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Concerns Mounting Over Fate of Iranian Jewry

With international tensions at a fever pitch over Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the violent reaction in Tehran to the European cartoon images of the Prophet Muhammad, concerns are rising about the fate of the Iranian Jewish community after its departing head took an unusual public swipe at the president of the Islamic Republic.

Haroun Yeshaya, longtime chairman of the Jewish Central Committee of Tehran, sent a letter to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regarding his repeated questioning of the Holocaust. The letter was sent several weeks ago, but first made public by the Iranian Jewish community last weekend.

“How is it possible to ignore all of the undeniable evidence existing for the exile and massacre of the Jews in Europe during World War II?” Yeshaya wrote. “Challenging one of the most obvious and saddening events of 20th-century humanity has created astonishment among the people of the world and spread fear and anxiety among the small Jewish community of Iran.”

The regime has not officially responded to the letter. But the Forward has learned that by the time the letter had been written, Yeshaya already had been sidelined after falling out of favor with the Ahmadinejad government.

As a result, Yeshaya’s outburst was being seen by some observers in America as both a parting shot and an expression of the community’s angst over a possible backlash arising from the regime’s increasingly antisemitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric. Jewish leaders outside Iran were also expressing increasing worries over the fate of the 25,000-strong community.

Yeshaya’s letter and the growing anxiety over Jews in Iran come as Tehran adopts an increasingly defiant pose on several fronts and engages in an escalating war of words with Jerusalem.

This past Tuesday, Tehran resumed its enrichment of uranium, suspended in 2003, to protest the decision of the International Atomic Energy Agency to refer Iran to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions. That same day, Israel’s new military intelligence chief, Amos Yadlin, told a Knesset committee that Iran is the “main threat” to Israel. He said Tehran was likely to have the capacity to develop nuclear weapons “by the end of the decade.” Israeli officials have been dropping hints of possible military action to stop Tehran’s nuclear program.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice accused Iran last week of fanning violent protests against the cartoons of Muhammad that appeared in European newspapers, noting that several Western embassies had been attacked in Tehran. Iran denied the allegation and accused Israel of being behind the cartoons’ publication.

In a fiery speech on February 11 marking the 27th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic revolution, Ahmadinejad repeated his frequent criticisms of Israel and restated his doubts about the Holocaust.

“For more than 60 years, the usurper Zionist regime has been able to blackmail all Western countries, murdering women and children, demolishing the houses of defenseless people and making them refugees, and justifying its crimes in the occupied lands,” the Iranian president said. He added, “We did suggest that if you are honest, you will allow a group of impartial and fair researchers to come to Europe and talk to people, study the documents and inform the world about the result of their research on the myth of the Holocaust.”

The Iranian Foreign Ministry recently announced plans to hold an international conference to “assess” the Holocaust. In addition, a leading Iranian daily newspaper, Hamshahri, announced a contest soliciting Holocaust cartoons as a response to the Danish cartoon contest last September that unleashed the caricature flap.

The Anti-Defamation League reported Tuesday that Holocaust denial has gained prominence in Iranian media in recent months. Iran’s semiofficial Mehr News Agency has published interviews with some of the West’s most notorious Holocaust deniers, the ADL said.

The World Jewish Congress, during its governing board meeting in Israel last week, called on Jewish communities throughout the world to pressure their governments to act against the Iranian nuclear program and to urge economic and political sanctions against Tehran. Israel Singer, chairman of the WJC’s Policy Council, told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz that the WJC had decided to air the issue publicly despite fears in some circles that the Iranian regime might respond by harming the Jewish community there.

“The Jews in Iran have been living there for 2,700 years, from the days of Queen Esther,” Singer told Ha’aretz. “They remained there despite the wars and Zionism, and are aware of their situation. We are working for them, not against them.”

Most Jewish organizations, in speaking out on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Holocaust denial, have avoided raising public questions about the Jews in Iran to avert possible negative consequences for the local community.

“We’re concerned about the escalating rhetoric, which could lead to actions, be it in Iran or elsewhere,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Hoenlein is a key player in coordinating American Jewish organizations’ responses on Iranian Jewish affairs. “It is among the most sensitive issues, because we know declarations could lead to consequences.”

No anti-Jewish incidents inside Iran have been reported, according to several people in contact with the local Jewish community.

Still, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society has been bracing for an influx of Iranian refugees going through its Vienna office. The agency holds a contract with the State Department as the sole overseas processing entity for Iranians applying to the United States Refugee Program in Europe.

In recent months, HIAS officials have been touring Iranian Sephardic synagogues in the Los Angeles area, which is home to a large Iranian émigré community, urging worshippers to advise their families that the visa application process, which had been slowed after the attacks of September 11, 2001, is being streamlined. While the Vienna office has detected a substantial increase in the number of Iranian refugees from other minority faiths, such as Bahai, no such trend has been detected for Jews.

Judaism is one of the recognized minority religions in Iran. But the State Department’s religious freedom reports have noted that the Jewish community in Iran is closely monitored by the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance and by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security.

Sources familiar with the leadership dynamics of Iran’s Jewish community say that the Iranian government had advised Yeshaya a few months ago not to run for a new term as chairman. The move was seen by some observers as part of a larger purge launched by the Iranian president against critics in various sectors of society. Other observers offer a different theory, saying that the government wanted a less vocal Jewish leader, even though Yeshaya generally supported the Islamic regime.

Yeshaya resisted for months but eventually agreed not to run again for chairman of the Jewish Central Committee. His term is set to expire in two months, after the Persian New Year.

A former communist who opposed the shah, Yeshaya was one of the first Jews to support the Ayatollah Khomeini. He used his connections to protect the Jewish community in the face of the rabid anti-Israel rhetoric of the early days of the Islamist regime.

To curry favor with the regime, he has issued anti-Zionist statements repeatedly. His recent letter to Ahmadinejad, protesting the questioning of the Holocaust, allegedly included anti-Zionist rhetoric.

According to a 1999 report in New York Jewish Week, some Iranian and American Jewish leaders have privately accused Yeshaya of playing a role in the imprisonment of 10 Jews in Shiraz that year on charges of spying for Israel. The sources said Yeshaya acted against the Shiraz Jews because their Orthodox views clashed with his secular leanings. However, even Yeshaya’s critics agree that he was instrumental in securing the release of the prisoners in 2003 after years of international pressure on the regime. And he has at times protested the antisemitic content of popular television serials and books published in Iran, as has Maurice Motamed, Iran’s only Jewish parliamentarian.

But questions remain among some of the regime’s strongest opponents in the Iranian exile community.

“I’m a little suspicious about the publication of the letter given the loyalty of the author to the regime,” said Pooya Dayanim, president of the Los Angeles-based Iranian Jewish Public Affairs Committee. The committee is staunchly opposed to Tehran’s Islamic government. “This may in the end be to the detriment of Iranian Jewry.”

Yeshaya received a vote of support from Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation.

“From [Yeshaya’s] letter it is obvious that the statements emanating out of Tehran and the continued anti-Semitic propaganda in the Iranian media have created an atmosphere of fear among the Jewish community in that country,” Kermanian wrote in an e-mail to the Forward. “We have full confidence in [Yeshaya’s] wisdom and experience and we will continue to monitor the situation closely.”

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