On the Jewish Presence in Iranian History

When the chairman of Iran’s Jewish Council, Haroun Yashayaei, criticized President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a letter condemning his remarks on the Holocaust, he was supported by a range of Iranian intellectuals, artists, poets, and others both within the country and without.  For those amongst us with some understanding about the Jewish presence in Iranian history, it was immediately clear that Ahmadinejad’s comments could be attributed to a mixture of individual ignorance about the factual circumstances of the holocaust and, more importantly, Machiavellian expediency during a period when the Iranian state was targeted by a relentless public relations campaign in the international media.  As such, his comments are quite comparable to Bush’s declaration that, after 11 September 2001, the United States was on a “crusade” or Silvio Berlusconi’s statement about the inherent superiority of “Western” values during the same period.  Indeed, I do not think it an exaggeration to place Ahmadinejad in the same category as Bush and Berlusconi.  All three represent that type of politician that adhere to a dichotomous worldview: things are either black or white, good or bad, you are either with them or against them.

Ironically enough, Ahmadinejad’s shortcomings are most evident in his understanding of his own civilization, especially Iran’s intimate historical encounters with Judaism.  A few lessons in theology communicate to us that the Bible is dotted with praise for ancient Persia and its imperial masters.  The Old Testament describes the Persian king Cyrus the Great as God’s “anointed” and “chosen” ruler because it was he who gave refuge to the Jews when they were persecuted by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in sixth century B.C.  These actions also explain why Cyrus is mentioned in the Torah as a saint and savior of the Jewish people.  Indeed one of his successors to the Persian throne, Xerxes I (Artaxerxes), married a Jewish woman, Esther, the daughter of one of his ministers.  The tomb of Esther in the north-western Iranian city of Hamadan (originally called Ecabatana) draws Jewish pilgrims from all over Iran, especially during the holiday of Purim (the walls of the building explain the origins of Esther in Hebrew).

It should be added as a footnote to the contemporary history of the Persian Gulf area that Iran’s real and perceived support to persecuted Jews was used by Saddam Hussein in order to demonize the “Persian menace from the East” during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988).  This was the central theme of two books published in Baghdad in the early 1980s: Al-Madaris al-Yahudiyya wa-l-Iraniyya fi-l-‘Iraq (Jewish and Iranian Schools in Iraq) by Fadil al-Barrak; and Al-Harb al-sirriyya, khafaya al-dawr al-Isra’ili fi harb al-khalij (The Secret War: The Mysterious Role of Israel in the [First] Gulf War) by Sa’d al-Bazzaz.  The former alleges the “destructive” and “dangerous” impact of Jewish and Iranian schools on Iraqi society.  The latter claims to outline how Israel and Iran conspired to combat Iraq, with special reference to the destruction of the nuclear reactor in Osirak by Israeli Air Force in June 1981.

Further lessons in Iran’s contemporary history show that at a time when Nazi Germany was busy implementing the “Endlösung,” Iranian diplomats offered hundreds of Iranian passports to European Jews in order to facilitate their exodus, especially from Poland (there continues to be a sizeable Polish-Jewish minority in Iran to this date).  The Islamic Republic itself guarantees the rights of Iran’s Jewish minority, which is the largest in West Asia outside of Israel and Palestine.  The 25.000 to 60.000 Jews of Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan, Boroujerd, and Yazd have their own cemeteries (Tehran’s Jewish cemetery is online at www.beheshtieh.com), which, unlike those in Europe and Russia, are not desecrated by skinhead mobs; attend packed synagogues; send their children to Jewish schools; buy their meat in kosher butchers; and are exempt from prohibitions on alcohol.  Their political representation in the Iranian parliament (majlis) is secured in the Iranian Constitution.  Indeed, many Iranian-Jews fought Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), and Ahmadinejad himself recently honored an Iranian-Jewish war veteran on the occasion of the commemoration ceremony for the liberation of the south-western town of Khorramshahr from Saddam Hussein’s forces.  It should be added that, in August of last year, the “Association of the Iranian Jewish Community” and the management of the Jewish hospital “Sepir” in Tehran facilitated the medical support to Palestinians wounded by Israeli armed forces during the latest intifadah against the occupation.

“Anti-Semitism” is a distinctively European invention, and projecting its ideological tenets and political agenda to the Muslim world is intellectually unrewarding and analytically flawed.  This is not to say that there are no anti-Jewish sentiments in the region.  There are, but they are not racially motivated.  They are political in nature.  The equivalent to the attitudes of Ahmadinejad exists in many countries today as a consequence, in my opinion, of both the resurgence of ultra-nationalist ideologies which are always intrinsically xenophobic and the continued occupation of Palestinian territories by the Israeli state.  The real object of this type of politics is thus not the holocaust per se.  It is the Israeli state and its underlying Zionist ideology.  That is why Ahmadinejad received the support of Jewish organizations such as “Neturei Karta International” which presents itself as a “world wide organization of Orthodox Jews opposed to Zionism.”  Anti-Zionism as opposed to anti-Semitism is a legitimate political position to take, and many will continue to voice their dissent in order to protest the abominations committed in the name of the Zionist ideal.  In the meantime, it is important to divorce facts from fiction.  The calculated ignorance of states means that we should strengthen our empathy and alertness, especially when it comes to unearthing their myths and distortions, whether with regard to established historical facts such as the holocaust or in relation to the deaths and destructions in Gaza, Kabul, Baghdad, or Grozny.  What is needed, above all else then, is inclusive dialogue that is ideologically dispassionate and intellectually honest.

For those readers who think that this is merely an abstract demand from an idealistic intellectual, allow me to discuss a very specific example.  In May 2006, bloggers and investigative journalists exposed as wholly invented a story by Amir Taheri, a story that was concocted in order to present Iran as an anti-Semitic entity.  In an article for the National Post of Canada, Taheri had claimed that a new law would require Iranian Jews to “be marked out with a yellow strip of cloth sewn in front of their clothes while Christians will be assigned the color red.  Zoroastrians end up with Persian blue as the color of their zonnar.” Accordind to Taheri, “the new codes would enable Muslims to easily recognize non-Muslims so that they can avoid shaking hands with them by mistake and thus becoming najis (unclean).”  To reiterate the message, the paper ran alongside the article a 1935 photograph of a Jewish businessman in Berlin with a yellow, six-pointed star sewn on his overcoat.  The National Post was forced to retract the bogus piece and apologize publicly.  But by then the New York Post and the Jerusalem Post, which also featured a photo of a yellow star from the Nazi era over a photo of Ahmadinejad, and the New York Sun had picked up the story.  It should be added that,  in another New York Post column in 2005, Taheri claimed that Iran’s ambassador to the UN, Javad Zarif, was one of the students involved in the capture of US diplomats in Tehran between 1979 and 1980.  The story was retracted after Dwight Simpson, a professor at San Francisco State University, wrote to the newspaper explaining that the allegation was “false.”  On the day of the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran, Zarif was a “graduate student in the Department of International Relations of San Francisco State University.  He was my student,” Simpson told the editors, “and he served also as my teaching assistant.” Worringly, Amir Taheri was amongst a group of “experts” on Iran and the region invited to the White House in a meeting with Tony Blair and George W. Bush in May 2006.

There is a particular interest linked to the representation of Iran as an irrational, “anti-Semitic” polity.  At the least, it legitimates the demonization of the Iranian state, at most it mobilizes public opinion in support of military action.  The ball is in our court.  Unravelling the myths and distortions of politicians or the transnational media is not a futile endeavor.  Our powers to dissent from the mainstream are real.  Our instruments, scholarly research and critical analysis, are strong.  You will find that anyone who tells you otherwise is either chronically disillusioned or the agent of a particular ideology opposed to the merits of international dialogue and cross-cultural empathy.

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is the author of The International Politics of the Persian Gulf: A Cultural Genealogy (London: Routledge, 2006).  He teaches international relations at Oxford University.  MRZine has published his “The Muslim in the Mirror” (23 Feb. 2006); “Persian Atoms: Enriching Facts, Diverting Fiction” (26 April 2006); “Iraq, Iran, and the New World Order” (25 May 2006); “The Muslim Presence in the Racist Mind” (15 June 2006); “Palestine Sans Frontières” (18 July 2006); “Reflections on Arab and Iranian Ultra-Nationalism” (20 November 2006); and “Uprising against the ‘War on Terror’: The Danger of US Foreign Policy to International Security” (16 February 2007).  Consult Adib-Moghaddam’s Web site for his upcoming publications.

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