As Mideast fighting rages, Iran's Jews steer clear

Any public expression of sympathy for Israel would invite a sharp crackdown from authorities and hard-line Islamic groups.

iaf smoke lebanon 298 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
iaf smoke lebanon 298 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Nothing in the office of Iran's sole Jewish lawmaker calls attention to his faith - no Star of David, no menorah or other symbol of Judaism. But like nearly every public building in Iran, it has a portrait of the Islamic Revolution's patriarch, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Moris Motamed's political headquarters highlight the well-practiced survival skills of Iran's remaining 25,000 Jews - caught again in a political no man's land by the fighting between Israel and the Iranian-backed Hizbullah in Lebanon. Any public expression of sympathy for Israel would invite a sharp crackdown from authorities and hard-line Islamic groups. "We are Iranians. We work for what's best for Iran. The fighting, fortunately, does not affect the Jewish community in Iran," said Motamed, who holds the single parliament seat reserved for Jews. Other seats are set aside for the Christian Armenian and Assyrian minorities and followers of Iran's pre-Islamic Zoroastrian faith. But Iran's Jews have undeniable bonds with Israel - most notably Israel's Iranian-born president, Moshe Katsav. Thousands of Iranian Jewish families have relatives in Israel. The historical links between Persia and the Holy Land go back to antiquity and are celebrated each year with the festival of Purim. In January, the leader of Iran's Jewish community, Haroun Yashayaei, issued a rare challenge to Islamic authorities after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called the Holocaust a "myth." He said Ahmadinejad was questioning "one of the most obvious and saddening incidents in human history." Israel, however, presents a red line no one will cross. Iran's Jews have remained publicly silent as Iranian leaders have called for Israel's destruction, including Ahmadinejad's call last year for Israel to be "wiped off the map." Last week, Jews in the southern city of Shiraz held a pro-Hizbullah rally that was covered by state-run television - a sign that the march was likely overseen by the Islamic regime to reinforce the idea of national solidarity. The Web site of the Tehran Jewish Community includes statements opposing Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip and praising uranium enrichment by Iranian scientists. The US and many of its allies, including Israel, believe Iran is using its nuclear reactor project as a cover for a weapons program. "For Iranians, there is a distinction in their mind between Zionism and Judaism," said Motamed. "This is a very important distinction for us." Iranian Jews face no restrictions on their religious practices, but they must follow Islamic codes such as headscarves for women in public. The same rules apply to the larger Christian and Zoroastrian communities. But the Jewish population in Iran continues to shrink from emigration to Israel, the United States and elsewhere. Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, nearly 100,000 Jews lived in Iran, Motamed said. Anti-Semitic acts are rare, but Jews often are the targets of degrading caricatures in the Iranian press. Tensions rose considerably in 2000 when 10 Iranian Jews were convicted of spying for Israel and sentenced to from four to 13 years' imprisonment. An appeals court later reduced their sentences under international pressure and eventually freed them. Iran's Persian ancestors, meanwhile, figure prominently in Jewish lore and tradition. Hebrew canons and the Old Testament recount the story of Persia's King Cyrus allowing Jews to return to Jerusalem from Babylon and rebuild the temple nearly 2,600 years ago. Iran also is the site of one of Judaism's most important sites: the shrine of Esther and Mordechai in the western city of Hamedan. The Book of Esther tells the story of how she was raised by her relative, the royal adviser Mordechai, and became a Persian queen. She saved her fellow Jews from slaughter by persuading King Xerxes to call off a plan to attack the community on a date that was to be decided by lot, or "pur." The change of heart is marked each year by the festival of Purim.