Survival instincts

Do Jews in Iran support the opposition movement?

To his knowledge, Farhad was one of only a handful of Iranian Jews who took part in the street protests in Iran against the regime following the disputed June election. "I went into the street because I saw terrible scenes of beatings and bloodshed, because a lot of my friends and coworkers were joining the demonstrations, and because I'm against the government," he says, noting that in Iran he moved in Muslim, not Jewish, circles.
"I was beaten on my arms, legs and back, but I wasn't arrested," he continues. Waiting until his bruises healed so he could get through airport security, he soon fulfilled a longtime goal by 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 Post  on where the Iranian Jewish community stands in their country's political struggle. The three left for different destinations, including Israel. Another Jew still living in Iran was also interviewed briefly. For the sake of their security, the interviewees' names have been changed and many details in their accounts cannot be published.
Farhad is the only one of the trio of Iranian Jewish émigrés who took part in the demonstrations, but all three say they fully support the liberal Islamic opposition that has been clashing with police and militias. Furthermore, they say that while probably most Iranian 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 from inside Iran said he "cannot tolerate the current regime," and provided a video of a demonstration in which he was injured.)
But when asked to recall actual conversations with other Jews in Iran, even with family members, in which rejection of the government and support for the opposition was voiced, none of the émigrés could do so. "It's obvious," they insist.
Yet it's not. Despite what the émigrés say, the question of where Iran's Jewish community stands on the struggle between the regime and the reformers is unclear, because the country's Jews generally keep their political opinions, if they have them, to themselves.
"I didn't discuss the political situation with my family or with my Jewish friends, because Jews in Iran don't want to get involved in politics," says Mehran, another émigré. "I would only really discuss it with my Muslim friends, one of whom was very active in the movement."
Even now, when the émigrés contact their families back in Iran, politics remains an off-limits subject because of their fear that the regime is monitoring their communications.
The natural assumption is that privately, at least, Iran's Jews oppose the government and support the protesters because the country's Islamic revolution, from 1979 until now, compels them to declare their enmity to Israel, because President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has popularized Holocaust denial and because the mullahs' edicts are enforced by militias 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 have beards and wear tunics and have these very severe, threatening expressions. They're all over the place," he says. "Once, several years ago, I was walking on the street with my girlfriend, and in those days boys and girls weren't supposed to be seen in public together. These two 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 come to their office that evening.
"When I got there, they took me out into the snow, told me to take off my shoes and socks, and while I was barefoot, they interrogated me all night, slapping me, telling me to confess that I was a spy for Israel. In those days I didn't know anything about Israel. They called the university I'd attended and asked about me, they called my Muslim neighbors and asked about me, and finally in the morning they let me go.
"But they told me that if I told anyone about this incident, my family and I would be in danger. So I never told my family. For about two months afterward, I was watched. From time to time I'd see one of the interrogators watching me from a distance."
(The fear of being accused of spying for Israel hangs over the Jews of Iran and keeps them in line. A dozen Jews were executed on this charge after the 1979 Islamic revolution. In 2000, 10 Jews in the city of Shiraz were convicted of spying for Israel and imprisoned for four years.)
Years later, he applied for a government job and one of his interviewers was a militia member. By this time Kamran had begun listening to the Voice of America and Israel Radio, and had begun forming opinions on Israel.
"The militiaman saw on my application that I was Jewish - your religion isn't on your ID card, but you have to put it on all your application forms - and he asked me what I thought about Israel and the Palestinians. I told him that what the Palestinians are doing isn't right, killing civilians, killing women and children. Then he asked me if I wanted to go to Israel and I said sure, I'd love to travel anywhere."
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 boss ordered all minority employees - Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews - to be replaced by Muslims. Mehran is convinced he was denied an army promotion and the chance to get an advanced degree because he's Jewish.
So there are plenty of reasons to assume that Iranian Jews want to see the Islamic dictatorship removed and a more liberal government take over. But the émigrés say their own dissatisfactions stemmed much more from being oppressed as people than from being oppressed as Jews.
Kamran says he was harassed more often by the militias because he looked "Western" than because he was Jewish. "I had longish hair and I wore regular shirts, not tunics, and jeans. About four or five times the militias stopped me on the street and slapped me, kicked me. Once they passed me back and forth among themselves and punched me. They insulted me, they said I was gay."
He says he didn't leave Iran because of anti-Semitism, but because "we didn't have democracy, we didn't have freedom. I wanted a better life."
Farhad gives the same reasons for leaving, as well as his insecurity over Iran's economy. Mehran cites the desire to live in a larger, more self-confident Jewish community as one of his reasons, along with his job insecurity, but he doesn't put anti-Semitism on the list, either.
EVERYONE INTERVIEWED for this article - the émigrés, veteran Iranian 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 from politics, Jews live very well in Iran." (The Jewish Agency declined comment for this article.)  And it is the general well-being of Iran's Jewish community that leads some observers to suggest that the Jews in that country may not be so eager to see the government fall.
"Iran is not Nazi Germany, no way," says Orly Rahimiyan, a lecturer on Persian Jewry at Ben-Gurion University. "The level of anti-Semitism in Iran is lower than it is in France. There are no Jewish 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 their synagogues without anyone bothering them; they travel overseas and return without a problem. They have great parties, weddings, bar mitzvas - they can have music at their affairs, which isn't allowed to the Muslims."
To protect their status, they pledge allegiance to the government and publicly support its policies. This has been the community's survival strategy for 2,700 years, says Rahimiyan.
(The lone instance of Iranian Jews openly challenging the government came in 2006 when the community's leader, Haroun Yashayaei, sent a letter to Ahmadinejad saying, "How is it possible to ignore all of the evidence existing for the exile and massacre of the Jews of Europe during World War II?" Yashayaei added that Ahmadinejad's repeated denials of the Holocaust had "spread fear and anxiety among the small Jewish community of Iran.")
Today, says the prominent Iranian immigrant, the government-run TV and radio stations are broadcasting that the Jews - like the country's two other "recognized" minorities, the Christians and Zoroastrians - fully support the regime and oppose the reformers.
A Jerusalem shopkeeper who left Iran shortly after the 1979 takeover says: "Whenever there was a demonstration against America, we Jews would join in. We lived with those people, we had to." (About 20,000 Jews left Iran in the months following the revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini, and another roughly 40,000 followed later. The vast majority settled in the US, England and Israel.)
Last year the one allotted Jewish member of the majlis, or parliament, Siamak Mara-Sedq, embraced and kissed Ahmadinejad in front of the assembly. During Operation Cast Lead, Mara-Sedq led a demonstration by Iranian Jewish leaders in Teheran calling for an end to the "savage acts" by the "Tel Aviv regime."
Here again, on the matter of Israeli policies, it's unclear what Iranian Jews really think. "Most Jews in Iran love Israel the country, but not all of them support the actions of Israel's government," says Kamran, who notes that in their extreme caution, Iranian Jews don't even like to mention the name "Israel," preferring to speak of "Eretz."
And while Ahmadinejad's nuclear saber-rattling raises the deepest fears in Israelis, it doesn't have nearly the same effect on Iran's Jews, say the émigrés. "Jews in Iran don't like Ahmadinejad's speeches, they get upset, but they say these are just words, not actions," says Mehran. "He scares the Jews in Iran, but not like he scares the Israelis," says Farhad. "He makes me and my friends laugh," says Kamran.
(Interviews with the emigres were held prior to Tuesday's assassination in Teheran of pro-opposition physicist Masoud Ali Mohammedi, which Iranian government spokesmen blamed on Israel and the US.)
Kamran compares what's happening in Iran to the downfall of communism in the Soviet Union. In recent years, the mullahcracy's restrictions on people have been loosening somewhat, which Kamran attributes 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 government calls 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 the government shuts down the Internet, it will ruin the economy."
Social life has started to free up as well, he says. "Before I left, you'd see boys walking with girls, which you didn't before. Same thing with clothes. Neckties are officially forbidden - that's 'Western' dress - but in my last job I'd put on a tie and nobody would say anything."
The political effect is that Iranians, having had a taste of democracy, want more, and the Jews are no different, says Kamran. Even though the opposition's color is green for Islam and its identifying chant is "Allahu akbar" - "God is great" - there are Jews who side with the 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 there aren't optimistic about their future, with young people being tempted to leave to avoid being drafted into the army, because the pool of marriageable young Jews is shrinking and because promising jobs are getting hard to find.
All this leads to a desire for change. "I think that in their hearts, the Jews in Iran probably support the reform movement," she says.
But she has her doubts. "The revolution of 1979 left a very bad taste in their mouths. At the beginning, the revolutionaries weren't all Islamic fundamentalists; there were also left-wingers, including Jews, before Khomeini took it all over. And the community saw what happened. About a dozen Jews were executed as spies. Iranian Jews are a traditional, conservative community. For them, any change is very risky," says Rahimiyan.
The prominent Iranian immigrant assumes Jews in his native country are behind the opposition "with all their heart." Later, though, he suggests, "They're happy with the government because of the freedom they have."
The Jerusalem shopkeeper who left Iran after the revolution says the Jews there resent having to pay obeisance to the likes of Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs, and thus "want the reformers to win so they'll have more freedom." But later he says: "Jews in Iran always go with the wind, with whoever's in power, even if they hate him."
He communicates regularly with his family in Iran and reports that 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 the streets here all the time. Same thing with Iran. There are demonstrations, but people still go to work every day. Life goes on."
As for Iran's future, the three émigrés agree that the dictatorship is not going to fall so quickly, that it will take years for any reform movement to gain power. How much of a change may be in store, though, is matter of dispute among the trio.
Farhad offers no opinion. Mehran thinks the movement "will be successful, but the basic machinery of the system will not be replaced, only moderated."
Says Kamran: "I try to be optimistic. I think it will take time, and wewill need the support of Western governments, but in the end, we willhave democracy."
One thing is certain, though. Whether thereformers or the regime emerge on top, whether the mullahcracy ispreserved, moderated or thrown out, Iran's ancient, survivalist Jewishcommunity will be cheering. In public, anyway.