Iranian state TV produces series on the Holocaust

Show digresses from regime's norms, but still aims to deligitimize Israel.

iran film 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy )
iran film 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy )
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has captured the world's attention with his incendiary attacks against Israel and his Holocaust denial. He shored up his rhetoric by sponsoring a Holocaust cartoon contest in 2006, encouraging a plethora of pseudo-academic inquiries into the genocide, and hosting prominent Holocaust deniers for what his regime claimed was a conference convened to check the veracity of historical claims regarding the Holocaust. If Ahmadinejad perpetuates the Islamic Republic's traditional attempts to undermine Israel's right to exist by denying and/or trivializing the Holocaust, then why has Iranian state television produced Zero Degree Turn, a high-budget series that is ostensibly sympathetic to the fate of European Jewry during World War II? Although Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini decisively reversed Muhammad Reza Shah's pro-Israel policy, he and his cohorts claimed to differentiate between Judaism and Zionism, between Jews and Zionists. This, however, has proven to be a formidable task for the revolutionary regime, as Khomeini himself publicly breached the distinction, and state-run publications incessantly blur the two notions. One recent example is the speech commemorating al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day by former president and current head of the Assembly of Experts, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, in October. Rafsanjani said the Nazis' "first objective was to free Europe from the evils of Zionism," and that this was justifiable because "the Zionists, as a powerful faction, used to engage in many subversive activities in Europe, thanks to their large assets and propaganda empire." He asserted that "one of the reasons that the Jews of that era received" the treatment they did was due to prevailing Jewish attitudes. As a result, "the Europeans intended to force the Zionists to leave Europe, because they were always a nuisance for European governments." (BBC Monitoring, October 5) While many Iranian leaders blur the distinction between Jews and Zionists, Zero Degree Turn, written and directed by Hassan Fathi, not only conceptualizes the two as distinct and separate communities, but portrays them in acute conflict with each other. A dominant theme of the series involves a fierce struggle between Jews and Zionists, both in Paris and in Iran. In Iran, this struggle reaches its climax when the local Zionist "gang" murders the community's rabbi, an ardent opponent of the group's activities, thereby encouraging Jewish immigration to Palestine. In Paris, a romance develops between Sarah Stark, a young Jewish student, and Habib Parsa, a Muslim Iranian and the son of a diplomat. The theme of struggle between Judaism and Zionism manifests itself in a conflict between Sarah's two uncles, ostensibly the prototypes of "Jew" and "Zionist." As such, one uncle, Shmuel Weiss, is portrayed as an honest and righteous intellectual who furiously argues with the other uncle, Theodore Stark, a deceptive Zionist, not coincidentally named after Theodor Herzl, the founding father of modern Zionism. The differentiation between Judaism and Zionism is accentuated with the addition of a story line "establishing" collusion between Zionist and Nazi forces - a familiar and commonly accepted notion in the Muslim world. To realize Zionist aspirations, Stark collaborates with the Nazis and encourages harassment of the Jews with the aim of persuading them to flee Europe. Abdollah Shahbazi, the Iranian historian and author who acted as the "scientific" consultant for the series, underscores this claim in his Persian-language blog: "During World War II, rich Jewish families were party to a secret alliance with Hitler's Germany" and "played an important role in building Hitler's power, [and in] the outbreak of World War II." What is new is the crack in the state's lack of tolerance for artistic freedom and religious digression regarding social norms in Iran. This is one of the rare occasions since the Islamic Revolution that state TV has invested so much money and effort in programming that contains elements that run counter to the regime's conception of appropriate social behavior. These include a soap opera-like love story between a secular Muslim and a secular Jew, unveiled Muslim women, famous Iranian Muslim actors and actresses wearing expensive costumes reflecting 1940's Western attire, and free discussion of life under the Pahlavi dynasty. Additionally, Stark and Parsa's discussion of respect for each other's religious views and the need for dialogue between the religions is refreshingly new. Although Western media outlets such as BBC, The Wall Street Journal and Der Spiegel have lauded the series for its admission that the Holocaust took place, and interpret it as a sympathetic reversal in the Iranian attitude toward Jews, Zero Degree Turn is nevertheless laden with problematic messages regarding Jews. The series purports to reflect the events leading up to WWII, yet it is fraught with anachronistic discrepancies, and blatantly falsifies the historical realities of the era. This is demonstrated, inter alia, by the false assertion that Zionists and Nazis collaborated to provoke Jewish emigration. Also, the series fails to address European anti-Semitism and the rise of the Zionist movement; it is as if Zionism emerged in a vacuum. While Iranian state TV finally draws a distinction between Jews and Zionists, the series likens Zionism to Nazism by placing them on the same immoral plane - unmistakably an intentional message of the series. The hardline Kayhan newspaper congratulated the series for conveying this idea: "The ground for [creating] Israel is prepared when Hitler's army puts pressure on activist Jews. In this sense... Nazism [is] parallel to Zionism." Here, Kayhan hits it on the mark: The ultimate goal of the series is to delegitimize the establishment of Israel, and therefore its right to exist. Given that the director has mentioned that the state intends to market the series beyond Iran's borders, the series should be seen as a sophisticated attempt to showcase the regime's virulent anti-Israel views abroad. Reproduced with permission from the Center for Iranian Studies, Tel Aviv University. Rachel Kantz is a research fellow at the Center for Iranian Studies. Miriam Nissimov is a research fellow at the Center for Iranian Studies and a doctoral candidate at the Graduate School of Historical Studies, Tel Aviv University.