Terra Incognita: Iran takes credit for saving Jews and denies Holocaust at same time

Over the years the Iranian narrative of Iran being “tolerant” of Jews has become louder.

An anti-Semitic cartoon displayed at a contest in Iran (photo credit: Courtesy)
An anti-Semitic cartoon displayed at a contest in Iran
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Remember the “Iranian Schindler” who saved Jews during the Holocaust? That was the gist of the headline of a BBC article from 2012 profiling a book by Fariborz Mokhtari highlighting the role of Abdol-Hossein Sardari, an Iranian diplomat in Paris who saved Iranian Jews from the Nazis. Three years later, Iran is once again hosting a Holocaust denial cartoon contest, even as its diplomats try to wriggle out of their shameful intolerance by presenting Iran as having saved the Jews during the Nazi period. How can you save people, and then mock and degrade their genocide? How can you take credit for doing good, while mocking mass death and suffering? If you are Iran you can; part of a carefully orchestrated charade in which the country boasts tolerance for Jews while trampling on history.
The back story to the Iran Holocaust cartoon contests is perplexing. In response to a Danish daily newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, publishing cartoons of the Islamic prophet Mohammed in 2006, an Iranian newspaper named Hamshahri decided to mock the Holocaust. The newspaper claimed that it was standing up to “Western hypocrisy” on free speech. There is a kind of tragic irony here. The Holocaust was a European crime against the Jews. In order to respond to a European newspaper mocking Islam, the Iranians decided to bash the Holocaust. In doing so they didn’t hurt Europe or Jyllands-Posten, they simply added to what European nations had already done to the Jewish people.
In 2015, after the jihadist attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris in which 12 people were murdered, the Iranian “house of cartoon” decided to host a second annual Holocaust cartoon contest. It’s fascinating that the knee-jerk Iranian response to a French magazine’s perceived insulting of Islam was to mock the deaths of six million Jews.
At the same time Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the smiling face of Iran’s nuclear deal-makers, was on a charm offensive. He stressed in an interview with NBC in March that “Iran saved Jews three times in history...during the Second World War.” In the interview Zarif also said it was important to distinguish between Jews and Israel and boasted that there were 20,000 Jews in Iran, noting that “we’re not about annihilation of Jews.” The story of the “Iranian Schindler” is part of a narrative whereby Iran is presented as a savior, even though the 1943-era diplomat in question would probably be outraged by the sickening denials of the modern Iranian regime.
Yet the Holocaust cartoon contests continually make reference to the need to mock the Holocaust not only to get back at the West for its “free speech hypocrisy,” but also because the Holocaust was “pretext for the creation of Israel.” As such many of the cartoons show Palestinians dressed as Holocaust survivors.
Over the years the Iranian narrative of Iran being “tolerant” of Jews has become louder. The Jews of Iran are used by the regime to burnish its “diversity” credentials. The regime finds willing Orientalists abroad who soak up the myth.
Roger Cohen at The New York Times in 2009 claimed, “I say the reality of Iranian civility toward Jews tells us more about Iran – its sophistication and culture – than all the inflammatory rhetoric.” What rhetoric? “The annihilationist anti-Israel ranting, the Holocaust denial,” according to Cohen. Zarif made a similar point in his NBC interview, beginning a sentence with, “if we wanted to annihilate Jews...” and then boasting of their paltry numbers in the Islamic Republic. Iran somehow gets credit for not exterminating Jews and, despite official Holocaust denial, for being “civil” to Jews. It’s like an American president being pro-slavery and expecting praise for not actually annihilating African- Americans. Yes, they were “civil” in the Old South.
To mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January, Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei released a video questioning whether the Holocaust was “a reality or not,” featuring Holocaust deniers and claiming the West was “ignorant” for not challenging the history of the Holocaust. Iran boasts that it saved Jews from an event that it also claims didn’t happen.
When Zarif was interviewed by The New Yorker in April he was asked about the Holocaust denial cartoon contest.
Realizing it was harming Iran’s new image as a “moderate” country, he claimed the contest was not endorsed by the government. Then he argued the existence of the contest was akin to the presence of the Ku Klux Klan in the US.
“Is the government of the US responsible for the fact that there are racially hateful organizations in the US? Don’t consider Iran a monolith.”
Except Iran is a monolith when it comes to free speech; it wouldn’t host a cartoon contest denying the crimes of the Shah or mocking Islamic suffering. Ishaan Tharoor at The Washington Post points out that the organizations historically involved in the cartoon contest, Owj Media and Sarsheshmeh Cultural Center, have “ties to organs of the Iranian government.”
If Iran wanted to pretend the cartoon contest is akin to the KKK, then its leading officials would all condemn it and those hosting it would be pariahs. Instead its Fars media trumpets the contest as challenging the “West’s double-standard [of] behavior toward freedom of expression as it allows sacrilege of Islamic sanctities.” No one in Iran can explain how the logical “revenge” for being offended by Western sacrilege is bashing Jews. If Iran wants revenge on the West, then mock the French president, mock Danish cuisine – why is Iran’s response every time it is angry at the US or Europe an attack against Jewish people and Jewish history? At the opening of the cartoon contest organizer Masuod Shojai Tabatabaei claimed the contest had nothing to do with denial. Then he provided the talking points that it was aimed at criticizing the West for “double standards” on free expression. “Holocaust means mass killing... we are witnessing the biggest killings by the Zionist regime in Gaza and Palestine.” The conclusion: the Holocaust is funny. Europeans mock Islam and to get back at them we will defame Jewish history. If there was a Holocaust, it’s happening to Palestinians, and there’s nothing funny about that.
The Iranian regime has to be confronted for it’s pathological obsession with the Holocaust. It’s sickening the degree to which every time the regime is offended by something in the West, its knee-jerk response is to insult Jews. Why are European insults to Islam answered by insults to the victims of European genocide? At the same time they heap insult on the Holocaust, there is an attempt to pretend Iran “saved” Jews from the Holocaust, side by side with the argument that the only “real” holocaust is being perpetrated by Israel against the Palestinians.
The only thing Iran has done is internalize Western anti-Zionist tropes and Holocaust denial. That’s the supreme irony of the supreme leader. To highlight “Western lies,” Iran has embraced them. If it wanted to “get back” at the West, embracing the true history of the Holocaust and recognizing the lessons of that era would be a true rejoinder.