See no evil, hear no evil

Iranian Jews believe they can keep on maneuvering even through the Ahmadinejad era.

September 28, 2006 11:38
See no evil, hear no evil

iranian jews 298.88. (photo credit: Brian Hendler )


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A Jewish-owned store in the Iranian city of Shiraz, where about one-quarter of the country's 25,000 Jews live, was torched a couple of weeks ago. In recent months a Star of David was painted on the floor at the entrances to Teheran's main synagogue and one of the capital's universities, so that everyone entering would step on Israel's national symbol. A Jewish professor who chose to step around the star on his way into the university was fired. In the 14 months since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office as Iran's president, graphic scenes of IDF attacks in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon are being shown over and over on television, much more so than before, says "Kamran," a former Iranian Jew who has been in touch with dozens of Jews who've left the country since Ahmadinejad took over. Yet despite alarming incidents such as these, and despite Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial and threats to "wipe Israel off the map," Kamran says the recent Jewish emigrants - who spoke to him in safety, after they were outside Iran - do not mention the president or any sort of new persecutions of Iranian Jews as reasons for their departure. "Unfortunately [the anti-Semitic incidents and Ahmadinejad's rhetoric] don't seem to have an effect on the Jews there, it doesn't worry them," Kamran said. "They sit in Iran calmly. Too calmly." Even the Holocaust cartoon exhibit mounted recently in Teheran, which has caused outrage throughout the West, goes unmentioned by recent Jewish emigrants. Apparently it has had little or no effect on the country's resident Jews as a whole, said another former Iranian Jew, "Shahnaz," who likewise is in touch with many Iranian Jews who've emigrated since Ahmadinejad became president. "Iranian Jews don't have much awareness of the Holocaust," says Shahnaz. "They didn't grow up with the stories, it's not a tragedy that touches them personally, it's not part of their consciousness - certainly not for Iranian Jewish youth." She adds: "While Iranian Jews love Israel in their hearts, what Ahmadinejad says about Israel doesn't seem to bother them." IN TELEPHONE interviews with Kamran, Shahnaz and other former Iranian Jews, a picture emerges of a 2,000-year-old community that has become so steeped in denial since the 1979 Islamic revolution, and so adept at walking between the raindrops, that they believe they can keep on maneuvering even through the Ahmadinejad era - which has brought a little more rain their way, but not, after all, that much more. In fact, except for the few recent anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist incidents recounted above, life for Iran's Jews has not changed substantially for the worse with the new president, even though outsiders assume that his Israel-hating, Holocaust-denying obsessions have the community panicked, as if a noose is closing around its neck. Shahnaz even sees economic signs that Iran's Jews, or rather its middle-aged and elderly Jews, are planning more decisively than before to live out their lives in Iran, possibly as a result of the economic growth brought on by sky-high oil prices. "In the past, for instance, Jews wouldn't spend money to buy a new car because they told themselves they were leaving the country. But now they're investing, they're buying apartments, cars, luxury items," Shahnaz said. "Ahmadinejad didn't do anything to the Jews so far. Despite everything he says in the media about the Holocaust and Israel, the Jews don't feel any pressure and most of the adults want to stay there. It's the youth who want to leave," she concludes. The ability of Iranian Jews to shrug off the humiliations that Islamism holds for them would be hard for Jews in Israel or the West to understand. An illustration of this ability came in a phone interview with "Farjad," a college student who left Iran on his own about a decade ago, shortly before he was to be drafted into the army. Farjad has no illusions about Iran or Ahmadinejad, and fears the situation there will get much worse for the country's Jews. Yet when pressed for specific incidents of anti-Semitism he'd experienced personally, at first he could only recall the time a radical Islamic high school administrator turned down his application for admission. It was only toward the end of our hour-long interview that Farjad remembered the morning assemblies at the school (which finally admitted him after Iran's lone Jewish member of parliament intervened on his behalf). He described a typical school assembly as if it were no more than an ordinary daily aggravation, something he'd learned to handle. To me it sounded like a scene from 1984. "All the students would line up and this religious leader from the school would read to us from the Koran, and talk against 'Zionists' and all that bullshit, and the students would start chanting, and I would join in. They would chant 'death to Israel' and I would chant it, too, even though of course I didn't believe it. The Jews love Israel in their hearts, but you can't show it. You have to take part, you can't stand out. There were students there who didn't agree with the radicals, and students who did. I always tried to behave in a way that would make me acceptable to everyone." THAT WAS in the mid-1990s. The fact is that Ahmadinejad's threat to "wipe Israel off the map" has been expressed in any number of ways, any number of times, by other national leaders going back to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979. The only thing new about Ahmadinejad's threats is that he may be able to back them with nuclear weapons in a few years, but while this makes him much more of a menace to the outside world, it doesn't make him that much more of a menace to the country's Jews than most other leaders they've known. Iranian Jewish apologists point out that theirs is the second-largest Jewish community in the Middle East, after Israel's, and that the level of open Jew-hatred, such as attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions, is incomparably lower in Iran than in European and former Soviet countries. While many outsiders, including former Iranian Jews, see the Jews' situation in Iran as analogous to that of European Jewry in the early years of Nazism, Jewish leaders in Iran wave away such comparisons. They note that while Ahmadinejad denied the Holocaust, leaders of the Jewish community felt secure enough to send him a letter of protest early this year. "When our president spoke about the Holocaust, I considered it my duty as a Jew to speak about this issue," said Maurice Motamed, who holds the single seat reserved for a Jewish representative in the 290-seat parliament, or majlis, in an interview with The Guardian of London two months ago. "I said these remarks are a big insult to the whole Jewish society in Iran and the whole world." Motamed also pointed to an Iranian law passed three years earlier that stopped judges from discriminating against Jewish plaintiffs in damage awards. He saw this as a sign of progress and, relatively speaking, he was right. The understanding Iran's Jews have with the Islamic government allows them a great deal of religious freedom so long as they support the regime's policies, including its policy against Israel. "This arrangement, which makes a clear separation between being a Jew and being a Zionist, was the community's idea; they brought it to the Khomeini regime after the revolution," notes David Menashri, who left Iran in pre-revolutionary times and now heads the Center of Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University. Motamed, for example, reportedly appeared at the pro-Palestinian "Jerusalem Day" rally in Iran about three months after Ahmadinejad began his term, and was quoted as telling the crowd: "Real Jews, in concord with some Muslims, continue their war against Zionists and against Israeli crimes. The oppressed people of Palestine living under occupation must feel that believers of all faiths support them." As for the practice of religion, there are some 20 active synagogues in Teheran alone. There are also many Jewish schools. However, these schools are not allowed to close on Shabbat, and do not inculcate Jewish religiosity so much as they teach the history of Judaism and the Jewish people as academic subjects. "There's very little study of Torah, which would be seen by the government as 'propaganda,'" said Shahnaz. "These schools are not like yeshivas, you don't study halacha [Jewish law]," said Farjad, who attended a Jewish elementary school in Iran. He noted, however, that the regime respects Jewish observance. "When my brother was drafted into the army, he was posted close to home and allowed to go home every evening and come back the next morning so he could eat kosher meals," he said. Yet there are clear limitations on the lives of Iran's Jews. While Jewish youths are drafted into the army for 18 months like other Iranian boys, they cannot become professional soldiers (which they probably wouldn't see as a great loss). Neither may they hold any "sensitive" job having to do with security or national life. With media, law, education and the rest of Iran's "humanities" fields having become utterly Islamicized, Jews entering the professions gravitate toward neutral, scientific fields like medicine and engineering. Still, the overwhelming majority of them, now as before the revolution, go into business, notably textiles and gold. Out of fear of surveillance, they do not discuss anything having to do with politics when family members or friends call or e-mail. (They can receive calls or e-mails from Israel but cannot send them because Iran has not established the necessary communication links.) However, Iranian Jewish emigrants have only good things to say about the Iranian people in general, and restrict the blame for anti-Semitism to the Islamic government and its supporters among the public. "The persecution comes more from the government than from the people," says Kamran. "Jews feel secure and at ease among regular Iranians. They live well together, they have nothing against each other." There are no Jewish ghettos or Jewish quarters; the Jews live as neighbors with Muslims. "Our [Muslim] neighbors really liked us," notes Farjad. BUT WHILE Iran's overwhelmingly Shi'ite population lives easily with Jews as a rule, there are exceptions - and Iranian Jews take precautions against those exceptions. "We wore kippas only in synagogue, not on the street, because there are extremists out there," says Farjad. Out of a total Iranian population of 69 million, there are some 14,000 Jews in Teheran, another 6,000-7,000 in Shiraz, 2,000 in Isfahan, with the remaining couple of thousand spread mainly between the cities of Kerman, Kashan, Yazd and Hamadan. "Jews feel the freest in Teheran; it's more cosmopolitan and that's where most of the intellectuals are, so you don't find as much anti-Semitism," said Shahnaz. But again, there are exceptions to the rule. "Even in the cities, the life of a Jew depends on who his neighbors are - intellectuals or primitives," she added. And in the villages, where Muslims tend to be poor economically and backward educationally and religiously, suspicion and hatred of Jews is common, said Shahnaz. Growing up in a town, not a city, she attended a Christian school and then a Muslim school, and while she had non-Jewish girlfriends, she recalls her school years with cynicism: "At the Christian school [some girls would say] I killed Christ, and at the Muslim school some of them wouldn't drink from the same water fountain as I did. To fundamentalist Shi'ites, everything a Jew touches is unclean." To put matters in perspective, though, not only Jews but Zoroastrians, Christians and other minorities walk a very fine line in Iran - above all, the Bahais, who were persecuted terribly even before the Islamists took power. Menashri notes that 12 Jews were executed during the 1979 revolution, including the leader of the community, Habib el-Kanayan, who was accused of being a spy for Israel. By comparison, more than 200 Bahais were reportedly murdered. The best friend Iranian Jews, other minorities and reform-minded Shi'ites have had during the revolution is Ahmadinejad's predecessor, Mohammad Khatami. "Khatami is a Renaissance man," says Shahnaz. "He has a doctorate, he speaks seven or eight languages. The Jews flourished when he was president [1997-2005]. One of his best childhood friends was a prominent rabbi. He used to visit synagogues. He gave more freedom not only to the Jews but to Iranian youth, who want a more open society. But because of his liberalism, the radical leadership - the Revolutionary Guards, the mullahs - took away a lot of his power." Farjad remembers voting for Khatami (Iranians gain the right to vote at age 15), saying the former president "is in no way an anti-Semite." (In the Iranian political system, the president and parliament are elected by the public - including Jews and other minorities - but are wholly subservient to the "supreme leader," the grand ayatollah chosen for life by a council of Islamic "experts." Thus, President Ahmadinejad cannot do anything the extremist Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei doesn't want him to do.) Still, Khatami or no, life for Jews for the last 27 years in Iran is a far cry from what it was under the Shah, a tyrant who ran a police state but who was also a close ally of Israel and the US. "In those days Iranian Jewry was probably the wealthiest Jewish community in the world," says Menashri. On the eve of the revolution, there were some 100,000 Jews in Iran; since then, three-quarters of them have left the country. As a rule, the richer the Jewish emigrants were, the further away from Iran they moved, Menashri continued. "The richest went to Los Angeles [known to Iranians as "Teherangeles"], those who were well-off but not super-rich went to New York, those in the middle went to Europe and the Jews with the least money went to Israel," Menashri explained. And with parents striving to send their children abroad either before or after their army service and university studies, the Iranian Jewish community continues to dwindle. Anyone who is determined to emigrate can do so, but not everyone is determined; leaving home for a new country isn't easy, especially for those who have aging parents and not that much money. Farjad says he and his parents used to discuss leaving Iran as a family, with his younger brother and sister, but something always got in the way. "One of the reasons I left on my own was to force my parents to follow me, to present them with a fait accompli," he says. But his parents, now in their 60s and struggling financially, are reluctant to make the move, which "makes it harder for my brother and sister to leave," he points out. "Parvaneh," an Iranian-born Jewish woman who moved to Israel some 40 years ago, says her aged parents, who are struggling economically in Iran, want badly to leave and come live near her, but they're afraid they'd be reduced to poverty. They may be right, too; Iranian emigrants take an awful financial beating when they convert their rials to dollars, euros or shekels. And when they try to sell their property before leaving Iran, prospective Iranian buyers have them over a barrel on the price because if an entire family leaves the country, any property they didn't manage to sell automatically goes to the state. This keeps a lot of Iranians who want to leave from leaving. "I talk to my parents regularly and they tell me everything's okay, that I shouldn't worry," says Parvaneh. "But they're always having to move apartments because their landlords keep raising the rent. They'd come to Israel if they had the money, but they're afraid they won't be able to afford a place to live here, so they stay." Given Iran's nuclear ambitions, its threats to destroy Israel and now Ahmadinejad's bent for Holocaust denial, the 25,000 Jews remaining in Iran seem, from a distance at least, to be courting disaster. The Jews who left the country certainly think so. They worry that those still there will get caught up either in a second Holocaust or on the receiving end of a pre-emptive war. "There's another Hitler over there now, this is really an SOS," says Parvaneh. "I think either the US or Israel is going to do something soon, they won't sit quietly [and let Iran get nuclear weapons]." The Jews in Iran deal with such threats by refusing to recognize them, according to what Shahnaz hears from recent emigrants. "No one talks about it over there," she says. "They think Ahmadinejad is a little more radical than the others, but that's all. They act as if they have nothing to fear from what's happened to them already, or even from what could happen to them in the future."

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