As protests erupt, Iranian Jews keep a low profile

Persian-Israelis weigh in on demonstrations in their country of origin.

An Iranian Jew prays at the Abrishami synagogue at Palestine street in Tehran December 24, 2015. (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Iranian Jew prays at the Abrishami synagogue at Palestine street in Tehran December 24, 2015.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Members of Iran’s Jewish community are keeping their heads down as thousands of their countrymen have taken to the streets to protest against the Iranian government.
Iranian Jews are not publicly expressing their opinions, and it would be dangerous for them to be seen as active in the protests, Iranian Jews living in Israel told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.
“It would put their lives in danger if they were to join the protests,” said Ashkan Safaei, a research assistant at the University of Haifa’s Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies.
The same applies to any of Iran’s minorities, he said.
“The Jews are afraid to do anything [connected to the protests]... If anything, they would support the regime,” Safaei said. “The most important thing is to protect themselves.”
There are some 10,000 Iranian Jews, so naturally they are not all of the same opinion, he said, adding: “I am hopeful about this new wave of protests, and honestly, I think that even if it doesn’t overthrow the regime, it has still been victorious so far.”
Safaei left Tehran eight years ago. He compares the current protests to the Green Movement.
Today’s protests are far more widespread than those of 2009, and because they are so spread out makes them harder for the authorities to counter, he said. The slogans used in the protests are unifying, and the demonstrators are much more diverse in terms of age, gender, social status and education, he added.
“We haven’t heard these people for 40 years, [but] now we can hear their voices, and we know there are others in Iran,” Safaei said. “When you hear, ‘No to Gaza, No to Lebanon,’ you can hear that the protesters are much more open to having a good relationship with the world, even with Israel.”
If the protesters do succeed in overthrowing the regime, it could improve life for the country’s Jews, he said.
Persian Israeli journalist Nati Toobian, who left Tehran in 1988, expressed similar sentiments.
It is too soon to tell if the protests will be positive, but the protesters have learned from the mistakes of 2009, and the protests are organized and focused, he said, adding: “Their demands are clearer than ever: They want the mullah to leave Iran and for the Iranians to decide for themselves.”
If the situation in Iran changes in the future and it becomes safe for Israelis to visit, Toobian said he would like to return as a tourist but not live there again, since he has built his life in Israel.
“It [Iran] is a part of my identity, and I’m proud to be a part of this beautiful ancient and rich culture,” he told the Post.
Like Safaei, Toobian believes that “as long as the Jews stay away from the riots,” they won’t be impacted by them.
“The Jews are keeping their heads down,” he said. “You can’t hear any comment from the Jews inside Iran about what is happening.”
A request by the Post for comment from the Tehran Jewish Committee had not been answered by press time.
“This is a common thing for all minorities,” Toobian said about the sensitivity of the Jewish community, whose members do not feel free to express their political opinions publicly.
“The Jews have their basic rights – the freedom of worship, access to kosher food, their own education system and their own parliamentary representative,” he said.
Meir Javedanfar, a lecturer on Iran at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, left Iran in 1987.
“As someone who has lived in Iran, I am concerned to hear about the levels of poverty... The number of poor people, drug addicts and prostitution is all increasing,” he told the Post. “The country that we left behind 30 years ago is actually now in worse shape in some ways than we left it.”
“I’m hoping that there is no bloodshed in Iran, but the regime has to implement some very important economic changes, and it will have to make some very important compromises,” Javedanfar said, describing his utopian vision of a stable democratic Iran in which the rights of every person regardless of ethnicity and religion are respected.
He does not see this vision being realized anytime soon, but “the very fact that people are coming out more and more and expressing their opinions is always a welcome sign.”
Days before the protests broke out, two synagogues in the city of Shiraz were vandalized within 24 hours. But Javedanfar does not believe they are connected to the demonstrations that were brewing.
“I don’t think it is related to the atmosphere because under [former Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, who was much more anti-Israel and even an antisemite who denied the Holocaust, there were no attacks on Iran’s synagogues,” he said. “But now we see there were two in Shiraz, and this is when [President Hassan] Rouhani is in charge, who has been much better comparatively speaking to Iran’s Jewish community than Ahmadinejad.
“I think these were just some plain old antisemites who wanted to show their hatred toward the Jewish people, or it could have been some people who want to embarrass Rouhani, who has tried to show a more positive image of his relations with the Jewish community,” Javedanfar said.
The incidents were reported in foreign media outlets but not in Iranian ones.