One of the neocon myths that has gained currency post-9/11 asserts, referring to opponents of Israel and the United States, that “they are against who we are, not what we do.” Hence, the argument concludes, there is nothing we can do to diminish their antagonism. A variant of this fiction is that Iran’s Islamic elite is simply anti-Semitic and, given a chance, would lob nuclear weapons at Israel to kill Jews. But Tehran’s record over the past quarter-century demonstrates no distinct pattern of animosity to Jews. Sadly, this may change soon for Iran’s Jewish community of 25,000, if Israel’s frequently hinted threats of attacking Iran become reality.
Iran’s hostility toward the Jewish state, including Tehran’s sponsorship of Hezbollah retaliations against it, is a result of the Israel’s unique role as the main U.S. proxy in the Middle East. Washington has interfered in Iran ever since the CIA overthrew a popular prime minister and reinstated the hated Shah in 1953. After the coup, the U.S., and soon also Israel, trained the monarch’s forces of repression until he was toppled again in 1979. Now, the duo support the exiled remnants of his administration, presumably in a bid to re-establish the old order. The most active center of these expatriates for regime change, Los Angeles, is also home to over a dozen television stations that beam Israel-friendly programming to Iran round the clock, probably with U.S. funding.
Nevertheless, there is scant evidence that the Islamic Republic, despite its share of human rights outrages, targets Jews. Years of legal and diplomatic wrangling over the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Argentina failed to prove involvement by the ayatollahs. Ironically, every anti-Semitic remark I have heard from my compatriots has come from modern Iranians who share my skepticism of Islam and the ruling clergy. This is not a coincidence, as the faithful among Muslim Iranians are commanded to tolerate religions “of the book” that predated Islam. In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini, an archenemy of Israel, personally assured a delegation of Jewish Iranians upon his return from exile that he guaranteed the minority’s safety. Blind faith in Islam — if that’s what inspires policy in Iran — has ironically protected Iranian Jews from exceptional mistreatment.
This was especially true following the Revolution of 1979, when Iranian Jews could have faced grievous popular wrath. The community had endangered itself by befriending the Shah, fitting a pattern described in Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fatal Embrace: Jews and the State. It was also thought that the deposed Shah had owed his backing in Washington to “the Jewish Lobby.” Nevertheless, Muslim and secular opposition groups bore the brunt of post-Revolutionary violence, and Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians were largely spared by Islamic authorities and vigilantes.
Astonishingly, in a country where Islamic credentials are indispensable for political advancement and Israel is widely held in contempt, election campaigns at all levels have totally abstained from denouncing Jews. Other constituencies that are thought to have foreign benefactors — those who would liberalize women’s dress codes, opposition press, and the Baha’i faith, for example — have not been similarly exempted from partisan politicking.
“Sometimes I think [Iranian Muslims] are kinder to the Jews than they are to themselves,” Knight-Ridder reporter Barbara Demick was told at a Tehran synagogue in 1997. “If we are gathered in a house, and the family is having a ceremony with wine or the music is playing too loud, if they find out we are Jews, they don’t bother us so much.” Demick described the head of a local Jewish community as being worried “less about persecution than about the faltering Iranian economy.” Similarly, in 1998, the nursing director at Tehran’s Jewish hospital told The Christian Science Monitor‘s Michael Theodoulou: “Our position here is not as bad as people abroad may think. We practice our religion freely, we have all our festivals. . . .” Theodoulou then wrote: “The most pressing complaint is that, despite many petitions to parliament, [government-funded] Jewish schools must open on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath.”
According to Roya Hakakian, the Jewish Iranian author of Journey From the Land of No, “There are signs in many parts of the world that attest to the rising tide of anti-Semitism. But Iran is another story.” Jewish businesses, synagogues, and cemeteries have not come under attack in cleric-ruled Iran nearly as often as they have in countries friendly to Israel, such as Turkey, France, and Germany. “Tehran is still home to the largest community of Jews in the Middle East outside of Israel,” adds Hakakian, who sought and received asylum in the West for reasons unrelated to her Jewish identity. Even though there were instances of harassment of Jews in the chaos and war that followed the Revolution of 1979, it is not clear if Jews who left Iran by the thousands were fleeing discrimination. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims also left Iran in search of a better life or more freedom.
The relative safety of Iran’s Jews is rarely mentioned in the United States, as any indication that Jews may feel safe in countries unfriendly to Israel is not welcome here. According to political science professor Norman Finkelstein, author of The Holocaust Industry, Israeli (and US ) foreign policy objectives depend on emphasizing Jewish victimhood. Senior investigative correspondent Mike Wallace of CBS’ 60 Minutes, himself Jewish, has been vilified ever since he reported in 1975 that Jewish Syrians did not receive unusual mistreatment.
Demick wrote in 1997: “Inside Iran, Jews say that they frequently receive alarmed telephone calls and letters from relatives in the United States concerned about their well-being, but that they themselves do not feel physically endangered. Their major complaint is the inability to visit family in Israel, and what they say is inadequate funding for Hebrew schools.”
Even the hawkish Jerusalem Post reported last year that some Iranian immigrants in Israel were packing to return to Iran, where “Jews . . . live very well.” Said one, “If you have problems there, [Muslim Iranians] help you — and they know you are Jewish. . . . But here [in Israel], everyone is looking out for himself. You can’t trust anybody.” Another added, “I thought that here it was good. I thought that all the Jews leave their doors unlocked and no one stole. But the Israeli people are not cultured. They are rude and disrespectful. In Iran people trust each other and when they give their word they keep it. Here you need a lawyer to get anyone to keep their promise.” Haggai Ram, an Iran specialist at Ben Gurion University, agreed with this report in a conversation with me at this year’s conference of the Middle East Studies Association of North America.
In a rare exception, thirteen Iranian Jews were tried in 1999 with several Muslims on charges of spying for Israel, which could carry the death penalty. All were released two years later and none punished further. But news about certain Jewish Americans passing U.S. state secrets to Israel have not been used in Iran to discredit Jewish Iranians. This is remarkable, because Iran’s national security would be compromised a great deal more than that of the United States by a mole working for Israel.
Nor have Israel’s recent threats to attack Iran led any wild ayatollah to suggest rounding up Iranian Jews, as the U.S. once did with its Japanese citizens. One is tempted to conclude that Iran’s Muslim “zealots” can distinguish between the Jewish state and the Jewish people. The same cannot be said about Israel’s government or its American defenders.
Back during the 1960s and 70s, Tel Aviv’s rationale for backing the Shah was that doing so bought goodwill for Jewish Iranians. By the same logic, an Israeli attack on Iran can be detrimental to the minority. I hope that Israel’s leaders know privately that “they hate who we are, not what we do” is a fabrication and they do not put Iranian Jews at risk with an attack on Iran. The tolerance of the Muslim faithful in Iran may not be infinite.
Jews of Iran (Dir. Ramin Farahani, 2005)
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Based in Washington DC, Rostam Pourzal writes regularly on the politics of human rights. MRZine has also published Pourzal’s “Market Fundamentalists Lose in Iran (For Now)” (3 August 2005); “Open Letter to Iran’s Nobel Laureate” (27 February 2006); “Open Letter to Iran’s Nobel Laureate: Part 2” (9 March 2006); “The Shah: America’s Nuclear Poster Boy” (25 May 2006); “Iranian Cold Warriors in Sheep’s Clothing” (20 May 2006); “MEK Tricks US Progressives, Gains Legitimacy” (12 June 2006); “What Really Happened in Tehran on June 12? Did Human Rights Watch Get It Wrong?” (18 June 2006); “Iran’s Western Behavior Deserves Criticism” (24 June 2006); and “Iranian Anti-Censorship Crusader Accepts Censorship at Amnesty International” (19 July 2006).