Are Iranian Jews Proud or Frightened?

Published September 5th, 2018 - 11:22 GMT
Closing the ark during morning prayers at Youssef Abad Synagogue in Tehran on Sept. 30, 2013 (AFP)
Closing the ark during morning prayers at Youssef Abad Synagogue in Tehran on Sept. 30, 2013 (AFP)

There’s a few things you might not know about Iranian Jews. Given that Iran is now a sworn enemy of Israel, the fact that it has a sizeable Jewish population might surprise some. Indeed, there are over 20,000 Persian Jews in Iran, arguably the second largest Jewish population in the Middle East.

The second thing that might surprise you is that there are Iranian Jewish voices loudly declaring to the media that they are safe and content in Iran. They say they are not Zionists, and have no desire to live anywhere other than Iran.

They tell journalists that though Iranian religious communities tend to keep themselves to themselves, Jews have freedom of worship, public representation, good Jewish schools, and all else they need. 

Yet this rosy picture is a contested, and fragile one. For Iranian Jews’ safety depends on the regime’s blessing. The government likes to show off its Jewish community as an example of the country’s tolerance. But virulent anti-Semitism within the Iranian establishment is an ever-present danger, and tensions with Israel risk exacerbating that. Iran’s theocratic government is besieged by sanctions, internal discontent and foreign opposition to it, heightening uncertainty. Whilst all Iranians must walk a delicate line to navigate the situation, Iran’s minorities - and especially its Jews - know that their situation is particularly precarious.  

 

Jews have been a part of Persian social fabric for thousands of years. The first wave of Jews to settle in present-day Iran came in 722 BC, when the Assyrian ruler Shalmaneser the Fifth scattered the ten “lost tribes” of Israel. And as various empires fought over the Middle East, Jewish presence in Persia rose and fell, but never left.

The creation of the state of Israel in 1947 spurred a wave of Jewish emigration there from Iran. But many Jews stayed, feeling that they had nothing to fear. Indeed for a time, being Iranian was no obstacle to a connection to Israel. Under the rule of the Shah, Iran was actually one of Israel’s closest security allies. And thus when the 1979 Islamic Revolution rolled around, there were still over 100,000 Persian Jews living in Iran. 

Anti-Semitism was still a grim feature of the political landscape before 1979, but the Islamist fervor being stoked in the years leading up to the Revolution made things worse. A noted cleric objected to the building of Iran’s biggest high-rise building in 1962 by a Jewish family, saying that it was wrong for a Jew to be behind one of the country’s most impressive structures. In his anti-monarchy campaigns, Ruhollah Khomeini frequently attacked efforts to restrict Islamist governance as the clandestine work of Israel. In an effort to disparage the Shah, Khomeini once said “The shah takes so many of his cues from Israel that we wonder if he is not a Jew himself”. 

Things came to a head shortly after Khomeini returned from exile. Khomeini accused a prominent Jewish industrialist, Habib Elghanian, of spying for Israel. Elghanian was tried in twenty minutes and executed by firing squad. His execution provoked terror, but also action.

A small group of Rabbis and Jewish activists nervously demanded a meeting with Khomeini. Khomeini seemed to soften his stance, saying that Jews were recognized as “people of the book” and welcome to continue living in Iran. But this didn’t stop a mass exodus of Iranian Jews. From having numbered about 100,000 in the late 1970s, the Jewish population has now dropped to about 20,000.

 

Since Khomeini’s declaration, the rights of Jews to stay in Iran have not been overtly questioned. But this has not prevented some worrying developments, especially during the presidency of populist firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

When Ahmadinejad’s questioned the reality of the Holocaust, Jews feared that they might be subject to fresh persecution. However, a number of Iranian public officials, including former President Mohammad Khatami denounced Ahmadinejad’s comments. In the end, there were no major official changes to Iranian Jews’ situation under Ahmadinejad’s rule. 

Jews may have been left largely in peace, but they are hardly living as equals in the Islamic Republic either. Given the theological basis of Iranian rule, Jews cannot work as judges or as senior officials. Nor can they be officers in the armed forces, and they can only join as soldiers. And anti-Semitic statements are still heard in public spaces. In 2015, a high-profile Iranian political website, which is edited by a former Member of Parliament, published a story pushing the blood libel conspiracy, which claims that Jews kill non-Jews to use their blood in rituals.  

This makes the large number of media stories about Jewish Iranians declaring how good their lives are in Iran rather striking. Whilst there may be a lot of truth in these stories, they all base much of their content on a single source. Dr. Siamak Morsadegh, the head of the Tehran Jewish Committee, is one of the most widely heard voices on the subject. He has been interviewed by The IndependentDWThe Jerusalem PostCNNThe Washington Post and many more.

Morsadegh is also Iran’s only Jewish Member of Parliament, occupying the seat reserved for Jewish candidates. 

Siamak Morsadegh, Iran's only Jewish MP (AFP)

And Morsadegh certainly gives journalists some interesting soundbites. As well as regularly critiquing Israeli policy, he has repeatedly described Iran as safer for Jews than Europe, since in Iran there is no need to station security at synagogues, unlike in some European countries at present. The Iranian government was keen to make his voice heard too. Morsadegh has accompanied Iranian diplomatic delegations abroad, and his presence helped Tehran to rebuff awkward questions from journalists about anti-Semitism in Iran. This was particularly at the time when Iran was trying to refresh its international relations in exchange for sanctions relief. 

Given that he has been repeatedly re-elected by Iran’s Jewish community, one should not dismiss Morsadegh’s words outright. But nor can his rosy declarations of Iranian Jewish life be taken for granted. Iranian Jews are largely left in peace by the regime because the government trusts them not to protest. But there is justifiable suspicion that Jews keep quiet not because they don’t have grievances with the regime, but because they know that the consequences of expressing them would be dire. At a time when Israeli-Iranian relations are best described as hateful, it would be all too easy for ruthless parliamentarians to make Persian Jews a target.  

 

It is thus more or less impossible to tell what Persian Jews want from their political futures. Their community has good reasons to resent the Islamic Republic. Then again, they may genuinely feel safer there than they might elsewhere in the Middle East. Currently, the Jewish community’s relative wellbeing is – if nothing else - useful to the Islamic Republic.

Iran’s Jewish population is a buffer against criticism of anti-Semitism or of discrimination. Provided that the Jewish community continues to comply with the government, they can expect security for the time being. But whilst freedom of expression is a very limited right in Iran anyway, Persian Jews enjoy even less of it, knowing that one person’s action could trigger repercussions for their whole community. 

For many Iranians, a desire for change is offset by fear of how that change might come, and at what cost. For Iran’s minorities and for Jews, this contradiction is even harder to wrestle with.


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