Iranian Jew praying, Tehran
Iranian Jew praying, Tehran Reuters

Rabbi Yousef Hamadani Cohen, the former chief rabbi of Iran's tiny Jewish community, died on the weekend of a prolonged illness, media reported on Monday.

English-language state media Press TV said Cohen had been ill for several years and was buried on Sunday in Tehran. Semi-official Fars news agency said Cohen had been the spiritual leader of the Jewish community in Iran since 1993; he was 98 years old. 

According to the news outlets, Rabbi Mashallah Golestani Nejad took over the position after his death.

AFP reports Monday that according to a 2011 census, some 8,750-20,000 Jews live in Iran, compared to 80,000-1000,000 before the 1979 Islamic revolution. The community is one of the oldest in the Diaspora, dating back some 2,700 years. 

Iran's Jews - who live mostly in Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz - are recognized as a religious minority along with Christians and Zoroastrians.

Media Fooled?

The Jewish community has a representative in parliament and appears to be well-integrated in a society dominated by Muslims, according to AFP. It operates schools, a library and a hospital - which relies in part on public funds - in Tehran.

The election of President Hassan Rouhani in June 2013, a reputed moderate, raised hopes among the community for an improvement of their standing. His predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, gave regularly anti-Israeli tirades and denied the Holocaust during his two terms in office.

But the news surfaces just one week after revelations that eight Iranian Jews between 1994 and 1997 were murdered on their way to Israel. 

Rouhani, as well as Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, have tried to present a moderate image of Iran toward the Jews, even allegedly condemning the Holocaust. But Iranian Affairs expert Menashe Amir told Arutz Shevain October that the image is a ruse. 

“In Iran they know that Jews have influence on the international scene. They want to show the world, and the Americans, that Jews have a good life in Iran,” he stated. “The Jews are Iran’s display window – and they take their orders from the regime." 

He pointed to a letter allegedly sent by Iran’s Jewish community that urged United States President Barack Obama to mend fences with Iran. The letter was not authentic, he charged.

It is not easy for Iran’s Jews to leave the country, Amir said. While the Iranian government does not prevent them from leaving, “the problem is that there aren’t many countries willing to take them,” he explained.

Other Iranian Jews in Israel have offered a different explanation, saying that Iranian Jews are indeed financially well-off, which makes it harder for them to make the move to Israel. Travel is also an obstacle; while Iranian Jews are welcome to immigrate to Israel, they are unable to fly directly to the Jewish state due to the political conflict between the countries.