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HOW JEW-FRIENDLY PERSIA BECAME ANTI-SEMITIC IRAN

The complex tale of how the Persian Empire founded by Cyrus the Great—the world’s “first” Zionist—metamorphosed into the Israel-Hating nation we know today.
Moment ROBERT S. GREENBERGER June 14, 2013 in 2006 November-December, Politics
Rachel Safier contributed to the reporting of this story

Abdol Hossein Sardari didn’t look like a hero. But when Paris fell to Hitler in June 1940, the 30-year-old Muslim—a dapper man with a receding hairline—took it upon himself to save Jews trapped inside Nazi-occupied France. Sardari, a junior official at the Iranian Embassy, had been left behind to look after the building when the Iranian ambassador and his staff abandoned Paris to establish residence in Vichy, the new home of France’s pro-Nazi government. Once the Nazis began rounding up Jews, Sardari, without authorization from his government, made liberal use of the embassy’s supply of blank Iranian passports to assign new, non-Jewish identities to those in need, creating his own version of Schindler’s list.

Ibrahim Morady, who died this past June in Los Angeles at the age of 95, was one of the hundreds of Jews Sardari helped spare from deportation. “My father moved to Paris from Persia when he was six,” recounts his son Fred. Once Morady, a well-to-do rug merchant, had his new identity, he and two colleagues arranged to purchase false papers for about 100 other Jews of Iranian descent. Sardari served as their go-between, passing a bribe to a German official. In return, these Jews were given documents asserting that they were members of “some strange tribe in Iran—Djouguti, or something like that,” Fred Morady explains. “I asked my father: ‘What does this name mean?’ And he said: ‘They just made it up.’”

Sardari was not the only Iranian to protect Jews during World War II. The Iranian government itself kept its 3,000-year-old Jewish community out of Nazi reach. But his heroism is representative of Iran’s civilized and empathetic attitude toward its Jews.

This attitude stands in marked contrast to the vitriolic Islamic Republic of Iran led by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that we hear and read about today. The world was stunned when Ahmadinejad, the former mayor of Tehran, felled an Iranian political giant—Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—in the 2005 presidential election. Ahmadinejad, a radically conservative veteran of the Revolutionary Guards, an arm of the country’s Islamic establishment, quickly became a confrontational presence. Standing aside a banner that read “The World Without Zionism,” he whipped up a crowd of 4,000 students at an October 2005 conference in Tehran. “Our dear Imam ordered that the occupying regime in Al Quds be wiped off the face of the earth,” Ahmadinejad declared, referring to the late Ayatollah Khomeini and using the Arabic name for Jerusalem. “Anyone who would recognize this state has put his signature under the defeat of the Islamic world.”

The president also garnered world headlines when he publicly pronounced the Holocaust a “myth.” He has since slightly toned down his rhetoric, questioning why, if the Holocaust happened, the Palestinians should suffer for it. “Under the pretext of protecting some of the survivors of the war, the land of Palestine was occupied through war, aggression and the displacement of millions of its inhabitants,” he told the United Nations General Assembly this September, ignoring the historic presence of Jews in Palestine.

When it comes to the Jews, Abdol Hossein Sardari and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad represent the two faces of Iran. This Muslim, but not Arab, country that protected its Jews from the Holocaust now questions whether that genocide ever occurred. Once one of Israel’s closest Muslim allies, Iran now seeks to wipe the “Zionist entity” off the map. Tens of thousands of its Jews have left, yet Iran still retains the largest Jewish population of any Muslim country.

These contradictions have been embedded in the country’s history since ancient times. “In a sense, the story of the Jews of Iran is literally the Bible itself,” says Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University and co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution. “The Bible says God asked Cyrus the Great [the founder of the Persian Empire] to build the Second Temple and Cyrus did. And Esther, a Jew married to the king of Persia, exposed the anti-Semitic, genocidal plot of Haman [his chief minister], and it was aborted. These two tendencies—the Hamanic anti-Semitic tendency and the tendency to welcome and accept the Jews and the rights that they have—have come all the way to the 21st century.”

The first charter of human rights ever set to paper predates the Magna Carta by some 1,700 years. It was drafted not within the baronial estates of medieval England but in a desert palace in the Middle East. “I announce that I will respect the traditions, customs and religions of the nations of my empire,” proclaimed Cyrus upon entering the gates of Babylon on the first day of spring in 539 B.C.E., “and never let any of my governors and subordinates look down on or insult them.”

Cyrus’s reign is warmly remembered as the Persian equivalent of Camelot, the mythical English court ruled by King Arthur. “Iranians take a lot of pride in the old civilization started by Cyrus,” says Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian-American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles. “He was extremely tolerant of other beliefs and ideologies; that, too, is an added measure of pride.”

Cyrus is also sometimes referred to as the world’s first Zionist. He righted the wrong done by King Nebuchadnezzar II 58 years earlier when he captured Jerusalem and Judah, and exiled thousands of Jews. “All the kingdoms of the earth the Lord, the God of heaven, has given to me and he has also charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah,” Cyrus declared. He offered the Jews the opportunity to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple at Persian taxpayer expense. Many accepted, while others remained in Persia.

Typically depicted as a bearded warrior-king with broad shoulders in a military tunic and helmet, Cyrus was killed in 529 B.C.E. in a battle in northern Persia. The Jews fared less well under his son, Cambyses II, who suspended construction of the Temple. But a few years later, work was resumed under King Darius. According to the Bible, Esther was the beloved wife of Darius’s son. Xerxes, also known as Ahasuerus.

Overall, life was good for the Jewish community under the early Persian kings. “From what we know, the Jews were well trusted and tolerated,” says Houman Sarshar, a scholar with the Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History who edited an anthology called Esther’s Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews. He points to the prominence of Jewish prophets in the Persian Empire and notes that Ezra held the respected job of scribe in the royal court. “The Jews weren’t seen as a threat to anyone else’s way of life,” Sarshar says. But with the advent of Islam their world would change.

A battle in 642 C.E., which Arabs hail as the “victory of victories,” brought an end to the golden age of Persian Jews. Some 30,000 battle-hardened Arab Muslims assembled at Nehavend, along the western Persian border, and defeated the 150,000-man Persian army, ending 2,000 years of Persian independence. The caliphate was then controlled from Damascus and Baghdad.

Although Muslims revered Jews as “the people of the Book,” the imposition of Islam led to second-class citizenship for Persia’s minorities—Jews, Zoroastrians, and Armenian and Assyrian Christians. “After the rapid expansion of the Muslim dominion, Muslim leaders were required to find a way of handling non-Muslims, who remained in the majority in many areas,” says Nahid Pirnazar, who teaches Iranian studies at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles and is founder and director of the House of Judeo-Persian Manuscripts Foundation. As a way of both protecting and discriminating against minorities, Islamic leaders came up with the notion of dhimma, or protected minorities. “The dhimmi were required to pay an extra tax but usually were unmolested,” says Pirnazar. “This compares well to the treatment meted out to non-Christians in Christian Europe.”

Over time, the list of hardships and humiliations grew. The Pact of Umar, named after the reigning leader from 634 to 644 C.E., established harsher laws for non-Muslims. Jews were barred from government office and the military, and forbidden to ride on white donkeys, which were seen as symbols of cleanliness. They were forced to wear yellow armbands, while Christians had to don blue ones.

After the Mongols invaded Persia in the second half of the 13th century, the standing of the country’s Jews improved dramatically. “This period was the highlight of the life of Jews in Islamic Iran,” says Pirnazar. “The Mongol rulers at the time were secular, not yet converted to Islam, so Jews had a chance to penetrate into socio-political and cultural levels.”

This didn’t last. Treatment of minorities deteriorated after the Safavids took power in the 1500s, imposing their hard-line brand of Shia Islam and ushering in “the worst era of Persian-Jewish relations,” says political scientist Eliz Sanasarian of the University of Southern California, author of Religious Minorities in Iran.

The Safavids forcibly converted Iran’s Sunni Muslims to Shia Islam and introduced the concept of “ritual pollution,” which further segregated minorities from their neighbors. Because nonbelievers were deemed spiritually and physically contagious, Jews were barred from leaving their houses when it rained, for fear the water would transmit their impurities. A Jew who entered a Muslim home had to sit on a special rug and could not be offered tea, food or a water pipe, since any object touched by a Jew could no longer be used by a Muslim.

Safavid rule came to an end in 1736, but the Muslim perception of Jews as impure remained. Occasional violent outbreaks, reminiscent of the blood libels and pogroms carried out in Europe, punctuated the next two centuries of Qajar Dynasty rule. In one incident in the northeastern town of Mashhad in 1839, an ailing Jewish woman was told to use dogs’ blood to cure a certain malady. A rumor quickly spread that she had tried the cure on a Shia holiday, deliberately insulting the sect. Jews were attacked and some three dozen killed, while the rest of the Jewish community was given the choice of conversion to Islam or death. Such bloody outbreaks persisted until the 20th century, when a new breed of shah came to power.

Born in the isolated northern Persian village of Alasht in 1878, Reza Pahlavi was the son of a military officer. Pahlavi was a man of powerful military bearing, most often portrayed with a thick handlebar mustache and a curved knife hanging from his scabbard. In 1925, he deposed the last shah of the Qajar Dynasty, giving himself the title Reza Shah.

For the first time in 1,400 years, an Iranian ruler reached out to his country’s Jews, bowing to the Torah to show his respect during a visit to the Jewish community of Isfahan, banning mass conversions and discouraging the idea that non-Muslims were unclean.

While respectful of Iran’s Jews, Reza Shah was fascinated by Nazi Germany. With German encouragement—and to emphasize that Persians are Aryan, not Arab—he changed the country’s name to Iran—from the old Persian “Arynam” or “of the Aryans.”   (See  Hitler and Reza Shah: Mullahs and Pro-Israel Writers Sing Together  by Amir Taheri   for the name change and the swastika background)

Iran, sitting of vast pools of oil, became of great strategic importance during World War II. Hitler coveted the oil, sparking fears of an Iranian-German alliance. As a result, Britain and the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Iran in 1941, forcing the Shah to abdicate in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Though the younger Pahlavi was seen as a playboy more interested in fast cars than in governing, he had a bold vision for his nation.

A man of grandiose self-image, the new Shah viewed himself as heir to Cyrus the Great and as such was a friend of the Jews. Under his rule, the community “enjoyed almost total cultural and religious autonomy, experienced unprecedented economic progress and had more or less the same political rights as their Muslim compatriots,” says David Menashri, a Tel Aviv University expert on Iran.

To protect them from the Nazis, Iran assured the Germans that its Jews were fully assimilated Iranians called kalimis—a term derived from the accolade for Moses in Koran. The Nazis, still more interested in Iran’s oil, acquiesced, and also turned a blind eye to the fact that the Shah was providing an escape route for thousands of European Jewish refugees.

Rachel Meer, a Jewish Iranian expatriate who lives on the upper west side of Manhattan, remembers her father telling her the story of how, during World War II, he helped Jews pass through Iran. “He purchased a huge army tent to protect these refugees,” she says. “When he married my mother, the Jews traveling through were invited to the wedding.” Later, when great numbers of Iraqi Jews left their homes for the newly born state of Israel, they too were granted passage, says Shaul Bakhash, a veteran Mideast analyst at George Mason University in Virginia. “Iran was one of the few countries that did not charge the Zionist organization for this permission.”

At first Iran had opposed the partition of Palestine, says Trita Parsi, author of the forthcoming book Treacherous Triangle—The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States. “But once it was done, Iran and Israel realized they had common interests and common enemies.” In the 1960s, Iran developed a military relationship with Israel and Israeli technicians assisted Iran with agricultural projects. Both nations, wary of Arab domination of the Middle East, saw value in creating a non-Arab “outer ring,” consisting of Iran, Israel, Turkey and Ethiopia.

With the exception of Turkey, Iran stood virtually alone in the Middle East in its acceptance of the state of Israel. But in doing so, the Shah walked a fine line. As Iran’s covert ties with Israel became public, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser launched a campaign against the Shah. At home, his efforts to westernize Iran faced opposition from mullahs—Iran’s Islamic clerics—on the right and intellectuals on the left, all of whom condemned his government as repressive.

After Israel seized and occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and East Jerusalem during the 1967 Six-Day War, the Iranian clergy’s antipathy toward Israel increased sharply. “1967 changed many minds,” says Menashri. He recounts the story of the 200-rial banknote to illustrate the Shah’s precarious position.

It was 1974, a time of great tension: Arab oil-producing nations had imposed an oil embargo on the West, but the Shah, wishing to maintain his strategic alliance with Washington and Jerusalem, refused to stop supplying them with oil. The Arabs were incensed. What seemed like routine government business—the replenishment of currency by issuing 10 million new 200-rial notes—quickly grew into a crisis. On the day the new currency was to be distributed to banks, attention fell on a six-pointed star on the back of the bill. Though the star was of a traditional Iranian design, rumors spread that the currency had been printed in Israel. Fearing rebellion, the government withdrew the notes that same day.

Protests against the Shah continued to escalate and the storm clouds of revolution gathered. “The revolution did not have Islamic overtones at first—it was a revolution of the intelligentsia and it was pro-democracy,” recalls Esther’s Children author Sarshar. “But, very quickly, in about two or three months, all the craziness started.” While many Jews were sympathetic to the protestors, the community was seen as an ally to the Shah and part of the ruling establishment—thus an enemy of the revolution.

The most influential of the revolutionaries was a religious leader with a flowing beard who sat brooding in exile in a Parisian suburb: Ayatollah Rohollah Mousavi Khomeini. Born in 1902 near the holy city of Qom, Khomeini had been exiled from Iran in 1964 for condemning the Shah’s modernization policies. After 13 years in Iraq, he moved to France, where he continued to challenge the regime. Via smuggled audiotapes of his sermons, he fanned the swelling protests against the Shah’s regime from afar and inspired Iran’s Islamic Revolution.

By 1978, widespread strikes had led to the collapse of the economy and, on December 12, two million protestors gathered on Tehran’s Azadi Square. On January 16, 1979, the Shah fled Iran into exile. Two weeks later, enormous crowds greeted Khomeini’s triumphant return to Tehran on a chartered Air France airliner. That November 4, a mob of angry students, spurred on by his denouncement of the United States as an enemy of Islam stormed the American Embassy, taking 66 Americans hostage. The demonstrators included a young rabble-rouser named Ahmadinejad who also advocated seizing the Soviet Embassy. A new age of Islamic fundamentalism for Iran had begun, spelling great uncertainty for its 80,000 Jews.

As a skinny, brainy Tehran teenager in the 1970s, Roya Hakakian was one of many young Jews who supported the Islamic Revolution despite the nervous admonitions of their parents. For them, participation was not only an adventure but affirmation they were fully assimilated Iranians. Hakakian, now a 39-year-old mother in Connecticut, has written a memoir, Journey From the Land of No, that provides a glimpse into the turmoil that followed the Revolution.

Initially, the Islamists were too busy imposing their rules on society at large to worry about the Jews. “People weren’t permitted to laugh on the streets on certain national mourning days; it was a crime to be with a boy you weren’t related to; we had to cover our heads and we couldn’t hold hands,” Hakakian recalls. Women couldn’t appear in public without a veil and garments like the chador that revealed not a clue of femininity. Women also lost the right to divorce, and most engineering and law schools began refusing them admission. People could be arrested—and sometimes executed—for possession of books such as The Communist Manifesto, or music cassettes. “Those were the Khmer Rouge days,” Hakakian says.

Hakakian’s first brush with the new order came when she and a few friends went for a hike in a public park in the Alborz, part of a mountain range outside Tehran. Encountering a sign that said the mountain was “closed,” they giggled and ignored it. As they ascended, some of the girls loosened their mandatory head scarves. Soon, they were stopped by a teenager in army fatigues toting a Kalashnikov, who demanded to know what they were doing. Three other uniformed men joined him and took the group to a detention center. There, a policeman found a Jewish prayerbook in Hakakian’s pocketbook; ironically, that broke the tension. “Jews are cowards,” one of the uniformed men said. “They never get mixed up in politics. And we thought we’d got ourselves a pack of leftists or royalists.” The girls were sent home.

“For once in Jewish history,” says Hakakian wryly, “Jewish stereotypes came to our aid.”

In the evenings, she and her friends would watch the show trials on television. Former leaders of the Shah’s government, stripped of their dignity and wearing cardboard signs with their names around their necks, were charged with offenses like “corruption on earth,” and taken to be shot. In March 1979, the spectacle hit close to home. Habib Elghanian, an industrialist who led the Jewish community council, was accused of corruption, contacts with Israel and Zionism, “friendship with the enemies of God,” “warring with God and his emissaries” and “economic imperialism.” He was tried by an Islamic revolutionary tribunal whose members kept their backs to him, refusing to look a traitor in the face.

Shot by firing squad on May 8, Elghanian was the first private citizen in Iran to be executed by the tribunal. His real crime was that he had failed to follow established custom for Jews and maintain a low profile. He had become a prominent figure under the Shah: While most well-off Iranian Jews were merchants with small businesses, Elghanian, owner of a huge conglomerate with interests in plastics, tile and aluminum, was a mogul. He even built a huge skyscraper in Tehran’s business district.

Within days of his execution, leaders of the Iranian Jewish community selected a delegation to meet with Khomeini. They chose two rabbis and four intellectuals, some of whom had joined the early street demonstrations against the Shah. Early one morning, the six men climbed into a station wagon and drove to Qom, one of them later told Hakakian’s father.

When they arrived, they were surprised to find that Khomeini, still not accustomed to the trappings of power, had cleared his calendar for their visit. As they seated themselves on folded blankets in a reception room, the Ayatollah entered. “Bism Allah al-Rahman al-Rahim,” one of the rabbis addressed him, invoking the name of God in Arabic in deference.

Khomeini began a long, roundabout discourse on subjects ranging from monotheism to how a man should choose a wife, to how to properly copulate, puzzling his Jewish audience. But when the Ayatollah completed his talk, his meaning became clear. “Moses would have nothing to do with these Pharaoh-like Zionists who run Israel,” he said. “And our Jews, the descendants of Moses, have nothing to do with them, either. We recognize our Jews as separate from those godless Zionists.”

When the Jewish delegation returned to Tehran, they spread the word: The Ayatollah had made Iran’s Jews kosher in the eyes of the Revolution. Soon all synagogues were painted with Khomeini’s decree and the Jews of Iran renounced Zionism.

True to its rhetoric, the Islamic Republic severed all official ties with Israel, but a clandestine relationship continued. Though Yasser Arafat was invited to Tehran and spoke of the plight of the mostly Sunni Palestinians, the Shia-Sunni divide and the fact that the Palestine Liberation Organization was largely secular meant that Iran’s support for the Palestinians was always lukewarm. Privately, Iran and Israel shared a common fear of the Arab states, especially Iraq. Israel sold Iran arms throughout the eight-year Iraq-Iran war.

In 1985, in the middle of that war, then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres helped broker a deal between the Reagan Administration and Iran. The agreement allowed the sale of American arms, including anti-tank missiles, to the Islamic Republic. In exchange, the United States sought Iranian influence to free Western hostages held by Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese group supported by Iran. (It also used the Iranian money to fund the anti-Communist Contra rebels in Nicaragua.) When news of the deal surfaced, the Reagan Administration was embarrassed and politically damaged—both the United States and Israel had previously denied selling arms to the Islamic Republic.

At the end of the Cold War, Israel had a change of heart and concluded that Iran had become a major threat to its security. With Iraq severely weakened by its defeat in the Gulf War, Israeli strategists focused on Iran’s quest for long-range missiles and nuclear weapons as well as Iranian funding of Hezbollah. At press conferences in Jerusalem and during many visits to Washington in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Yitzhak Rabin began emphasizing his desire to make peace with the Palestinians and with Syria because an even greater danger loomed: a nuclear Iran.

In 1977, Abbas Milani, then a political scientist at Tehran University, was arrested by the Shah’s police and thrown in jail. Considered a dangerous leftist academic, Milani shared a cell with some of the men who would become the leaders of the Islamic Revolution, including one of Ahmadinejad’s predecessors, Rafsanjani. Recalling his incarceration with the Islamists, he says bluntly, “I couldn’t stand them and they couldn’t stand me.”

Milani, who is not Jewish, left Iran for the United States in 1986, after the first waves of Iranian Jews fled the Revolution. He remembers that he first came to understand the special penalties that Iranian Jews faced under the mullahs when an Iranian friend, a prominent astrophysicist at Cambridge University, was invited to attend a conference in Tehran in 1982. The Iranian authorities had assured the young man he would have no problem returning to Britain, but because he was Jewish, they seized his passport upon his arrival and refused to return it.

“The poor guy had a wife and baby in England and they wouldn’t let him leave,” recalls Milani, who later discovered that the Islamic Republic had an unofficial policy of denying passports to young Iranian Jews to coerce their families into returning home after traveling abroad. They were in effect held hostage. “You can’t be a human being without feeling offended that this is happening in your name in your country,” says Milani.

Since the Islamic Revolution, approximately 75 percent of Iran’s Jews have fled the country. Estimates of the number that remain vary from 13,000 (the U.S. State Department’s 2005 International Religious Freedom Report, based on the most recent Iranian census) to the 25,000 to 30,000 claimed by the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, a non-profit group based in New Haven, Connecticut. The difference, the Center says, stems from the fact that many Jews in Iran do not wish to call attention to their heritage.

Whatever their number, Jews make up a tiny and vulnerable fraction of Iran’s population of nearly 70 million. “Personally, I am very much concerned about attacks on Iranian Jews,” says George Haroonian, former president of the Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations (CIAJO), a group of outspoken Iranian expatriates that advocates for the rights of Iran’s remaining Jews. “It’s my viewpoint that Iranian Jews are in a very precarious situation.”

CIAJO reports that since 1979, 10 Jews in addition to Elghanian have been executed, six have been assassinated by the regime, two have died as a result of being held in custody, eight have died under suspicious circumstances and 12 have disappeared.

The situation has become increasingly worse, says Haroonian. He points to the trial in 2000 of 13 Jews from Shiraz and Isfahan accused of illegal contact with Israel, conspiracy to form an illegal organization and recruiting agents, which provoked vandalism and boycotts of Jewish businesses. “This was the largest wholesale attack against the Jewish community,” Haroonian says. Ten of those charged were found guilty, although espionage charges were dropped and an appeals court overturned all the convictions but those for illegal contacts with Israel. By 2003 all had been released from prison; 10 remain on probation.

Iran has seen a recent wave of anti-Semitic propaganda masquerading as anti-Zionism in print, on television and within the educational system, heavily influencing what Iranians—a quarter of them under 15—learn about their Jewish neighbors. Last February, Iran’s largest newspaper Hamshahri sponsored an international Holocaust cartoon contest that solicited sinister anti-Semitic entries that were widely displayed. In 2000, the Al-Manar television station aired a claymation special in which Jews were turned into apes and pigs. In 2004, the station Sahar 1 aired a weekly series Zahra’s Blue Eyes, also called For You, Palestine, in which the Israeli government is depicted as removing the blue eyes of Palestinian children for implantation into Jewish children. The claymation program “doesn’t say ‘all Jews are cursed,’” notes Yehudit Barsky, director of the Middle East and International Terrorism section of the American Jewish Committee. “It doesn’t say the Jewish person next door is evil. But still, the selection of this story is saying there were Jews who were evil and were punished. It’s a message of an insidious nature, not a direct nature.”

As the line between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism becomes increasingly blurred, the Jews who remain in Iran continue to stick to the Khomeini formula. “The Iranian Jewish community has gone out of its way to condemn the state of Israel, including the recent war with Hezbollah,” says Nahid Pirnazar. Catholic University law professor Marshall Breger, who visited Tehran and Shiraz in 2003, says that the Iranian Jews he met expressed regard and affection for the people of Israel, but were not political Zionists. “They were creating what I would call Judaism without Israel,” he explains. “It’s not unknown. People would say, ‘it’s no problem to be a Jew’ but the more observant wouldn’t wear a kippah outside because people in Iran know kippahs as a symbol of the Israel Defense Forces.”

While Iranian Jews are loath to speak out in defense of Israel, they do occasionally draw attention to other matters, such as anti-Jewish stereotypes in the media and the government’s campaign denying the Holocaust. Earlier this year, Haroun Yashayaei, chair of the Tehran Jewish community, sent an extremely rare letter of protest to Ahmadinejad, expressing concern about the president’s statements about the Holocaust. His objections were seconded by Maurice Motamed, who holds the one seat allotted to Jews in the country’s 290-member parliament.

“When our president spoke about the Holocaust, I considered it my duty as a Jew to speak about this issue,” Motamed told the British newspaper The Guardian in a June 2006 interview. “The biggest disaster in human history is based on tens of thousands of films and documents. I said these remarks are a big insult to the whole Jewish society in Iran and the whole world.”

Motamed, an engineer, made clear to The Guardian that although he took issue with Ahmadinejad over the Holocaust, he supports the president on other issues, including the standoff with the United States, Europe and Israel over Iran’s nuclear program. “I am an Iranian first and a Jew second,” he stressed. Although he acknowledged that Jews in Iran face problems, he assured readers that “there is no pressure on synagogues, no problems of desecration. I think the problem in Europe is worse than here. There is a lot of anti-Semitism in other countries.”

Similar sentiments can be found on the Jewish Central Committee of Iran’s website, iranjewish.com. “Iran’s Jewish community congratulates the achievement of nuclear fuel to the supreme leader, the Islamic Republic officials and all Iranians,” a May 2006 entry reads. “We celebrate the coincident of this victory with the New Year and the unforgettable days of Passover.”

Generally, Jews who have chosen to stay in Iran say that they are content and have no wish to leave their homeland. Tehran has more than a dozen active synagogues, and large groups of Jews also live in Shiraz and Isfahan. “Jews stay in Iran because they have their jobs, their lives and they love it,” says Shirin Taleh, a family therapist who left Iran in 2001 with her children to join the rest of her family in California and has visited twice since then, including a stay earlier this year.

Taleh believes her children will have more opportunities in the United States but dearly misses the country of her birth. She balks at the notion that Iran discriminates against Jews. “I would say ‘limitation’ rather than ‘discrimination.’ Two words, two meanings. Limitations for everyone, not just the Jewish community. We have some freedoms that the Muslims don’t have. Men and women mix. We are allowed to use alcohol for religious purposes. I don’t claim everything is OK. Everybody in the world abuses the name of the Jews. It’s an old problem between Muslims and Jews.” But, she makes clear, “I don’t know anything about political issues. I don’t want to go there.”

The decision to remain in Iran may not be measurable in rational ways. In 1998, when Manochehr Eliasi, Motamed’s predecessor as the Jewish member of parliament, was asked by a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter why Jews don’t leave, he burst into tears. “This is my birthplace,” Eliasi said. “I love its smell.”

In many ways, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the sixth president of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the first non-cleric president in 24 years, is an exemplary product of modern Iran. Born to a modest family in a small village, he capitalized on high test scores to enter the civil engineering program at the Iran University of Science and Technology during the reign of the Shah. Later, he received his doctorate in a program funded by the Revolutionary Guards. With 12 percent of voters participating, he won the mayor’s office in 2003.

This 50-year-old newcomer to the world stage shocked analysts during his recent visit to the United Nations, not only by his hardline address to the General Assembly but by his seeming enjoyment of the limelight. He parried questions at a press conference, deftly handled CNN’s Anderson Cooper during a televised interview and spent 90 minutes jousting with two dozen members of the Council on Foreign Relations. He stayed on message: The New York Times reported that Ahmadinejad spent 40 minutes of the session challenging evidence that the Holocaust took place. “I think we should allow more impartial studies to be done on this,” he said after hearing the account of a Jewish member of the Council who saw the Dachau concentration camp at the end of World War II. After the meeting, former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft described Ahmadinejad to The New York Times as “a master of counterpunch, deception, circumlocution.”

Milani, who has followed Ahmadinejad’s rise to power, believes the Iranian president is truly anti-Semitic and is playing the Israel card to gain international attention and enhance his stature. “Had he not said those comments about the Holocaust and Israel, he would have come to the UN as a two-bit president of a despotic regime. Instead, they gave him a rock star treatment here, and it all translated into more power for him back home.”

“Not even a second-tier player” in Iran before the furor arose over his remarks, now he is world-renowned, says Milani. “The last month and a half, every time I have traveled and taken a cab, if the cab driver is Muslim and they get a whiff that I’m Iranian, they begin talking about Ahmadinejad as the man who is standing up to the Jews, to Israel and to America. It is working for him.”

Still, for all its bombastic rhetoric, Milani says he doesn’t believe the regime poses a direct threat to Iran’s Jews. “Is there a specific danger that Jews face? I don’t think so,” he says. “That kind of eliminationist anti-Semitism has never been part of Iranian history. Iranian anti-Semitism has been more or less limited to verbal pressure, verbal anti-Semitism, forcing Jews to live in ghettos, occasionally forcing them to wear the Star of David. Killings, pogroms—that’s European, not Iranian.”

Ahmadinejad’s statements about Israel and the Holocaust may have more to do with political pragmatism than anything else. A man of a secular background, he must show the mullahs that he is as staunch an Islamist as they are; to mix religious metaphors, he has to be more Catholic than the Pope.

His outspokenness has advantages for the mullahs and the Supreme Leader they elect, who holds most of the real power. Seizing the limelight allows non-Arab Iran to pursue its goal of becoming the leader of the mostly Arab Middle East. And Ahmadinejad’s vitriol makes the mullahs seem almost moderate by comparison.

His combativeness has another upside: it serves to shift attention from economic problems at home. Despite a huge rise in oil revenues, there is grumbling in Tehran’s streets about economic conditions, reflecting the gross inefficiency of its bloated bureaucracy and centralized economy. Despite Iran’s oil wealth and bravado, the government fears Western economic sanctions that would force it to spend more to subsidize food and fuel.

Growing speculation about a nuclear showdown in the Middle East is premature, according to Milani. “I don’t see them picking on Israel militarily because they know that they will pay a very heavy price,” he says. “Even in arming Hezbollah, they’ve been very careful. They have allowed Hezbollah to become more of a nuisance, they have given them more staying power, but not any weapon that could seriously change the balance with Israel or make Hezbollah a more lethal threat. I think the war in one sense was a big loss for the Iranians. They won a publicity war but not much else.”

Scholar Trita Parsi agrees. “Israel is a means for Iran, just as Iran is a means for Israel.”

And Parsi doesn’t believe that the Iranian people would support a war against Israel. “I think the larger feeling among the population is that it’s really not Iran’s main problem. People don’t like what Israel is doing [in the occupied territories] but they don’t like Arabs, either. A poll says that 67 percent of Iranians say that Israel does not have right to exist. But does that mean that they think Iran has to do anything about this? I don’t think so.”

Nonetheless, many Iranian expatriates long for regime change. Houman Sarshar doubts the voices calling for change inside Iran will remain silent. “A population of 75 million—with approximately 50 million born after 1978—is being run by a population of mullahs 60 and 70-plus [years old]. If only 60 percent [of the population] wants a completely secular government, then it’s over,” he says.

Milani believes that without $70-per-barrel oil, the regime would not survive long. “The age of pseudo-totalitarian corrupt dictatorships has come to an end,” he says. “The majority of Iranian society doesn’t want it. But tactically this is a very nimble regime, very brutal, and it has a lot of money.”

However, Jerusalem-based Middle East analyst Meir Javedanfar, co-author of the forthcoming book The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran, believes the chance of regime change is small. “Iranians are suffering from conflict fatigue after the Islamic Revolution, followed by one of the longest wars in modern history. They are tired. And there’s no alternative. Who are they going to revolt for? People don’t want chaos—who is going to give them hope? Who are they going to die for? Don’t expect Tiananmen.”

Iranians are upset that the government has shut down blogs as well as Shargh, the reformist newspaper. “It makes people angry. But go to the streets to revolt?” says Javedanfar. “Only two things would make a revolution overnight. One: Shoot the entire Iranian football team. Two: Ban the sale and eating of Persian rice. Then you will have a revolution on your hands. Until then, as they say in New Jersey, fuggedaboutit.”

As Mahmoud Ahmadinejad commands the world’s attention, Abdol Hossein Sardari, who died in 1981, has been all but forgotten. When the courageous diplomat returned to Iran after the war, he was imprisoned for the unauthorized distribution of passports, says George Hooranian. “After 30 days he was released by the Shah. The Shah said he did a good deed. He saved people’s lives.”

There is no memorial to Sardari in Iran, or until recently, anywhere else, says Haroonian. In 2004, Iranians living in the United States organized two Yom Hashoah events to honor the diplomat. One was at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, the other at the Nessah Educational and Cultural Center in Beverly Hills. A cut glass tablet reads: “In memory of and admiration of his humanitarian and courageous efforts that led to the saving of many innocent lives while serving as the Iranian Consul in France during World War II.”

Inspired by Sardari’s deeds, and angry that he has received so little recognition, Hooranian collected hundreds of pages of documents and personally delivered them to Yad Vashem in Israel. He would like for Sardari to be become the first Iranian bestowed with the designation of Righteous Among the Nations, a title awarded to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

The public committee that decides who should be given this honor has discussed Sardari’s case twice, and reports that it is “very interesting.” A decision has not yet been made, pending further documentation. But the necessary information is not forthcoming; the Iranian government has refused to cooperate.

“How sad,” says Haroonian, “that Sardari—and what he represents—cannot be honored in Iran.”

See also    Iran–Israel proxy conflict  Wikipedia
Iran–Israel relations    Wikipedia    

 

THE JEWS OF IRAN (PERSIA)
From  Projet Aladin

The Jewish community in Iran is among the oldest in the world. The first Jewish settlements near Ekbatana (Hamadan, western Iran) and Susa (southwest Iran) date to 721 BC. Jews fleeing persecution under the rule of the Assyrian King Nabuchadadnezzar II settled in Isfahan around 680BC.

In 539 BC, Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenian Empire, conquered Babylon and allowed the exiled Jews to go home and reconstruct the temple of Jerusalem. Some chose to remain and a movement of migration deeper into Persia began.

Jews in ancient Persia mostly lived in their own communities. Persian Jewish lived in the ancient (and until the mid-20th century still extant) communities not only of Iran, but of present-day Azerbaijan, Kirgizstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and north-western India. Scholars believe that during the peak of the Persian Empire, Jews may have comprised as much as 20% of the population.

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: "The Jews trace their heritage in Iran to the Babylonian Exile of the 6th century BC and, like the Armenians, have retained their ethnic, linguistic, and religious identity." But the Library of Congress's country study on Iran states that "Over the centuries the Jews of Iran became physically, culturally, and linguistically indistinguishable from the non-Jewish population. The overwhelming majority of Jews speak Persian as their mother language, and a tiny minority, Kurdish."

The Achaemenian rulers of Persia treated their conquered subjects leniently and a significant number of Jews rose to prominence in the imperial Persian court. History has retained the names of Zerubbabel, Erza, Nehemiah, Daniel, "Mordecai the Jew" and his niece Esther.

Alexander's conquest and domination of the Persian Empire did not radically change the situation of the Jewish communities in Persia. The next rulers of Persia, the Parthians, ruled the country for five centuries and gave the Jews broad religious, cultural or even legal autonomy.  Jewish chronicles mention the Parthian period as one of the best in their history. Centres of Jewish life in the Parthian Empire were situated in Mesopotamia, in Nisibis and Nehardea. According to Jewish records, Jews enjoyed a long period of peace and maintained close and positive contacts with the ruling Parthians. Jews fought on the side of the Parthians against the Roman armies and took an active part in organizing the silk trade, an advantage they owed to the support of the Parthian kings.

The fall of Parthian dynasty and the rise of the Sassanids ushered in five centuries of repressive policies with regard to religious minorities. Most Sassanid kings promoted Zoroastrianism in the empire and persecuted other religious communities. As a result, Jews and other religious minorities suffered. But while much is known about the Christian, Manichean and Mazdaean persecutions, the persecution in the Jewish records appears only in the fifth century. It must also be noted that in the wars between Rome and the Sassanid kings, the Jews, unlike Christians, were decidedly loyal to the Persian king.

In the mid-seventh century, Persia became a province of the Arab-Muslim Empire. The Arab conquest substituted a state religion for another, but for Jews it was a step forward. As dhimmis, they enjoyed, as elsewhere under the rule of Islam, an inferior but protected status. Their economic role was not negligible. Jews in Persia were artisans, shopkeepers, merchants and manufacturers, and the growing urbanization of the Muslim East and the growth of international trade contributed to the emergence of a new class of wealthy Jewish merchants in urban centres like Baghdad, Ahvaz, Isfahan and Shiraz. During these early centuries of Muslim domination, social unrest and religious turmoil in Persia also affected the Jewish communities.

Muslim treatment of the religious minorities varied in accordance with the policies of the caliphs and attitudes of different governors. While the Umayyad governor of Iran, Hajjaj, was ruthless in persecution of non-Muslims, others were more lenient and did not follow all the discriminatory rules. There were many Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian philosophers, physicians, scientists, musicians and administrators in the first century of the Muslim Empire. The rise of the Abbasid caliphate improved the situation of the dhimmi for a while, especially during the reign of Al Mansur. He was a devoted follower of the sciences and supported the great translation movement of the eighth century. Thousands of books were translated into Arabic from Greek, Hebrew, Persian and other languages. Iranian Jews at the time were writing dari (new Persian) in Hebrew characters.

In the twelfth century, Iranian Jews were largely involved in trade. The Jewish traveller Benjamin of Tuleda reported large Jewish and Christian communities in many of the larger cities when he visited Iran in 1157 and mentioned Jewish communities in Hamadan, Isfahan, Nahavand, Shiraz, Nishapur and Baghdad. On the whole there appears to have been little discrimination against the dhimmis other than the usual restrictions. In one incident a prominent Jew, Abu Sad Samha, successfully made a claim against Abu Shuja, the minster responsible for dhimmis. He claimed Abu Shuja had failed to protect the Jews and managed to get the Minster sacked.

In 1258, the conquest of Baghdad by the Mongols of Hulagu Khan ended the Abbasid caliphate and dramatically changed the life of Jewish communities in the region. Those were good years for the Jews of Persia, more present than ever in the economy and political affairs of the empire, and quite at ease in their cultural environment to lay the foundations for a rich literature. For the first time a substantial Judeo-Persian literature emerged.

The advent of the Safavid kings (1501), who made Shiite Islam Iran's official religion, created a dramatic new turn. Massacres and forced conversions were now the lot of Persian Jews, whose population declined sharply to less than 100,000 people. The Safavids established a rigid religious hierarchy with unlimited power and influence in every sphere of life.  Jewish chronicles from this period are full of accounts of massacre, forced conversion into Islam and mistreatment. All relations between Iranian Jews and others outside the country were severed. Christians and Zoroastrians were subjected to the same harsh treatments and Sunnis suffered most. Segregation became a reality again for all minorities and Jewish ghettos were reinforced. Jews were forced to wear both a yellow badge and a headgear, and their oaths were not accepted in courts of justice. Any Jew who converted to Islam would be recognized as the sole inheritor of the family estate, to the exclusion of all Jewish relatives.

The Qajar dynasty (1794 - 1925) continued the repressive and intolerant policies of the Safavids and the Jewish community in Iran saw little change until the nineteenth century. In 1839, the Qajar king, Muhammad Shah, ordered the entire Jewish community in the city of Mashad to convert to Islam. Europeans powers intervened for the first time and the decree was reversed.

European pressure on the Iranian government also led to the opening of the first modern Jewish school in 1891 by a royal decree from Nasser-Eddin Shah. Teachers and students had to be escorted by the police to stop Shiite zealots from attacking them.

The end of the nineteenth century witnessed a fundamental change in Iran with the advent of the Constitutional Revolution. Jewish political activists, along with other minorities, actively participated in the movement. They were instrumental in forming the first multiethnic Secret Society of 1905, which began the debate on political change. Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians and reformist Muslims fought hard in the ranks of the constitutionalists to form a National Consultative Assembly instead of an Islamic Majlis, as demanded by the religious hierarchy. Along with other religious minorities they succeeded in their efforts to ratify laws that gave equality to Muslim and non-Muslim (male) citizens and defined a new concept of citizenship not based on religious and ethnic identity. The 1906 constitution recognized Jews as a religious minority and allocated a seat in the Iranian parliament to a representative elected by the country's Jewish community.

In 1925, the advent of the Pahlavis changed the course of Iranian history. Reza Khan (1878 - 1944), the founder of the dynasty, was an officer in the Iranian army. A talented, ambitious and politically astute man, he ascended to the throne in December 1925. His rise to power marked a new era not only for the Iranian people, but also for the Jews of Iran. Under Reza Shah, the economic situation of the Jews improved. All discriminatory laws and decrees were repealed. Jews and members of other religious minorities could join the army, enrol in government schools, and live wherever they wanted. The ghettos (mahalleh) were a thing of the past.

Jews wanted to integrate themselves into Iranian society at all costs and identify with the symbols of secular nationalism, but they also wanted to remain Jewish. They loved Persian poetry and literature, appreciated Persian music and celebrated national holidays with genuine joy. They abandoned their Jewish names for Iranian names and glorified Iran's pre-Islamic past. The secular nationalist tendency, at least from the standpoint of historical and cultural consciousness, seemed to have paved the way for a rapprochement between Jews and the Iranian people.

For political reasons related to Iran's relations with the Soviet Union and Britain, Reza Shah decided to foster a closer relationship with Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Commercial and cultural ties between the two countries grew rapidly and numerous German engineers and technicians arrived in Iran to work on industrial and construction projects.

Nazi propaganda carried on Radio Berlin's Persian service emphasized the Aryan origins of the two peoples and called Jews "the inferior race" and "blood suckers of humanity." Local fascist and extreme right-wing groups collaborated with the Nazis, and all this exacerbated tensions between Jews and Muslims.

When U.S., Soviet and British forces occupied Iran in autumn 1941, the eldest son of Reza Shah, Mohammad Reza, succeeded his father. The occupation of Iran (1941-1946) marked the beginning of one of the most dynamic periods in the country's modern history. Like other composites of Iranian society, Jews resumed their political activities: they founded clubs, organized training groups and published their own newspapers. Many Persian Jews helped the "Tehran Children" and other Russian and Polish Jewish refugees who were escaping Nazi persecution by going to the British mandate of Palestine through Iran.

Iranian Jews lived through a happy and prosperous period after the Second World War and until the advent of the Islamic revolution in 1979. The Islamic Republic, hostile to the State of Israel, looked on Iranian Jews with suspicion. By the end of 2000, Islamic revolutionary courts had executed almost twenty Jews. The constitution of 1979, however, recognized the Jews as a religious minority and granted them a seat in Parliament. Iranian Jews have their own organizations, including Anjoman Kalimiyane Tehran (The Jewish Society of Tehran), which publishes a periodical, Persian Bina.

From early 1978 until the year 2000, more than 60,000 Jews left Iran, mostly from Tehran. Most of them have settled in the United States. An estimated 30,000 Jews still live in Iran today, the largest Jewish community in the Muslim world.


WHEN "PERSIA" BECAME "IRAN"

This article is a part of "Persia or Iran" by Professor Ehsan Yarshater, published in Iranian Studies, Vol. XXII, No.1, 1989.

See also:    Persia or Iran, Persian or Farsi Ehsan Y, IRANIAN STUDIES, 1989

In 1935 the Iranian government requested those countries which it had diplomatic relations with, to call Persia "Iran," which is the name of the country in Persian.

The suggestion for the change is said to have come from the Iranian ambassador to Germany, who came under the influence of the Nazis. At the time Germany was in the grip of racial fever and cultivated good relations with nations of "Aryan" blood. It is said that some German friends of the ambassador persuaded him that, as with the advent of Reza Shah, Persia had turned a new leaf in its history and had freed itself from the pernicious influences of Britain and Russia, whose interventions in Persian affairs had practically crippled the country under the Qajars, it was only fitting that the country be called by its own name, "Iran." This would not only signal a new beginning and bring home to the world the new era in Iranian history, but would also signify the Aryan race of its population, as "Iran" is a cognate of "Aryan" and derived from it.

The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent out a circular to all foreign embassies in Tehran, requesting that the country thenceforth be called "Iran." Diplomatic courtesy obliged, and by and by the name "Iran" began to appear in official correspondence and news items.

At first "Iran" sounded alien (for non-Iranians), and many failed to recognize its connection with Persia. Some (Westerners) thought that it was perhaps one of the new countries like Iraq and Jordan carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, or a country in Africa or Southeast Asia that had just been granted independence; and not a few confused it with Iraq, itself a recent entity.

As time passed and as a number of events, like the Allied invasion of Iran in 1941 and the nationalization of the oil industry under Prime Minster Dr Mohammad Mosaddeq, put the country in the headlines, the name "Iran" became generally accepted, and "Persia" fell into comparative disuse, though more slowly in Britain than in the United States.


JEWS OF IRAN: A MODERN HISTORY:   IRANIAN JEWRY UNDER THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN.

My Jewish Learning By Orly R. Rahimiyan

Jews began settling in Iran about 2,700 years ago. Throughout their history, the Iranian Jews have coped with significant challenges, especially during the Safavid era (1501-1736) and under the Qajar rulers (1796-1925).

The years of the Pahlavi dynasty, however–especially the reign of Muhammad Reza Shah (1941-1979)–are often considered a “Golden Age” for Iranian Jewry. The Iranian Jewish community thrived economically under the Shah’s reform plan, the “White Revolution” (1964-1979). The White Revolution’s rapid modernization provided exceptional opportunities for the Jewish community in Iran.

RECENT HISTORY OF IRANIAN JEWS

On the eve of the Islamic Revolution in 1978, the Jewish community in Iran numbered around 80,000 with 60,000 living in the capital, Tehran. Although the Jews constituted less than a quarter of a percent of the total Iranian population of 35 million, their economic, professional, and cultural impact on the country was great.

At this time, the vast majority of the Jewish population in Iran was middle class or upper middle class. There were Jewish schools, active social and cultural organizations, and about 30 synagogues in Tehran alone.

THE ISLAMIC REVOLUTION

With the outbreak of opposition to the Shah in the autumn of 1977, what had been considered the strength of the Jewish community quickly transformed into its principal weaknesses: their socio-economic status, identification with the Shah and his policies, and ties to Israel and the United States.

Expressions of anti-Jewish animosity soon intensified. In Tehran, pamphlets were circulated threatening to take revenge upon the Jews for plundering Iran’s treasures. Slogans scribbled on the walls of synagogues and Jewish institutions proclaimed “Death to the Jews.” Iranian Muslims began ostracizing their Jewish neighbors, whose newfound insecurity and desire to liquidate their property was met with hostile responses.

During the revolution itself, a wave of anti-Israel sentiment swept over Iran, impacting the Jewish community. Private wealth was confiscated on a large scale, which sent thousands of affluent Jews fleeing to the United States or Israel.

But at the same time, Jews were optimistic about the regime change. When Ayatallah Khomeini–a senior Shi’a Muslim cleric and the future Supreme Leader of the country, returned to Iran on the February 1, 1979, 5,000 Jews, led by Iranian Chief Rabbi Yedidia Shofet, were among those welcoming him. Some of them held pictures of Khomeini and signs proclaiming: “Jews and Muslims are brothers.”

On May 14, 1979, five days after the execution of Jewish community head Habib Elghanian, who was accused of Zionist espionage and activities, a delegation of Jewish leaders set out for Qom to meet with Khomeini, who allayed their fears with the following words:

“We make a distinction between the Jewish community and the Zionists–and we know that these are two different things. We are against [the Zionists] because they are not Jews, but politicians…but as for the Jewish community and the rest of the [minority] communities in Iran–they are members of this nation. Islam will treat them in the same manner as it does with all other layers of society.” (Radio Tehran, May 15, 1979)

Indeed, since the establishment of the Islamic Republic and its declaration of Islam as the all-encompassing state religion in 1979, the regime has officially distinguished between the Jews of Iran, considered loyal citizens, and other Jews–Israelis, Zionists, and world Jewry, toward whom the regime did not conceal its hostility. Zionist activity was made a crime, punishable by severe penalties.

This brought about changes in internal Jewish communal affairs. At the end of March 1978, a new generation of progressive Jewish Iranian intellectuals supplanted the old Jewish council, Anjumān-i Kalīmīan (Jewish Committee), with the founding of the anti-Zionist radical Jāme-yi Rowshanfikrān-i Yahūd-i Irān (The Organization of Iranian Jewish Intellectuals), whose platform included full support of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, religious and cultural revival, and community protection. Since its founding this organization has struggled to preserve the community from disintegration.

LEAVING IRAN

Indeed, the revolution aroused fears among Iranian Jews and around two thirds of the community left the country. The emigrants included the majority of the community’s leaders, philanthropists, and professionals. According to estimates, 30,000-40,000 Iranian Jews emigrated to the United States, 20,000 to Israel, and 10,000 to Europe, notably the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. Of those Iranian Jews who made their way to the United States, around 25,000 live in California (20,000 in Los Angeles alone) and 8,000 live in the New York area. Today, the number of Jews still residing in Iran is estimated at between 25,000 and 30,000.

Jews who wished to emigrate during the first decade and a half of the Islamic republic encountered many problems as the special government office responsible for granting passports to Jews refused numerous applicants. Many Jews ended up fleeing through Pakistan or Turkey. These emigrants often left most of their property behind, under the assumption that their relatives would liquidate the assets. But even when this did happen, it was very difficult to send the money abroad.

JEWISH LIFE IN IRAN

In many ways, the revolution was also a revolution in the lives of Persian Jews. The new leaders of Iran sought to create a country modelled after their particular perception of the ideal Islamic society; it was inevitable that this model would affect the lives of religious minorities.

While Islam’s attitude towards other monotheistic faiths is, in principle, a fairly tolerant one, the writings and speeches of Ayatollah Khomeini and those close to him are full of vitriolic denunciations of Jews. Unlike the Pahlavi regime, which placed nationalism as its highest priority and saw Jews as equals, Khomeini’s Islamic doctrine forced Jews into a position of inferiority vis-à-vis the Muslim majority.

Despite his supposed distinction between Jews and Zionists, Ayatollah Khomeini’s doctrine contained anti-Jewish elements, including an emphasis on Shi’ite doctrine pertaining to the impurity (najasat) of non-Muslims. According to traditional Islamic law, religious minorities are impure elements that pollute the Shiite believers with whom they come into contact. Historically, najasat was highly influential in governing daily relations between Jews and Shi’ites. In his writings, Khomeini also attacked the Jews and accused them of distorting Islam, mistranslating the Koran, and taking over Iran’s economy.

Still, official recognition of minorities was rooted in the Iranian constitution: Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only recognized religious minorities who, within the limits of the law, are free to perform the religious rites and ceremonies and to act according to their own cannon in matters of personal affairs and religious education. Within this framework, the Jewish minority was guaranteed permanent representation in the Iranian parliament. The constitution also dictates that the Islamic Republican government and Iranian Muslims must treat non-Muslims according to Muslim principles of ethics and justice.

In practice, Jewish freedom of worship has not been limited in a meaningful way, and to this day Jewish holidays receive coverage in the media. Each year, local television stations broadcast programs on Jewish holidays–especially Passover, when the state media carries the blessings of the Jewish community head and Majles representative. The community has continued administering its own schools, synagogues, and other institutions, including Jewish hospitals, nursing homes, cemeteries, and libraries.

Today, Jews participate in Iranian civic and political life. Many Jews join the Iranian masses in protesting the State of Israel on the annual “Qods Day” (Jerusalem Day), and during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), Iranian Jews supported the war effort by donating ambulances and surplus goods as well as making hospital visits. Some Jewish youth even took part in the fighting and were wounded in combat.

Anti-Semitism, however, remains. In 1999, 13 Jews from Shiraz and Isfahan were arrested on charges of spying for Israel, and they were convicted in 2000. By February 2003 all of them had been released, but the arrests planted fear in the heart of the Jewish community, bringing its loyalty under question.

Despite all these difficulties, most of the remaining Jews of Iran feel an unbreakable bond to their homeland and continue to live there. In a gathering of Iranian Jews in Shiraz at the end of 2002, several months after the release of some of the detainees, one of the leaders of the Jewish community made the following speech:

“We are not the same subdued people as before. We are alive, joyful, active and Iran-lovers. We’ve been inhabitants of Iran for the past 2,700 years … and Iran is our native country. We are essentially Iranians first and then Jews. We are proud to be Iranians. Long live Iran. Long live Iranians Jews.” (From the movie “Jews of Iran,” directed by Ramin Farahani)


ANCIENT HATRED: UNDERSTANDING IRAN'S WAR ON JEWS
Erick Stakelbeck, CBN NewsPublished Mar. 22, 2012.

WASHINGTON -- Iran's supreme leader recently said his country would help any Muslim nation or group that attacks Israel. He's called the Jewish state a cancerous tumor that will be cut out of the Middle East. With Iran's nuclear weapons program advancing daily, that goal may be in sight.

This view of Jews as sub-human sounds a lot like Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, but it goes back much further.  In author Andrew Bostom's book, The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism, he describes Islam's early conquests of Jewish tribes in Arabia.  "Mohammed's frustrations in spreading his message were frequently recompensed by murderous attacks on the Jews," he told CBN News.  Bostom explained that Mohammed demonized Jews because they rejected him as a prophet.

"Mohammed himself invokes some of these themes," he said. "For example, one of the punishments of the Jews is their transformation into apes, or apes and pigs, the verses that are commonly heard now."  This "apes and pigs" imagery is found in Islam's core texts, like the Koran and hadiths. The most notorious is the following hadith, often quoted by al Qaeda, Hamas, and other Islamic terror groups.  "Judgment Day will come only when the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them, until the Jew hides behind the tree and the stone, and the tree and the stone say, 'Oh Muslim, oh servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.'"  In some verses of the Koran, Jews are referred to as "perverse," "evil," "greedy," and the "heirs of hell."

The Iranian regime takes these verses seriously, starting with the man who founded the Islamic Republic, the Ayatollah Khomeini.  "His image of wiping out the Jews was that all of the Muslims of the world should get together with a cup of water and simply wash it away. But again, annihilationism," Bostom said.

Today, Jews play a central role in the end times ideology of Iran's mullahs. They believe the Mahdi, or Islamic messiah, will return to earth, conquer Jerusalem, and massacre the Jewish inhabitants of Israel.

Former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani said that while Israel is a one-bomb country, Iran and the Islamic world could survive a nuclear exchange with the Jewish state.  According to this view, the heavy losses would be worth it for the greater good of wiping Israel off the map.


HOW IRAN’S JEWS SURVIVE IN MULLAHS’ WORLD
A Jewish Journalist’s Exclusive Look Inside Iran
Forward  Larry Cohler-Esses, , August 18, 2015

 The first thing I noticed about Shahab Shahamifar as we strolled to synagogue on a Saturday morning in July was his yarmulke. It was a medium-size, black knitted one, and he was wearing it as we walked the busy streets of Tehran.

Then I noticed that no one looked up.

Later, when the rabbi went on a bit too long with a sermon on the week’s haftara portion, I left services early, and Shahamifar rushed out to accompany me the first block or so before returning to pray. This time, in addition to his yarmulke he wore a long tallit, a prayer shawl, also with no sense of self-consciousness.

Saturday is a workday in Iran’s capital, and women in chadors and men in business suits hurried by us without so much as a glance. Moreover, the night before, when several hundred worshippers gathered for Friday night services at the Yousef Abad Synagogue in North Tehran, I noticed, too, that the sanctuary’s large entrance remained open to the street as people spilled out for breaks to shmooze in crowds on the sidewalk outside. No security of any kind was in sight.

“Compared to Europe,” boasted Dr. Siamak Moreh Sedgh, the Jewish community’s elected representative in Iran’s parliament, “synagogues here are one of the safest places.” He also said proudly, “We have a high rate of people following Halacha,” or traditional Jewish law, “and a low rate of assimilation. The rate of intermarriage among Iranian Jews is less than 1%.”

Of course, there are a lot fewer Jews now than before Iran’s 1979 Revolution.

Homayoun Sameyah Najafabadi, the current chair of the Tehran Jewish Committee, Iranian Jewry’s central body, told me there were just 9,000 Jews, citing Iranian government census data on which people must list their religion. Other Jewish leaders insisted there were something like 18,000 to 20,000. They based their estimates on their knowledge of communal affiliations in Iran’s various cities. Either way, that’s a big drop from the 80,000 to 100,000 Jews that lived in Iran prior to 1979.

Many of these Jews left in the months immediately after the fall of the shah. A largely business-oriented community, its members often maintained ties to Israel under the shah. Many were shocked into flight when Habib Elghanian , one of the country’s leading businessmen and philanthropists — and the titular head of their community — was executed by a firing squad on charges that included “contacts with Israel and Zionism.”

In 1998, another Jew, Ruhollah Kadkhodah-Zadeh, was executed, reportedly for helping Jews to emigrate illegally.  Shortly after this, restrictions on emigration were lifted. So those who live in Iran today are choosing to do so. Even cash bonus offers from Israel ranging from $10,000 for individuals to $61,000 for families have failed to move those now living there to leave.

According to Moreh Sedgh, those who have stayed are primarily members of the middle class — shop owners, small businessmen and professionals. “The rich had the money to move to America and re-establish themselves there,” he said. “The poor, who had nothing to lose, moved to Israel.” But Najafabadi assured me that a strong contingent of the poor remained among Iran’s Jews.  “We have people who receive charity from the community, including meat, rice and fruit,” he said.

Those making the choice to stay, even as their leaders bristle with hostility toward Zionism and the State of Israel, live under an umbrella of government protection.

And Jewish life in Iran can be rich. In Tehran alone there are 13 active synagogues, five Jewish schools, two kindergartens and a 100-bed Jewish hospital, where Moreh Sedgh serves as director. There are active communities in several other cities, including Shiraz, Isfahan and Kermanshah, with institutions of their own.

But living as protected second-class citizens under a Shiite Islamist regime is complicated.  As Najafabadi put it: “There is no oppression. But there are limitations.”

Working in the Jews’ favor is the deeply embedded nature of their presence in Iranian society, where they have never been ghettoized, and in which they are seen — and see themselves — as pre-eminently Iranian, woven into 2,700 years of Iranian history. This facilitates the rigid compartmentalization the government maintains between Zionists, who are seen as a malign outside force, and the unquestioned indigenous character of their own Jewish citizens.

But implicitly, this also means Iranian Jews must take care not to be seen as interested or involved in Israel, though it is an open secret that many have family there, and that many have even visited Israel themselves via third countries.

The Jews’ security is aided by a fatwa that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s founder, issued shortly after he came to power. Even as he shifted Iran into an anti-Israel mode, his fatwa declared Iran’s Jews to be a fully protected minority community and forbade any attacks on them.

But Jews’ place in Iranian society is perhaps vouchsafed most by the Jewish community’s own willingness to fight for its right to that place. Its leaders do so while avoiding any challenge to the fundamental legitimacy of Iran’s regime. But it is not a quiet or quiescent Jewish leadership.

When then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad questioned the historical reality of the Holocaust during his tenure, Jews and others worldwide denounced his statements. But so did Haroun Yashayaei, who was then head of the Tehran Jewish Committee.  “How is it possible to ignore all the undeniable evidence existing for the killing and exile of the Jews in Europe during World War II?” he asked Ahmadinejad in an official letter he wrote the president as head of the committee. Yashayaei condemned Ahmadinejad’s reference to the Holocaust as “a myth,” describing it as “an infected wound for Western civilization.”

Maurice Motamed, who at the time represented the Jewish community in Iran’s parliament, told a reporter for the Persian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “Denial of such a great historical tragedy that is connected to the Jewish community can only be considered an insult to all the world’s Jewish communities.”

In 2012, when Ahmadinejad’s first vice president, Mohammad Reza Rahimi, claimed at a United Nations drug conference that the Talmud teaches “how to destroy non-Jews so as to protect an embryo in the womb of a Jewish mother” and charged that Zionists controlled the world’s illicit drug trade, the community also condemned his remarks.

During Ahmadinejad’s tenure, “there were huge insults toward our religion,” Najafabadi recalled. “He insulted Talmud. And we answered him.”  Just last April, Alef, a prominent Iranian website run by Ahmad Tavakkoli, a conservative Member of Parliament, cited Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and argued: “Blood shedding by Jews is not a new theme…. By examining Jewish history in past centuries, it becomes evident that they insist on blood shedding and even bloodthirstiness based on their altered religion and teachings.”

Nevertheless, the community is vocal about the multiple forms of discrimination under which its members live — but without questioning the legitimacy of the regime or the system of Sharia, or Islamic law, by which it governs.

Their approach could be seen in what community leaders consider one of their biggest recent victories: gaining equality in “blood money” compensation. That’s the amount a person must pay to a family when he is responsible for an accident that caused a family member’s death. “We succeeded in getting blood money compensation equalized for minorities,”  Motamed said. “Before, there was a big difference between the money for minorities and the main population…. It was a very big achievement.”

But the community’s approach did not involve any criticism of Sharia, which rules on such matters. Instead, Motamed, recalled, “We consulted a lot of ayatollahs and took testimony from high-ranking clerics to show there must be equality” under Sharia.

Pleased as he was, Motamed noted that blood money compensation for non-Muslims remains unequal in cases of murder — and that they are continuing to push on this.  “Under Sharia… if a Muslim kills a Jew, there will be blood money payment. But if a Jew kills a Muslim, the penalty is execution,” he said. Here, too, “we’ve consulted with a lot of ayatollahs and gotten letters. But it’s still not solved.”

Other unresolved issues the leaders cited involved access to high-ranking posts in government ministries and the requirement that a Muslim serve as principal at Jewish schools.  “We have five schools,” Najafabadi said, “and the principals in all of them are Muslim. There’s no enmity. They’re very cooperative. But it’s kind of insulting.”  Then there is inheritance law: Under Sharia in Iran, if one sibling in a non-Muslim family converts to Islam, he inherits the entirety of his parents’ assets. This, too, community leaders are pushing to change.

On Israel, the community’s leadership must be more circumspect. But it is no secret that many in the community have family there, or that a significant number of Jews in Iran have visited Israel themselves. One teenager in Shiraz told me how excited he had been to visit three years ago.  “There are people traveling to Israel,” Najafabadi volunteered. But since the Gaza War of last summer, the government had clamped down, he said. Some who go are imprisoned, fined and interrogated. Two community members had been sentenced to 91 days, though this was later reduced to 20 days. Travel to Israel “is declining now because of these problems,” he said.

Moreh Sedgh even voiced concern for Israel, in his way — his way being to criticize Israel’s policies as harmful for Israel’s own interests.

Speaking about Israel’s policy of opposing Syria’s regime under Bashar al-Assad, which Iran supports, Moreh Sedgh said, “The main enemy of Israel today is Daesh” — a reference to the extremist Islamic State fighting to oust Assad. “Of course, the Assad family are not the ideal leaders for Syria,” he said. But he noted that if Assad is ousted, they “must be ready for ISIS. What benefit for Israel would that be?”

Despite all these issues, those Iranian Jews who choose to stay can live a very active Jewish religious and communal life. My second-to-last night in Iran, I was invited to meet with the local leaders of the Shiraz community in the large open-air compound that serves as their community center. About the size of a football field, the compound is surrounded by high walls that ensure the privacy of those who come. Tables were spread out with ample food, and by 11 p.m., Jewish families totaling some 50 or 60 individuals, including children, were dining and moving around from table to table to catch up on the local gossip.

Told I was a vegetarian, the community elders treated me to cheese pizza from the kosher pizzeria on the premises. For meat eaters there was a kosher butcher. And just about everyone used matzo from the matzo factory on the grounds during Passover, I was told. The compound also contained a home for the elderly with nine or 10 residents.  “We are a country of paradox,” Moreh Sedgh said. Noting other recent communal victories, such as permission to close Jewish schools on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, rather than Friday, the Muslim day of rest, he said: “Sometimes we do something and have some success…. We think all these problems can be solved as domestic problems. If it comes from the outside. that will make it harder.”

LINKS

History of the Jews in Iran    Wikipedia

Why can't Iran and Israel be friends? - Small gestures could make a big difference, with adversaries having many shared interests in the region - analysis  Navid Hassibi for the Tehran Bureau, The Guardian 220 February, 2014


JEWISH HISTORY and IRAN (previously PERSIA)
SUMMARY
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The Jewish community in Iran is among the oldest in the world. The first Jewish settlements near Ekbatana (Hamadan, western Iran) and Susa (southwest Iran) date to 721 BC. Jews fleeing persecution under the rule of the Assyrian King Nabuchadadnezzar II settled in Isfahan around 680BC.

In 539 BC, Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenian Empire, conquered Babylon and allowed the exiled Jews to go home and reconstruct the temple of Jerusalem. Some chose to remain and a movement of migration deeper into Persia began.

The biblical books of Isaiah, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, refer to the life and experiences of Jews in Persia. In the book of Ezra, the Persian kings are credited with permitting and enabling the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple; its reconstruction was carried out "according to the decree of Cyrus, and Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia" (Ezra 6:14). This was in the late 6th century BCE when there was a well-established and influential Jewish community in Persia.

Jews who migrated to ancient Persia mostly lived in their own communities. The Persian Jewish communities include the ancient (and until the mid-20th century still-extant) communities not only of Iran, but also the Armenian, Georgian, Iraqi, Bukharan, and Mountain Jewish communities.

Some of the communities were isolated from other Jewish communities, to the extent that their classification as "Persian Jews" is a matter of linguistic or geographical convenience rather than actual historical relationship with one another. During the peak of the Persian Empire, Jews are thought to have comprised as much as 20% of the population.

Jews trace their heritage in Iran to the Babylonian Exile of the 6th century BC and have retained their ethnic, linguistic, and religious identity. However, a Library of Congress country study on Iran states that "Over the centuries the Jews of Iran became physically, culturally, and linguistically indistinguishable from the non-Jewish population. The overwhelming majority of Jews speak Persian as their mother language, and a tiny minority, Kurdish.In 2012, Iran's official census reported 8,756 Jewish citizens, a decline from 25,000 in 2009

In 1935 the Iranian government requested those countries with whom it had diplomatic relations to call Persia "Iran," which is the name of the country in Persian.  This is said to have come from the Iranian ambassador to Germany, who came under the influence of the Nazis.

On the eve of the Islamic Revolution in 1978, the Jewish community in Iran numbered around 80,000 with 60,000 living in the capital, Tehran. Although less than a quarter of a percent of the Iranian population of 35 million, their economic, professional, and cultural impact on the country was great.

Opposition to the Shah in 1977, saw this strength transformed into its principal weaknesses: through identification with the Shah and ties to Israel and the United States.

During the revolution anti-Israel sentiment swept over Iran impacting the Jewish community. Private wealth was confiscated on a large scale sending thousands of affluent Jews fleeing to the United States or Israel.

1979 saw the official distinction between the Jews of Iran, considered loyal citizens, and other Jews–Israelis, Zionists, and world Jewry, toward whom the regime did not conceal its hostility. Zionist activity was made a crime, punishable by severe penalties.

30,000-40,000 Iranian Jews emigrated to the United States, 20,000 to Israel, and 10,000 to Europe,  Many emigrants often left most of their property behind assuming  relatives would liquidate their assets.

The constitution dictates that the Islamic Republican government and Iranian Muslims must treat non-Muslims according to Muslim principles of ethics and justice. The community has continued administering its own schools, synagogues, and other institutions, including Jewish hospitals, nursing homes, cemeteries, and libraries.

Despite difficulties, most of the remaining Jews of Iran feel an unbreakable bond and continue to live there.

Today, Jews play a central role in the end times ideology of Iran's mullahs. They believe the Mahdi, or Islamic messiah, will return to earth, conquer Jerusalem, and massacre the Jewish inhabitants of Israel.

Former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani said that while Israel is a one-bomb country, Iran and the Islamic world could survive a nuclear exchange with the Jewish state.  According to this view, the heavy losses would be worth it for the greater good of wiping Israel off the map.


 

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How Jew-Friendly Persia Became
Anti-Semitic Iran

When "Persia" Became "Iran"

Jews of Iran:
A Modern History:   Iranian Jewry under the Islamic
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Ancient Hatred: Understanding Iran's War on Jews

How Iran’s Jews Survive in Mullahs’ World

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