With Purim holiday coming up this week, I had a chance to sit down and chat with Iranian Jewish activist Frank Nikbakht about his past memories of celebrating Purim in his home town of Hamedan in Iran where the burial site of Esther and Mordechai are located.
Nikbakht, who also heads the Los Angeles-based “Committee For Minority Rights in Iran”, shed light on the Jewish community’s situation in Hamedan today and how the Iranian regime is twisting the story of Purim to advance their lies and anti-Semitic libels against Jews in recent years.
Last May, unknown Islamic arsonists fire-bombed the synagogue adjacent to the tombs of Esther and Mordechai in Hamedan but thankfully the ancient mausoleum containing the tombs were undamaged.
The Iranian regime never investigated the attack nor arrested anyone in connection with it. Nikbakht also shed light on the situation of the old Jewish cemetery in Hamedan that has been randomly turned into a public park by the city’s officials.
Obviously, the story of Purim takes place in ancient Iran and without a doubt has been one of the most important holidays for Iran’s Jews. Can you please share a little about the Jews of Hamedan where you were born and their relationship with the site where Esther and Mordechai are buried?
The Shrine of Esther and Mordechai, which was commonly called "Naavi" by the Hamedani Jews, was historically the center of all Jewish communities living in Hamedan for millennia. As you can see in pre-20th century photographs and paintings, available on the internet, the area around the Naavi was very large, while the whole thing was on the edge of town. In those times, the west of Naavi was considered to be outside the town, where nearby prosperous villages were scattered all around it. Before mid-20th century, most of the Iranians - like percent - lived in the villages where the agrarian and feudalistic economy prevailed and therefore the cities were relatively small.
Most of the Jews lived in the cities because they were not welcomed or allowed in the main economic sector of the great landowners, royal and feudal lords, and tribal khans. Jews were mostly small and medium merchants, doctors, medicine producers or sellers, jewelers, or the like. At times, the Jews thrived but would be periodically disowned, exiled, pressured or simply "put in their places" by the Muslim majority. The 1979 Islamic revolution was one of these periodical examples, albeit the largest in memory.
The lands around the ancient Naavi were gradually taken away, but until the early 20th Century people remember tens of acres still belonging to the Naavi. Most of these lands were used as Jewish cemeteries until the 1920s and I presume that there are countless ancient bodies buried within a radius of hundreds of yards from the Naavi building.
From your knowledge and youth, how was Purim celebrated in Iran among the Jews prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution?
Purim related activities, like all other Jewish ceremonies were relatively quiet and private because the Jews of Iran feared Muslim rage. The Alliance Jewish school for example was closed on Purim, while some women and children would gather inside the small shrine of Esther and Mordechai’s tomb to pray and tell the Purim story. It was led by women organizers like Neneh Ghezi Khanoom Eghbal. Most people, would bake sweet bread and send it to relatives' homes, while brides would receive all kinds of gifts from their families on Purim. You could say that Purim was mostly a women's celebration, with Queen Esther at the center of it.
Women would make dolls of Haman and hit them against the floors whenever Haman's name was mentioned in synagogues or gatherings as they were sitting on the ground. I also remember however, that in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a Jewish school in Tehran, named the Ettefaugh and built by Iraqi Jews who had been expelled from that country, had an annual Purim masquerade ball, which was even emceed by the popular radio host of the children’s program. All Jewish schools had Purim events and plays until the 1979 Islamic revolution.
What has the Iranian regime and the authorities in the city of Hamedan done as far as the Esther and Mordechai burial site and Jewish cemeteries in the city since the 1979 revolution in Iran?
Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, one of whose declared aims was Islamizing the country, ensuring Islamic supremacy and honor and eradicating the growing minority communities, 90-percent of the Jews left the country in a gradual emigration due to open discrimination and pressures designed to take over their wealth and property and to run them out of the "Islamic Land".
According to Maurice Motamed, a member of the board of directors of the Tehran Jewish Association - officially the organization responsible for all Iranian Jews, the Hamedan municipal authorities began contacting the Jewish leadership about their "need" for taking over the city’s Jewish cemetery in 1985 and 1986 at the height of the Iran-Iraq war and the revolutionary Islamic fervor sweeping the country. During several months of shuttling between Tehran and Hamedan, the Jews lost their case and the Hamedan city officials decided to convert the last Jewish cemetery into a public park, in a country and region with huge unused and available land! Jewish cemeteries in Iran, usually were purchased land and had actual deeds, and that is how the Tehran Jewish cemetery was saved from the same fate just in return for offering its unused section to the city of Tehran during the "moderate" Khatami government and his popular Tehran mayor, Karbas-chi, following President Rafsanjani's fly over of the Jewish cemetery!
Can you share with us what happened to the old Jewish cemetery in Hamedan located near the Esther and Mordechai shrine under the current Iranian regime?
The Hamedan Jewish cemetery did not have a deed and so was easy to take over. Unlike the old days, this time there was no compensation, either in cash or in kind, but at least they agreed to leave the new graves which according to Jewish law were considered sacred for 40 years, to remain untouched. The older graves were covered by dirt and planted over and are now forming the main part of the new public park called "Park-eh Laleh", about 800 meters away from the Naavi in a straight line. The remains of the deceased have been left in place. The more recent graves were originally separated from the park by a fence, but recent pictures show many gravestones in place with the public using them as seats or walking over them. One can presume that as time passes and the 40-year limit expires, the remaining graves will also be removed or covered. As far as pictures have shown, the last grave in this last cemetery dates back to 1982. A recent visitor who had asked some young Iranians in the "park" about who these gravestones with strange writings had belonged to, was told the these were some Chinese who used to live in Hamedan!
In May 2020, arsonists fire bombed the synagogue next to the Esther and Mordechai tombs. Can you share some of the other past instances where the tombs were attacked by Muslim radicals in the area?
There have been two other times when the shrine has been threatened and marked for destruction by Muslim fanatics. The first time in memory was during World War two when the Farsi language Radio Berlin incited "fellow" Aryans to destroy the shrine and take revenge for Purim's events when the Jews and their Persian allies had destroyed their enemies led by Haman whom the Hitlerites claimed as an Aryan. The second time began during the presidency of the Holocaust denying Ahmadinejad who incited the people again. This legacy has continued beyond Ahmadinejad and once every few years, we have seen hateful articles in Iranian sources inside and outside Iran, while Islamic Militia students of the Hamedan University have attempted attacks on the shrine several times.
How does the Iranian regime today twist the story of Purim to advance its anti-Semitic agenda and stir Jew hatred in Iran?
The Iranian regime has repeatedly encouraged the distribution of false information about the Purim incident, by portraying Haman as "Persian" and the Jews as "anti-Persians" staging a coup against the Persian civilization. Educated scholars know this is nonsense because the oldest available sources writing about Purim-- the Book of Esther and the narrative of Josephus, have both clearly indicated Haman's non-Persian roots and have mentioned not only Mordechai's loyalty, but the participation of Persian forces and their allies all over the Empire in subduing the Haman plot.
The Islamist regime in Iran which is the representative and the remnant of the Arabic genocidal invasion and colonization of Persia, has from its beginning declared its pride in the destruction of the pre-Islamic Persian civilization and only pretends to be patriotic when it comes to demonizing the Jews. For about one thousand years after the Purim incident the Jews lived under the Persian dynasties and served them as governors, soldiers and even had more than one queen mothering future Persian kings. During these times the Persians never brought up such false Purim accusations against the Jews, until the anti-Semites and pro-Hitler figures in Iran invented false narratives in the 20th century and the Islamic regime’s propagandists revived them in the past decades for their present day use.