Survival instincts

Do Jews in Iran support the opposition movement?

To his knowledge, Farhad was one of only a handfulof Iranian Jews who took part in the street protests in Iran againstthe regime following the disputed June election. "I went into thestreet because I saw terrible scenes of beatings and bloodshed, becausea lot of my friends and coworkers were joining the demonstrations, andbecause I'm against the government," he says, noting that in Iran hemoved in Muslim, not Jewish, circles.

"I was beaten on my arms, legs and back, but Iwasn't arrested," he continues. Waiting until his bruises healed so hecould get through airport security, he soon fulfilled a longtime goalby leaving the Iran - in all likelihood, he says, for good.

Farhad is one of three Jews who left Iran last year and were interviewed by The Jerusalem Poston where the Iranian Jewish community stands in their country'spolitical struggle. The three left for different destinations,including Israel. Another Jew still living in Iran was also interviewedbriefly. For the sake of their security, the interviewees' names havebeen changed and many details in their accounts cannot be published.

Farhad is the only one of the trio of Iranian Jewish émigréswho took part in the demonstrations, but all three say they fullysupport the liberal Islamic opposition that has been clashing withpolice and militias. Furthermore, they say that while probably mostIranian Jews, who number up to 25,000, are afraid to say so out loud,many in the community agree. (The Jew who was interviewed briefly frominside Iran said he "cannot tolerate the current regime," and provideda video of a demonstration in which he was injured.)

But when asked to recall actual conversationswith other Jews in Iran, even with family members, in which rejectionof the government and support for the opposition was voiced, none ofthe émigrés could do so. "It's obvious," they insist.

Yet it's not. Despite what the émigrés say, the question ofwhere Iran's Jewish community stands on the struggle between the regimeand the reformers is unclear, because the country's Jews generally keeptheir political opinions, if they have them, to themselves.

"I didn't discuss the political situation with myfamily or with my Jewish friends, because Jews in Iran don't want toget involved in politics," says Mehran, another émigré. "I would onlyreally discuss it with my Muslim friends, one of whom was very activein the movement."

Even now, when the émigrés contact their families back in Iran,politics remains an off-limits subject because of their fear that theregime is monitoring their communications.

The natural assumption is that privately, at least, Iran's Jewsoppose the government and support the protesters because the country'sIslamic revolution, from 1979 until now, compels them to declare theirenmity to Israel, because President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has popularizedHolocaust denial and because the mullahs' edicts are enforced bymilitias of fundamentalist thugs.

Kamran, another of the émigrés, has stories to tell about how these militias feel about Jews.

"They don't wear uniforms, but you know who they are. They havebeards and wear tunics and have these very severe, threateningexpressions. They're all over the place," he says. "Once, several yearsago, I was walking on the street with my girlfriend, and in those daysboys and girls weren't supposed to be seen in public together. Thesetwo militiamen came up to us and one of them searched me and found[evidence that he was Jewish]. They took my ID card and told me to cometo their office that evening.

"When I got there, they took me out into the snow, told me totake off my shoes and socks, and while I was barefoot, theyinterrogated me all night, slapping me, telling me to confess that Iwas a spy for Israel. In those days I didn't know anything aboutIsrael. They called the university I'd attended and asked about me,they called my Muslim neighbors and asked about me, and finally in themorning they let me go.

"But they told me that if I told anyone about this incident, myfamily and I would be in danger. So I never told my family. For abouttwo months afterward, I was watched. From time to time I'd see one ofthe interrogators watching me from a distance."

(The fear of being accused of spying for Israel hangs over theJews of Iran and keeps them in line. A dozen Jews were executed on thischarge after the 1979 Islamic revolution. In 2000, 10 Jews in the cityof Shiraz were convicted of spying for Israel and imprisoned for fouryears.)

Years later, he applied for a government job and one of hisinterviewers was a militia member. By this time Kamran had begunlistening to the Voice of America and Israel Radio, and had begunforming opinions on Israel.

"The militiaman saw on my application that I was Jewish - yourreligion isn't on your ID card, but you have to put it on all yourapplication forms - and he asked me what I thought about Israel and thePalestinians. I told him that what the Palestinians are doing isn'tright, killing civilians, killing women and children. Then he asked meif I wanted to go to Israel and I said sure, I'd love to travelanywhere."

Asked the militiaman's reaction, Kamran replies: "He didn't say anything. It was a very short interview."

Farhad says he once lost a government job when the new bossordered all minority employees - Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews - tobe replaced by Muslims. Mehran is convinced he was denied an armypromotion and the chance to get an advanced degree because he's Jewish.

So there are plenty of reasons to assume that Iranian Jews wantto see the Islamic dictatorship removed and a more liberal governmenttake over. But the émigrés say their own dissatisfactions stemmed muchmore from being oppressed as people than from being oppressed as Jews.

Kamran says he was harassed more often by the militias becausehe looked "Western" than because he was Jewish. "I had longish hair andI wore regular shirts, not tunics, and jeans. About four or five timesthe militias stopped me on the street and slapped me, kicked me. Oncethey passed me back and forth among themselves and punched me. Theyinsulted me, they said I was gay."

He says he didn't leave Iran because ofanti-Semitism, but because "we didn't have democracy, we didn't havefreedom. I wanted a better life."

Farhad gives the same reasons for leaving, aswell as his insecurity over Iran's economy. Mehran cites the desire tolive in a larger, more self-confident Jewish community as one of hisreasons, along with his job insecurity, but he doesn't putanti-Semitism on the list, either.

EVERYONE INTERVIEWED for this article - the émigrés, veteranIranian Jewish emigrants and an academic expert on Iranian Jewry -agreed that anti-Semitism is not a pressing problem for the community.The comment made repeatedly was: "As long as they stay away frompolitics, Jews live very well in Iran." (The Jewish Agency declinedcomment for this article.) And it is the general well-being of Iran'sJewish community that leads some observers to suggest that the Jews inthat country may not be so eager to see the government fall.

"Iran is not Nazi Germany, no way," says Orly Rahimiyan, alecturer on Persian Jewry at Ben-Gurion University. "The level ofanti-Semitism in Iran is lower than it is in France. There are noJewish cemeteries being desecrated."

Says Kamran: "We don't have a problem with the Persian people, only with the government."

A prominent member of the Iranian immigrant community here says:"Iranian Jews are free, they're prosperous; they go and pray in theirsynagogues without anyone bothering them; they travel overseas andreturn without a problem. They have great parties, weddings, barmitzvas - they can have music at their affairs, which isn't allowed tothe Muslims."

To protect their status, they pledge allegianceto the government and publicly support its policies. This has been thecommunity's survival strategy for 2,700 years, says Rahimiyan.

(The lone instance of Iranian Jews openly challenging thegovernment came in 2006 when the community's leader, Haroun Yashayaei,sent a letter to Ahmadinejad saying, "How is it possible to ignore allof the evidence existing for the exile and massacre of the Jews ofEurope during World War II?" Yashayaei added that Ahmadinejad'srepeated denials of the Holocaust had "spread fear and anxiety amongthe small Jewish community of Iran.")

Today, says the prominent Iranian immigrant, the government-runTV and radio stations are broadcasting that the Jews - like thecountry's two other "recognized" minorities, the Christians andZoroastrians - fully support the regime and oppose the reformers.

A Jerusalem shopkeeper who left Iran shortly after the 1979takeover says: "Whenever there was a demonstration against America, weJews would join in. We lived with those people, we had to." (About20,000 Jews left Iran in the months following the revolution led byAyatollah Khomeini, and another roughly 40,000 followed later. The vastmajority settled in the US, England and Israel.)

Last year the one allotted Jewish member of the majlis, orparliament, Siamak Mara-Sedq, embraced and kissed Ahmadinejad in frontof the assembly. During Operation Cast Lead, Mara-Sedq led ademonstration by Iranian Jewish leaders in Teheran calling for an endto the "savage acts" by the "Tel Aviv regime."

Here again, on the matter of Israeli policies, it's unclearwhat Iranian Jews really think. "Most Jews in Iran love Israel thecountry, but not all of them support the actions of Israel'sgovernment," says Kamran, who notes that in their extreme caution,Iranian Jews don't even like to mention the name "Israel," preferringto speak of "Eretz."

And while Ahmadinejad's nuclear saber-rattling raises thedeepest fears in Israelis, it doesn't have nearly the same effect onIran's Jews, say the émigrés. "Jews in Iran don't like Ahmadinejad'sspeeches, they get upset, but they say these are just words, notactions," says Mehran. "He scares the Jews in Iran, but not like hescares the Israelis," says Farhad. "He makes me and my friends laugh,"says Kamran.

(Interviews with the emigres were held prior to Tuesday'sassassination in Teheran of pro-opposition physicist Masoud AliMohammedi, which Iranian government spokesmen blamed on Israel and theUS.)

Kamran compares what's happening in Iran to the downfall ofcommunism in the Soviet Union. In recent years, the mullahcracy'srestrictions on people have been loosening somewhat, which Kamranattributes to the advent of the Internet, satellite TV, cellphones,etc., which broke the regime's media monopoly.

"People are more open to the 'other culture,' as the governmentcalls it, and the government is trying to rein it in, but it can't.Iran does business with the world through the Internet, and if thegovernment shuts down the Internet, it will ruin the economy."

Social life has started to free up as well, he says. "Before Ileft, you'd see boys walking with girls, which you didn't before. Samething with clothes. Neckties are officially forbidden - that's'Western' dress - but in my last job I'd put on a tie and nobody wouldsay anything."

The political effect is that Iranians, having had a taste ofdemocracy, want more, and the Jews are no different, says Kamran. Eventhough the opposition's color is green for Islam and its identifyingchant is "Allahu akbar" - "God is great" - there are Jews who side withthe reformers against the regime, he insists. Farhad and Mehran agree.

Yet outside observers, while giving a lot of credence to this analysis of Iranian Jewry, are not sure it's entirely correct.

Rahimiyan, whose parents immigrated from Iran, says Jews therearen't optimistic about their future, with young people being temptedto leave to avoid being drafted into the army, because the pool ofmarriageable young Jews is shrinking and because promising jobs aregetting hard to find.

All this leads to a desire for change. "I think that in theirhearts, the Jews in Iran probably support the reform movement," shesays.

But she has her doubts. "The revolution of 1979 left a very badtaste in their mouths. At the beginning, the revolutionaries weren'tall Islamic fundamentalists; there were also left-wingers, includingJews, before Khomeini took it all over. And the community saw whathappened. About a dozen Jews were executed as spies. Iranian Jews are atraditional, conservative community. For them, any change is veryrisky," says Rahimiyan.

The prominent Iranian immigrant assumes Jews in hisnative country are behind the opposition "with all their heart." Later,though, he suggests, "They're happy with the government because of thefreedom they have."

The Jerusalem shopkeeper who left Iran after therevolution says the Jews there resent having to pay obeisance to thelikes of Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs, and thus "want the reformersto win so they'll have more freedom." But later he says: "Jews in Iranalways go with the wind, with whoever's in power, even if they hatehim."

He communicates regularly with his family in Iran and reportsthat Jews in the country aren't as worried and afraid as people think."It's just like with Israel - people overseas think there's war in thestreets here all the time. Same thing with Iran. There aredemonstrations, but people still go to work every day. Life goes on."

As for Iran's future, the three émigrés agree that thedictatorship is not going to fall so quickly, that it will take yearsfor any reform movement to gain power. How much of a change may be instore, though, is matter of dispute among the trio.

Farhad offers no opinion. Mehran thinks the movement "will besuccessful, but the basic machinery of the system will not be replaced,only moderated."

Says Kamran: "I try to be optimistic. I think it will taketime, and we will need the support of Western governments, but in theend, we will have democracy."

One thing is certain, though.Whether the reformers or the regime emerge on top, whether themullahcracy is preserved, moderated or thrown out, Iran's ancient,survivalist Jewish community will be cheering. In public, anyway.

Says Kamran: "I try to be optimistic. I think it will taketime, and we will need the support of Western governments, but in theend, we will have democracy."

One thing is certain, though.Whether the reformers or the regime emerge on top, whether themullahcracy is preserved, moderated or thrown out, Iran's ancient,survivalist Jewish community will be cheering. In public, anyway.