Anti-Semitism in Iran: Jews in the crosshairs

When a regime is obsessed with conspiracy theories about Jews, it is not only a threat to the Jewish people themselves, but to civilization itself.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The surge of global anti-Semitism is one of the more disturbing phenomena in recent years.
When asked, however, by a member of a congressional committee before whom I was appearing whether it was happening all over again in Europe, I answered that such an analogy was neither accurate nor helpful.
Nazi Germany was a regime committed to the destruction of the Jewish people. Today, I noted, whatever the challenge of anti-Semitic violence and rhetoric in Europe, the governments of those countries have stood up against anti-Semitism. Most notable in this respect are Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister Manuel Valls of France.
While all forms of anti-Semitism are damaging, there is a huge difference when the state and its institutions are its source, and when it comes not only from governing authorities but from other sources in society. This type of government-led but broad-based societal obsession with the “other” is not new. We have seen it before, for example in Apartheid South Africa, where the ruling Afrikaans party institutionalized racism across literally all aspects of public life.
In this respect, there is one regime in the world today where bigotry is a core component of its ruling ideology, its hold on power, its foreign policy: the Islamic Republic of Iran. Indeed, it could be argued that this regime is the first government since Hitler’s wherein anti-Semitism constitutes a central element of its identity, a cornerstone of its foreign policy and integral element of the Revolution.
And that is what makes Iran the greatest threat to Jews in today’s world and what makes it so vital to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power as long as its Islamic regime is in control.
What is striking about the Iranian regime’s anti-Semitism is that it operates on many levels. Classic stereotypes about Jews abound. Most famously, former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke repeatedly about the “fantasy” of the Holocaust. Many regarded him as a buffoon, but the underlying premise of his Holocaust denial is the notion that Jews control all forms of communication around the world, which “explains” how most of the world commemorates the murder of six million Jews. Even if current president Hassan Rouhani espouses a more moderate line, internal Iranian propaganda continues to propound this idea.
A second stereotype about Jews which Iranian political and religious leadership has purveyed was the notion of Jewish control of international financial institutions, hence the blame of Jews for the 2008 financial collapse which was featured in Ahmadinejad’s address to the UN. Copies of the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a long-standing forgery, are reported to be widely available across the country.
There are, of course, vast differences between Nazi Germany and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Nazis held deeply racist views and applied those views systematically in murdering six million.
Iran has not done so and even talks of protecting its Jewish community. Jews in Iran have had a tough life under the Islamic regime and the vast majority left when they could.
One therefore should not compare the two situations except in one crucial area: the ideological component.
When reading what the leaders have to say over many decades, it is fair to say that anti-Semitism and the obsession about Jewish power is a significant part of how they see themselves. It is not Nazi Germany in this respect either, but there is nothing comparable to it in the years since the depths of Nazi Germany.
Third is the anti-Zionist, anti-Semitism component. While there are broad discussions going on all the time about when criticism of Israel is legitimate and when it crosses the line into anti-Semitism, the Iranian regime’s views are not even close on several levels.
They are not shy about calling for the destruction of Israel, whether it’s the supreme leader or others.
They use anti-Semitic stereotypes to describe the government of Israel.
They interchangeably attack Jews and Zionists.
Yes, Israel is a strong state and, unlike the 1930s, Jews today are not defenseless – another significant difference from the Nazi period.
That in no way negates the fact that the rhetoric and thinking of the Iranian regime is comparable and dangerous – see the 1994 bombing of the AMIA building in Argentina attributed to Iran.
The spread of this anti-Semitic ideology is dangerous not merely because it leads to violence against Jews but because it can impact on other nations in the region, many of whom in the years ahead may be in a mode of appeasing an expansionist Iran.
These stereotypes were not limited to an individual extremist leader.
In 2006, the government sponsored a conference seeking “objective” information as to whether the Holocaust was real. The conclusion of the investigation was foregone, making clear that Holocaust denial pervaded the regime.
While some may claim that the presidency of Iran is not a position of power as a way to minimize the impact of Ahmadinejad’s hatred, the same level of anti-Semitism surfaces from the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.
On March 21, 2014, Khamenei in his annual New Year address denounced the West, saying that no one dares to speak of the Holocaust, “Which it is unknown if the roots of this matter are actual or not and if it actually did happen, in what way.”
During the past year, Khamenei used Twitter to propagate age-old anti-Semitic charges of Jewish domination.
As with Rouhani, he has embraced new media. And he has used it as a platform for age-old hate. In one tweet he said, “The day when western people realize that their problems result from Zionism’s hegemony over them they will make an inescapable hell for them.” In another, “Once the people in the west realize their problems stem from Zionist domination over governments, great social movements will give birth to a new world.”
Thus, a sophisticated Iran is getting better all the time in using new media to promote old hate.
Other institutions of government are employed shamelessly in the same mode.
A year ago, in the lead-up to the start of Ramadan, Iran’s broadcasting authority (IRIB) aired interviews and documentaries promoting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of Jewish control over Hollywood and a Jewish-Zionist plan to use sorcery against Iran. One such documentary was called Zionist Aspiration to Control the West. The documentary employed the terms “Zionist” and “Jewish” interchangeably and showed a graphic of the globe with a Star of David superimposed on it.
While state media in other Middle East countries also promote anti-Semitism, systemic use of media and leadership to do so in Iran is unmatched.
The documentary also claimed that Jewish and Zionist control of Hollywood has exploited the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.
Government efforts to embed anti-Semitism in the culture of Iranian society are not limited to the media and public pronouncements. Other cultural tools are commonly used as well, book fairs and cartoon contests, conferences and television.
Iran’s House of Cartoon, a professional artist’s guild sponsored by the municipality of Tehran, held an exhibit called International Gaza Cartoon Exhibit 2014. It published and exhibited cartoons equating Israel to Nazis, had images invoking the classic anti-Semitic canard of a blood libel, including depictions of Israel and Israelis as blood-sucking insects or animals attacking Palestinian children.
In April 2014, in the annual Tehran Book Fair, hosted by Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, anti-Semitic and Holocaust-denial books were included, including The Protocols and books by American racist David Duke, as well as Half Hidden: Legend Building of the Holocaust.
A major ongoing source of Iranian anti-Semitism is the government-run English language satellite news network, Press TV. It regularly hosts American and other Western anti-Semites expressing vicious anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
In November 2013, Press TV columnist M. I. Bhat wrote two articles claiming that American Jews controlled the banks, Wall Street and the media and that Americans can trace “every misery” to American Zionist bankers who spend their time “determining, dominating and controlling every aspect of [American] lives – social, moral, political, judicial and economic.”
This, unfortunately, is common fare for Press TV.
Anti-Semitism is not an ideology used exclusively by the regime through its apparatus. Instead, Iran has exported its ideology via hateful proxies across the region. It’s well known that its proxies like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and/or Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories have been the recipients of generous financial and material support from the regime.
Their terrorist operatives are trained and equipped by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
But it is worth noting that these organizations equally have benefited from the ideological inspiration of their handlers in Tehran. Their media outlets like Al-Manar and Al-Aqsa spread noxious rhetoric about Jews and Israel to local and regional audiences via satellite.
Their schools indoctrinate their children. And they have not limited themselves to incitement and propaganda.
Beyond their military operations perpetrated against Israeli civilians and soldiers inside the Green Line, Hezbollah has demonstrated a lethal capacity to launch terrorist attacks against Jewish interests around the world – including the notorious AMIA bombing in Argentina in 1994 that murdered more than 200 people and the bombing in Bulgaria in 2012 that killed six people and maimed 32 others. And there were numerous thwarted attempts such as Thailand in 2014 and Cyprus in 2015 where lives were saved despite the heinous intentions of the culprits.
Whether successful or not, these bombings were not intended to “liberate territory” or attack military targets – instead, they designed to achieve one goal – simply put, to terrorize Jews, illustrating the sinister point that there is no safe haven for Jews. And while supporters of the regime will deplore these bombings, they should be seen as intended – a stratagem that allows the Islamic Republic to maintain the pretense of plausible deniability and keep its hands clean, even as its proxies simply take its rhetoric to its logical conclusion. In this way, the depravity of Iranian anti-Semitism and its offspring has no contemporary political analog. It is an exterminationist rhetoric that seems appropriate to liken only to National Socialism for its borderless, insatiable demands.
It should not surprise that the Islamic regime today is steeped in anti-Semitism.
The father of the Islamic revolution, Ruhollah Khomeini, saw Jews as a main enemy as far back as the 1960s.
Matthias Kuntzel, a German expert on Iran, cited Khomeini’s early targeting of Jews. In 1963, he told a crowd of supporters: “I know that you do not want Iran to be under the boot of the Jews,” later accusing the Shah of being a Jew in disguise.
That Khomeini was obsessed with Jews became even more apparent in a book he published in 1970: “The Jews...
wish to establish Jewish domination throughout the world since they are a cunning and resourceful group of people, I fear that... they may one day achieve their goal.” Even as some have reported on an edict that he issued early in the Revolution to protect the Jews whose presence in the country predates the Islamic presence, The Protocols were alive and well in the mind of the future leader of the Iranian Islamic Revolution.
The recognition that anti-Semitic conspiracy theories lay at the heart of the Islamic Revolution sheds light on the regime’s view of the State of Israel. Leaders of Iran consistently use the terms “Zionist” and “Jew” interchangeably.
The State of Israel is proof positive of the belief that Jews have overwhelming and evil power. Khamenei, in November 2013, as negotiations were ongoing about the Iranian nuclear program was quoted on Facebook: “The Israeli regime, this sinister, unclean rabid dog of the region, says Iran is a threat to the world; No! Israel itself is a threat to the world.”
This past year, Khamenei followed up his descriptions of the evil Jewish state by publishing a nine-point plan to see Israel disappear as an independent nation. Seeing Israel and Jews as an unparalleled threat, it made sense to find ways to eliminate that threat. It might not be Mein Kampf, the seminal manifesto of the regime, but even casual observers will note that it bears an uncomfortable resemblance.
What is so striking about the many forms that Iranian anti-Semitism takes – Holocaust denial, claims of Jewish control of the world and in its institutions, cartoon contests on denying the Holocaust, obsessions about Israeli power and ways to deal with it – is the irrational quality of all of it. It is an extreme form of anti-Semitism full of paranoid conspiracy theories and delusional thinking.
All of which makes the issue of a nuclear Iran far more critical than some would acknowledge.
Whatever one’s views of the nuclear agreement, the notion that an Iran with a nuclear weapon could be deterred, as was true about the Soviet Union, is far less convincing.
No one questioned the rationality of the Soviet leadership, hence the concept of mutual assured destruction which was the basis of deterrence during the Cold War.
Some pundits have drawn favorable comparisons between the Iranian regime and Islamic State (IS), seeing the Sunni fundamentalists as more brutal and dangerous than their Shi’ite co-religionists.
While it’s certainly true that the Iranian government has a more sophisticated and worldly approach to governance and statecraft, we should not confuse means with ends. Both the Islamic Republic of Iran and IS share an obsession with “reclaiming” Muslim lands, including Israel, and with blaming Jews for the world’s ills. So while Iran may employ more urbane modalities and clash with IS on the plains of Syria and Iraq, the parallel rhetoric could lead even the uninformed to conclude that they might make common cause against the Jewish state.
One does not have to claim that the Iranian regime’s leaders are totally irrational to recognize that the degree of anti-Semitic irrationality in the regime provokes understandable anxiety that Iran might actually use a bomb if it had one. Again, prior governments in modern history often adopted seemingly irrational policies despite the often obvious costs of doing so.
Similarly, the anti-Semitic mindset of the regime should warn against seeing it as anything but the greatest danger to the region. Combating Iranian expansion, particularly if sanctions are lifted, should be the major priority of the West. Tactical alliances with a regime that holds such views is short-sighted and should be rejected out of hand.
And this is the rub – if anti-Semitism indeed is a strategic imperative of the regime, one that it is not forced to abandon even as it gains international legitimacy as a result of the nuclear deal, then Israel and the Jewish people could be an even more attractive target of its animus in the near future.
So let’s learn the lessons of history.
When a regime is obsessed with conspiracy theories about Jews, it is not only a threat to the Jewish people themselves, but to civilization itself.
Indeed, we rationally must be prepared to confront even the most irrational actors and their views, especially it comes to the oldest hate.
The author is deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League.