Iranian Jews pray at the Abrishami synagogue at Palestine street in Tehran December 24, 2015...
(photo credit: RAHEB HOMAVANDI/REUTERS)
When former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated that the Holocaust didn't happen, Iranian photojournalist Hassan Sarbakhshian decided to begin documenting the lives of Iranian Jews in the Islamic Republic and Iranian Jews who had fled to Israel, Radio Farda reported.
"As part of a joint project with my wife, we started to take photos to be published in a book on the lives of Iranian Jews," explained Sarbakhshian.
The collection of photos taken over two years were forbidden from being published or seen in Iran.
"During my interrogation sessions, I was asked why I have decided to concentrate on the lives of Jewish citizens and why not Shiite Muslims," said Sarbakhshian. "My answer was that all the Iranian media are at the disposal of Shiite Muslim. These are the minorities who have no platforms."
Sarbakhshian tried again ten years later when he was living in exile, and decided to focus on Iranian Jews who had fled to Israel. "In Israel, my concentration was on the concept of Motherland. To understand where these Israelis of Iranian descent perceived as their motherland."
The photojournalist asked the same question of Jews in Iran. He showed a picture of an Iranian Jewish doctor with a baby he had just helped deliver. "It really doesn't matter if the baby is born Muslim or Jewish or whatever, he only has done his job."
Another example he presented was an Iranian Jew accused of spying for Israel who was jailed for several years. The first thing he did when he was released was to visit the grave of an Iranian Jewish soldier who was killed in the Iran-Iraq War defending Iran.
Sarbakhshian stressed that in Iran, the Jews constantly struggle to prove that they are patriots.
"While still in Iran they struggled to move out of the country, once they came out of Iran they faced new obstacles and limitations," he said. "Those who live in Israel are still deeply in love with Iran and most of them still dream of going back one day and visiting their motherland."
There are an estimated 15,000 Jews still in the Islamic Republic, according to a 2018 report by PBS
. A JTA
report by reporter Larry Cohler-Esses in the same year said that the Iranian census counted 9,000 Jews in the country.
A 2015 report in the Forward
by Cohler-Esses described Iranian Jews as "well-protected second-class citizens." Cohler-Esses was the first reporter from a Jewish, pro-Israel publication to be granted a journalist's visa to Iran since the revolution in 1979.
Iranian Jews won't hesitate to walk the streets of Tehran with yarmulkes on, but under Iran's sharia law code, Jews and other non-Muslims are penalized differently than Muslims with some violations, usually in a way that is not favorable to the non-Muslims. Tehran's five Jewish schools are also run by a Muslim principal, which the head of the Jewish community condemned as "insulting," according to the JTA
report by Cohler-Esses.
A religious fatwa forbidding harm to the Jewish community was also issued by Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic's founder.
The Jewish community in Iran is not silent in the face of forms of discrimination by the Islamic Republic. When Ahmadinejad said the Holocaust didn't happen, Maurice Motamed, who represented the Iranian Jewish community in Iran's parliament at the time, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
that "Denial of such a great historical tragedy that is connected to the Jewish community can only be considered an insult to all the world’s Jewish communities.”
“How is it possible to ignore all the undeniable evidence existing for the killing and exile of the Jews in Europe during World War II?” wrote Haroun Yashayaei, who was the head of the Tehran Jewish community at the time, to Ahmadinejad himself.
After years of lobbying by the Jewish community, President Hassan Rouhani's government recognized Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, as a Jewish holiday in 2018, allowing them to not go to school and work without being penalized, according to Cohler-Esses.
Until a few years ago, Muslims and non-Muslims were treated differently in civil suits involving the death of an individual due to negligence. The Jewish community consulted ayatollahs and took testimony from high-ranking clerics in order to convince the government that under sharia law, Muslims and non-Muslims must be treated equally in this regard. Eventually, they succeeded.
Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians in Iran are the only recognized religious minorities in the Islamic Republic's constitution and "are free to exercise matters of personal status and religious education and they follow their own rituals," according to the constitution.
"The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Muslims are required to treat the non-Muslim individuals with good conduct, in fairness and Islamic justice, and must respect their human rights," according to the constitution. Each religious minority has one representative in the Iranian Parliament.
Religious minorities are unable to hold high ranking positions in the government, according to Radio Farda
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