that Iran is more dangerous for Jews than other places.” …
    Not everyone in the Jewish community favors liberalization of Iranian society. Arizel Levihim, 20, a prospective Hebrew teacher, said Judaism has fared better within the confines of Iran’s strictly religious society. “I believe it is good for women to keep their head covered. I think it is good to restrict relations between boys and girls,” Levihim said. “I agree with the ideals of the Islamic republic. These are Jewish values too.”

Yep, the world is far more inscrutable than the New York Post or Fox News would have you believe. After all, it was crazy fundamentalist misogynist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who recently pushed (unsuccessfully) to allow women to attend soccer games. Go figure. And I know I’m going out on a limb here, but isn’t it just possible that, however hard their lot, Iran’s Jews prefer the status quo to being bombed into freedom by the U.S. or Israel?