Iranian Jews in a time of protest

“People are even angrier now than in 2009, and not just because of poverty and corruption. People want to be free and everyone is screaming now, loudly, at the same time.”

Unveiling ceremony for memorial to Iranian Jews killed in Iran-Iraq war‏. (photo credit: IRANIAN MEDIA)
Unveiling ceremony for memorial to Iranian Jews killed in Iran-Iraq war‏.
(photo credit: IRANIAN MEDIA)
As we near the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, another uprising is brewing in Iran. What started as a few random protests has now spread to 52 cities around the country, from Qom to Kerman, and the budding counter- revolution is quickly growing in both size and intensity in a way that sets it apart from the 2009 Green Movement.
In 2016 I made two trips to Iran, spending a total of 24 days in a country I quickly grew to love. Initially, I went there to spend time with the Jewish community of Tehran and to visit the tomb of Esther and Mordechai in Hamadan, but I ended up returning to report on the 2016 parliamentary elections.
I saw two very different countries on these separate occasions.
Ever since the protests in the aftermath of the 2009 elections, the Iranian regime has been on its toes, and when covering the elections I saw just how tightly the fist of the Islamic Republic was squeezing its people, attempting to quash both their will and ability to rise up ever again. The days leading up to and following the election, access to the Internet was limited to a point where it was almost impossible to reach even the few sites deemed legal by the regime, and gatherings in the streets were swiftly broken up and dispersed by the ever-present guards, making sure that there would be no organized protests forming in the shadow of the growing oppression.
Ever since the news of the protests started reaching social media, I have been trying to get into contact with my Jewish friends in Iran, searching for them through our regular channels, hidden behind VPNs and encryption. When I finally reach one, my first words are those of prayer, assuring him that we are connected, despite geography and firewalls, and as soon as I hit “send” I see how useless and impotent those words are in a time where absolutely everything is at stake.
My friend tells me that they are safe, that the regime knows that Jews do not participate in these protests, that they never seek out conflict or trouble and wouldn’t be part of revolutions or uprisings against the ayatollah.
To an outside observer, this may sound like cowardice or agreement, even, but knowing what the Jews of Iran have lived through under this regime it is an answer that makes sense; theirs the only method possible.
What I learned about the Jewish community of Iran was that theirs was a freedom with strings attached, a somewhat secure life inside a gilded cage, where minorities are kept as proof of a tolerant society, but forced to comply with the oppressive lines and framework of an unpredictable regime. In certain ways, being a Jew in Iran means a more secure life than that of a non-Jewish Iranian, but that security is hinged on an agreement that everyone involved knows can be torn to shreds at any time.
Before the establishment of the State of Israel, the survival of the Jewish people was dependent on our ability to adapt to our surroundings while maintaining our culture – to integrate but never assimilate. This very formula is what made Persian Jewry a triumph in adversity, but also the reason why a revolution might bring it to its knees. Should Khamenei fall, and his empire of clerics with him, the gilded cage will be opened, but no one knows to what. In the best of worlds it means freedom, in the worst, conditioned captivity under someone else.
My friend says that things feel much different now compared to what happened in 2009, when hope was lit and put out by the iron fist of the Islamic Republic.
“Everyone supports this now, even official branches, universities and public servants, and we feel it, we feel that this time it could actually happen, for real. It’s like a bubble that is about to burst.”
He goes on to say that another major difference is the American leadership, that president Barack Obama chose to turn his back on them in 2009 but that President Donald Trump would side with the protesters, in an unequivocal way, and that the open support of an American president could end up making a real difference.
“People are even angrier now than in 2009, and not just because of poverty and corruption. People want to be free and everyone is screaming now, loudly, at the same time.”
Given that the security of the Jewish population of Iran is so fragile and their status as an oppressed minority within an oppressed majority, it makes sense that they will not be taking to the streets, and this is no reflection on their longing for freedom or opposition to the powers that be. They have seen the glimmer of hope darkened too many times to allow for celebration or relief, and their fate in a hypothetical post-Islamic state is uncertain at best and perilous at worst.
Now, they are used as tokens, as fake symbols of a religious and social freedom that does not exist, and in that sense they serve a purpose for the regime. Forty years ago, when the last revolution changed everything, at least 70,000 Jews left Iran, having been accused of a treacherous alliance with the Shah. What accusations may follow if the ayatollah falls? Will a new leadership be wise enough to see that any protection the Jews of Iran had been given by the Islamic Republic was an act of extortion, a freedom in captivity, or will the Jews of Iran once again be vilified for an alliance that they themselves never chose? My friend feels hope, but knows better than to let it linger, for Jewish life in Iran is a tightrope walk that does not allow for such luxuries. Many dismiss the connection that the Jews in Iran feel toward their country, but doing so is both condescending and naive. Persian Jewry has ancient roots, dating back 2,700 years, and Iran is their home, a home they will not abandon lightly.
What I saw in Iran and what captured my heart so immediately and so intensely was their distinctive Persian identity as Jews, their deep connection to their country, and their heroic strength in maintaining their Jewishness as that country came under zealous siege. If these protests grow into a revolution, if the dreams are truly realized and we mark the 40th anniversary of the veiling of Iran with a true people’s uprising – then we owe more to the Jews than to call for their aliya and roll out the red carpet. The Jews of Iran may not be taking to the streets or ripping down images of their oppressors, but this is their fight as much as anyone’s and they have earned the right to see the light return to their ancient homeland.
My friend promises that he will stay in touch every day, but I still have a hard time logging off and letting go. I have missed Iran every day since I left it, having left so big a part of my heart behind, and every day I mourn the fact that what I wrote and reported stops me from returning to the people I now consider family, on the other side of that electronic wall. Unlike my friend, I have the luxury of allowing my hope to linger. I think about what could be if the regime falls, of returning to a new Iran, and what might be the fate of those who do not have the option of staying away should these protest go the way of those before them.
 My mother once told me that a Jew should always carry two things with him – a sweater for the draft and a passport for the persecution, and I think of those words today as I watch an online video of brave Iranians storming a military base in Esfahan. While the protest grows, 52 cities and counting, the Jews of Iran are left to wait and see, as they have done so many times before in our people’s history.
The painful truth is that even of these protests are victorious, the Jews of Iran won’t know if that means victory for them, or just another form of defeat to adapt to. They are wise from experience and hardened by life, and though they feel hope, it’s far too soon to let it linger.
The author is a political adviser and journalist based in Sweden. Follow her on twitter @truthandfiction.