Iran’s Jewish Rorschach Test

By Roya Hakakian

Published April 29, 2009, issue of May 08, 2009.
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This past March, I stood alongside hundreds of others lining Madison Avenue to watch New York’s Persian Day Parade. I am not the parade-watching type, but nostalgia for the country of my birth at times moves me to behave in uncharacteristic ways, like cheering for mediocre trumpeters and papier-mâché monuments.

Among the marchers at the parade on that drizzly March day, I spotted several friends of my father’s — silver-haired men holding canes in one hand and Iranian flags in the other. I wondered, as they went by, how many other spectators knew that these frail fans of the ancient land, walking ahead of images of Cyrus and Xerxes, were indeed Jewish. There they were, without costumes or cymbals, without Esther as their beauty queen, without skullcaps or prayer shawls, or papier-mâchés of their own historic monuments.

Yet nothing could have captured the essence of their history better than their perfect obscurity. Iran’s Jews have led a largely peaceful coexistence, at least in the contemporary era, learning to reciprocate the magnanimity of their fellow Iranians by withholding all signs of their Jewishness. There was never a deception: In the public square we displayed only the Iranian in us and were united with our Muslim neighbors in a shared love of country.

But betrayal is an odd offspring that doesn’t always need deception to give it birth. I learned this several years ago at an Iranian studies conference in Maryland. At the end of a panel presentation about religious minorities — Jews, Baha’is and Christians — the first question, which turned out to be the last question of that session, came from an inflamed audience member who asked in a choked voice: “I want to ask the Jews here where do they think their real country is: Israel or Iran?” Within seconds, the Ph.D.s vanished into thin air and the professors in the room, respectable adults who peddle reason for a living, were on their feet demanding the answer with the kind of fury that should have been reserved for their naked lover in bed with another.

This kind of complexity, so second-nature to Iranian Jews, always eludes the outsiders looking in. Thus, the Jews of Iran — lately a bitterly contested talking point for pundits of all stripes — have become a looking glass in which all find what they wish to see. Hawks hear Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and see another Holocaust in the making. Doves cite the existence of Hebrew schools and synagogues in Iran, and see no reason for alarm.

Who is right? Everyone and no one at once.

The hawks are correct when they say that the Jews of Iran face threats. But they are wrong about the nature of the threats. They point to Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israel stance and Holocaust denial, and they draw the faulty conclusion that he is on the verge of launching an ethnic-cleansing campaign against the Jews. In fact, Ahmadinejad seems determined to prove otherwise, even subsidizing the purchase of land for a new Jewish community center in Tehran.

What actually threatens the welfare of Iranian Jews is the laws and regulations that have been put in place since 1979, which have curbed the ability of Jews to thrive in Iran in any meaningful way. In courts, the testimony of a Jew is not equal to that of a Muslim. In business, Jews have a tough time getting permits and licenses. In the arts, Jewish writers wait for years to get various governmental approvals of their manuscripts. In the academic arena, Jewish educators are not promoted. In health care, Jewish doctors and medical providers must inform their patients of their religion. Yet, despite all these hardships, Iran’s Jews are faring better than many other minorities, especially the Baha’is and Sunni Iranians.

The doves are right to note that under Iran’s constitution Jews are a recognized minority. The relationship between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors remains mostly peaceful. Jews are even represented in Iran’s parliament by one of their own. There are functioning synagogues, social organizations, kosher butcher shops and even Hebrew schools in Iran. But all these institutions, like most other spheres of Iranian life, are designed, tightly controlled and regulated by the turbaned counterpart of Orwell’s Big Brother.

So where does this leave us?

As Jews, we must resist the temptation to compare the predicament of our Iranian counterparts to that of European Jews in World War II. Not every malicious leader is a Hitler.

As peace-loving citizens, we must not let our wish for a diplomatic resolution to tensions with Iran cloud reality. We must confront the full spectrum of Iran’s threats to the world, as well as to its own people, for no peace can be built upon a foundation of unknowing. Iran may or may not acquire a nuclear bomb some day. But every day in Iran — for women, the secular opposition, Kurds, Baha’is, Christians, Sunnis, Sufis and Jews — smaller bombs go off and ravage lives.

Roya Hakakian is the author of “Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran” (Crown, 2004).

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