A campaign to convince Iran’s 25,000 Jews to flee the country has stalled, with most opting to stay in their native homeland despite President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial and anti-Israeli speeches.
In recent months, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Israeli officials and some American Jewish communal leaders have urged Iranian Jews to leave. But so far, despite generally being allowed to travel to Israel and emigrate abroad, Iranian Jews have stayed put. According to the statistics compiled by HIAS, 152 out of 25,000 Jews left Iran between October 2005 and September 2006 — down from 297 during the same period the previous year, and 183 the year before. Sources said that the majority of those who have left in recent years cited economic and family reasons as their main incentive for leaving, rather than political concerns.
At the same time, HIAS workers in Vienna have detected a substantial increase in the number of Iranian refugees from other minority faiths, including Bahais.
Since the August 2005 election of Ahmadinejad, a conservative firebrand, the fate of Iranian Jewry has become part of a broader diplomatic game between Teheran, Washington and Jerusalem.
Ahmadinejad has repeatedly used rabid anti-Israeli rhetoric, threatening to wipe Israel off the map, and has questioned over and over again the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust. Tehran recently hosted a conference to “assess” the Holocaust, and last year a leading daily newspaper held a contest soliciting Holocaust cartoons as a response to the uproar caused by a Danish caricature contest of Prophet Muhammad.
At times, as international tensions mounted over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, staunch opponents of the mullah regime have launched accusations of religious and ethnic discrimination against Iran in an effort to depict the country as a pariah state.
HIAS declined to comment on its efforts to promote emigration, but some observers claim that the main reason Iranian Jews have chosen to stay is that they are, for the most part, free to practice their faith. “Iranian Jews have a comfortable Jewish life,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Middle East analyst now living in Israel.
At a time when Tehran and Jerusalem trade barbs and threats, the 25,000 Jews of Tehran, Shiraz and Yazd attend packed synagogues, send their children to Jewish schools, buy their meat in kosher butchers and are even exempt from prohibitions on alcohol. This modus vivendi is the result of a compact between the leadership of the Jewish community and the Iranian authorities, whereby Jews are permitted to practice their faith as a community on the condition that they remain out of politics and do not speak out in favor of Israel.
Some Iranian expatriates dispute the assertion that Jews are staying because conditions are good. Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Los Angeles-based Iranian American Jewish Federation, asserted that the majority of Jews remaining in Iran are elderly and only speak Persian, and are naturally less inclined to emigrate.
In the early days after the Islamic revolution in 1979, several Jews were executed on charges of Zionism and relations with Israel. About 80% of the community left the country in which Jews had lived for nearly 3,000 years as descendants of slaves from Babylon saved by Cyrus the Great and enjoyed a “golden age” during the 1960s and ’70s under the Shah.
The situation for Jews improved in the years after the revolution, and Judaism is one of the recognized minority religions in Iran. Jews, Zoroastrians and Christians have rights enshrined in the Islamic constitution, and they each elect their own member of parliament and are entitled to worship freely but not to proselytize.
The State Department’s religious freedom reports have noted that the Jewish community in Iran is closely monitored by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. In other words, Jews, like other minorities, face discrimination because of the inherently Islamic nature of the regime, which prevents them, for instance, from securing government jobs or becoming army officers.
Seven years ago, a group of 13 Orthodox Jews in the southern city of Shiraz were accused of spying for Israel. The case prompted an international outcry that led to the eventual release of the Jewish prisoners after years of quiet diplomacy.
Some criticism of the regime has proved to be unfounded. A few months ago, several conservative media outlets in Canada and the United States published reports claiming that the Iranian government had approved legislation requiring religious minorities to wear a distinctive sign, invoking charged memories from World War II. The reports turned out to be wrong.
“Some people are trying to use the climate created by Ahmadinejad and the nuke issue,” said William Beeman, an Iran expert and professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota. “But Iranian Jews have a fairly vibrant communal life, and they can even criticize the regime within the constraints of the Islamic regime.”
Both Maurice Motamed, the Jewish member of the Iranian parliament, and Haroun Yeshaya, longtime chairman of the Jewish Central Committee of Tehran, who have regularly criticized Israel, nevertheless publicly condemned the president’s views, the latter in an unusual letter to Ahmadinejad, sent in February 2006.
Kermanian, of the L.A.-based Iranian Jewish federation, said that “given the situation and the current climate, some Jews there will say things are not too bad, but the totality of the picture is negative.” He said that the recent uptick in antisemitic propaganda in books and the media had stoked fears within the Jewish community in Iran.
The regime’s anti-Zionist propaganda has at times provoked antisemitic incidents. Last summer, a hard-line weekly newspaper, Yalesarat, published photographs of people waving Israeli flags in synagogues to celebrate Israeli Independence Day. The paper falsely asserted that the synagogues were in Iran, prompting an assault on two synagogues. Motamed, the Jewish parliamentarian, described the vandals as “opportunists” in comments to the BBC, and said that the incident was defused by the Iranian security forces.
Several times in recent years, Jewish burial areas were overtaken by local authorities for urban development purposes. A Western diplomat said that while antisemitic intentions played a part in the incidents, another factor was that, in general, burial places are less sacred for Shia Muslims than they are for Jews.
For all his inflammatory rhetoric, Ahmadinejad has been careful not to single out Iran’s Jews, and his office even donated money to Tehran’s Jewish hospital.
“The government goes to extra lengths to differentiate between the government of Israel, with whom they have fundamental issues, and the Jewish people, especially Iranian Jews,” said Amir Cyrus Razzaghi, a Tehran-based commentator who is not Jewish.
“There is a genuine interest to keep the Jewish community in Iran to demonstrate to the world that the government is anti-Israel and not anti-Jewish. This is especially important to a government that strives to be not only the leader in the Islamic world, but also a key regional and global player.”
The result is the only Jewish community living under an avowedly Islamic regime. In Tehran, where the majority of the community lives, there are six kosher butchers and about 30 synagogues. In addition, there is the Jewish hospital, which has a Jewish director and is funded by donations from the Diaspora, though the vast majority of its staff and patients are Muslim. Children attend Jewish schools where they are taught Hebrew and receive religious training. All principals are Muslim, the schools do not close on the Sabbath and the curriculum is supervised by the government.
While Jews are allowed to obtain passports and visas to leave Iran, they have to submit their requests to a special section of the passport office and there are restrictions on families leaving en masse. Iranian Jews travel to and from Israel via a third country with the full knowledge of the authorities. Both sides had kept quiet about such journeys, but recently acknowledged them.
“It might seem strange,” said Javedanfar, the Israel-based expert, “but they can travel to Israel and other places, come back [to Iran] and have a comfortable Jewish life, as long as they keep quiet about Israel.”