The Plight of the Jewish Community of Iran

What is it like for our brothers, the up to 25,000 Jews still living in Iran? An overview in response to Rouhani's New Year message.

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Jerry Sobel,

Jerry Sobol
Jerry Sobol
The High Holidays, the Jewish New Year. For Jewish people it’s the most promising and invigorating time in their calendar.  A time of reflection and taking stock of one’s life and resetting our personal compass for the year ahead.  It’s also time for fellow tribesmen to gather around the kiddish; the banquet following services on Rosh Hashana and partake in a favorite Jewish pastime, arguing world politics.  This year, 5774 was certainly no different.

Needless to say, Assad’s use of chemical weapons and the ramifications of an American response were prime topics around the table.  But much discussion was also made of Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani’s  tweet, wishing the Jewish people, particularly the Jews of Iran a blessed Rosh Hashana.  Not surprisingly some hailed this as a new beginning, a refreshing opening between the Mullahs and worldwide Jewry so recently decried by the Holocaust denying former President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Let’s examine the facts.

The Jewish community in what was once called Persia, modern day Iran, has existed for almost 2600 years.  For most of that period the Jewish population prospered and expanded throughout the region.  This all changed in 642 C.E. with the invasion of Arab Muslims and the installation of of Islam as the state religion.  From that point until the secularization of modern day Iran in 1925 under the Phalevi Dynasty, the socio/economic position of the Jews was degraded to second class citizenry.

Throughout the 19th century, Jews were persecuted and discriminated against.  Sometimes whole communities were forced to convert.  The most egregious of these persecutions took place in 1839 in the city of Mashhad and became known as the Allahad Incident. 

In a pogrom all too familiar throughout Jewish history the local synagogue was burned to the ground.  Between 30-40 people had their throats slit,  2400 others were forced to convert to Islam or face the sword as well.  Although converted, most still continued practicing Judaism in secret.  They became known as “Crypto Jews”   From that point going forward, considerable emigration to the Land of Israel began, and the Zionist movement spread throughout the community.

Things changed under the Shah.  From 1925 until the dawn of the Islamic revolution in 1979, Jews flourished in all aspects of Iranian economic, social, and political life.  Unfortunately there was once again a reversal of fortune with the reintroduction of Sharia law subsequent to the ascension of Ayatollah Khomeini.

In 1948, at the state of Israel's establishment, there were approximately 100,000 Jews living in Iran.  Today, unverifiable estimates put the numbers somewhere between 10,200 to a high of 25,000.

Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-Syrian scholar and president of the International American Council on the Middle East.  He presently serves on the advisory board of the Harvard International Review.  Last week, Front Page Magazine published an article written by him entitled: “Humanitarian Tragedy:  Iran’s Beleaguered Jewish Community

According to Mr. Rafizadeh, at the outset of Khomeini’s rise to power, he sought support from the influential Jewish community by professing the Jewish people in Iran should enjoy the same citizenship rights as every other citizen.  But once the Shah was deposed, those rights never materialized.

Almost immediately, both Khomeini and the ruling Mullahs began arresting the most prominent Jewish leaders and businessmen, many of whom were accused of spying for Israel and executed.  Seeing the handwriting on the wall, those who could, particularly the wealthy, began a mass emigration to both the United States and Israel.

In a Parliament of 290 seats, 3 or 1.1 percent, are represented by Jews who are not elected but appointed. None are allowed to occupy key governmental positions.  Constitutionally, Jews cannot hold decision making positions such as being a member of the influential Guardian Council, a Commander in the Iranian Army, or, naturally, the President of the nation. Furthermore, they are not allowed to serve as judges at any level nor assist in the judicial and legislative systems.

The author concludes by stating these “laws based on the Quran, and Shari’a law only begin to encompass the deep-rooted religious inequality of the region.”

Not everyone agrees with this statement.

“They have no problems, praise God,” said Rabbi Yitzhak Ba’al Haness who, before emigrating to the United States in 1990, was the chief Rabbi of the southwestern Iranian city of Shiraz.  Omitting the arrest and imprisonment of several of his former students on trumped up charges of spying for Israel, the Rabbi went on to say: “Life is perfectly fine and there have never been any problems.”

When asked why he left, he replied that it is because his children went to the United States to study in American yeshivot and he just followed. When questioned, former congregants in the Shiraz Jewish community felt the Rabbi, fearing for his life, fled rather than emigrated. It is possible he is afraid for the lives of those who didn't and his words can be seen in that context.

Rouhani’s gesture wishing the Jews of Iran a blessed New Year is welcomed. Duplicitous or not, such words would never have left the lips of the unabashed anti-Semite Ahmadinejad.
The director of the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism, Dr. Esther Webman concurs: “There's still a very basic fear.  You can't paint a fantastic picture showing everything is alright....“Jews have to follow very clear and rigid rules.”

Others argue that with 30 active Synagogues in Teheran, despite the aforementioned, on a comparative basis, Jews are tolerated far better in Iran than in most, if not all other Islamic countries in both the Middle East and Africa. If toleratiing Jews is a measuring stick, that seems to be true.

However, in an interview given to a reporter from the Institute for War and Peace, Moshe Hakimi, a Jewish man living in Iran’s second largest city Mashhad, paints a different picture.  He had this to say:  “Every newborn is told from his first years of life that we are living in times of crisis and that they must lead a double life.  They are told we must not talk about our personal lives in front of non-Jewish people. This absolute secrecy becomes second nature after reaching puberty.”

"Some feel so threatened that many choose to convert to Islam, but continue to practice Judaism in secret".  As previously referenced, they, too, as in other times and places in Jewish history, became known as “Crypto Jews.”

He goes on to say:  “All Jewish converts to Islam have two names: for example, my grandfather's Muslim name was Sheikh Aboulghasem and his Hebrew name was Benjamin.  My father's Muslim name was Ebrahim and his Hebrew name was Abraham. Outside they call me Mousa and at home, I'm called Moshe.  In my father's lifetime, many of the Jews had clear Muslim names. They even went to Mecca on pilgrimage and became Hadjis.”

Further accentuating the deprivations of Jewish life in post revolution Iran, a female student named Sepideh had this to say about her chances of getting married to a Jewish man:  “There are almost no educated Jewish boys left in Iran to consider for marriage.  Emigration is the last resort that we must consider so that maybe we can experience a future free of restrictions.”

All things considered, Rouhani’s gesture wishing the Jews of Iran a blessed New Year is welcomed.  Duplicitous or not, such words would never have left the lips of the unabashed anti-Semite Ahmadinejad.  However if Rouhani truly seeks a rapprochement with his Jewish citizenry, he should begin extending them full civil, political, economic, and social rights.

Ceasing the constant defamation of Israel would go a long way in breaking the rigid climate of fear and anti-Semitism Jews live under as second class citizens.  Actions such as these would really mean a L’Shana Tovah; a good year, to the Jewish community of Iran.