The 21st-Century Iranian Jew: Precarious Lives Of Pride … And Fear
On Nov. 26, Toobah Nehdaran, 57, was murdered in her home in the Jewish quarter of the city of Isfahan in Iran. The murder, according to a statement by the ad hoc Jewbareh Committee, took place against the backdrop of the victim’s previous complaint against the takeover of a section of her family residence by Islamic religious radicals for annexation to the neighboring Kareem Saaghi mosque.
A report, which several days later ran in the Times of Israel, reported that several “thugs broke into the home, tied up her two sisters and repeatedly stabbed her to death.” The Times reported that Nehdaran was, as if in a ritual manner, “butchered,” her hands cut off.
Weeks later, Daniel Mugrufta, 24, was murdered in Tehran. Unconfirmed reports indicated the murderers shot him and looted his property. The son of one of the wealthiest Jews in the capital city, according to Israel’s Ch. 2, some sources indicated Mugrufta was planning to flee Iran for America. Others indicated he was dating the daughter of a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and was murdered because of this relationship.
Iranian authorities contend both murders were the results of robberies.
“No one knows exactly,” said Daniel Golfeiz, executive director of Baltimore’s Ohr Hamizrach Iranian congregation.
And even if they do know, they are afraid to talk.
“We are all hesitant. If they [the Iranian regime] would get a hold of certain statements — I just don’t want to mess up anyone’s life,” Golfeiz said.
As with any authoritarian regime, the Iranian government controls the truth. You cannot Google the subject. You cannot easily speak with the Iranian police — this reporter tried several times.
“If anyone wants to find out via Google or any other resources, they [the Iranians] have managed to block it,” said Gil Davis of Sderot, Israel, who works closely with several top Israeli reporters, experts on Iran. “This is not the first time, and it won’t be the last time. … If a Jew should say a word against Iran, he is immediately executed.”
Said Professor David Menashri, a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies: “The consequences of statements here and there can be devastating.”
It has happened before.
In 1979, Habib Elghanian, Iran’s most prominent Jewish industrialist and philanthropist, was gunned down by the new Iranian regime for his alleged continued support of the overthrown Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
In 1999, 13 Jews living in the city of Shiraz were arrested on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel and were facing imminent execution. It was only in the final hour that the Iranian regime backed away from the espionage charges and the executions and that the Shiraz 13, as the Jews came to be known, were released.
Since then, there have been roughly 13 other cases of Jews executed, likely for their religion, said Menashri, a number that can be considered low or high, depending on how one looks at it.
“When you create a society in which blood is cheap, then spilling blood becomes a common thing to do,” said Rabbi Reuben Khaver, a prominent local Iranian Jew. “The Iranian constitution does not give the same value to the blood of a minority and the blood of a Muslim as far as punishment [for murder] goes. … If the minorities are a subclass [the punishments for hurting them so much less], you are encouraging — or at least not discouraging — taking away the minorities’ lives, money or other belongings.”
The Golden Age
Still, Persian Jews are managing — “managing, but surely not a thriving community anymore,” said Farhad Kazemi, a retired professor of politics and Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University.
“Anymore” is the key word. There was time when Jews enjoyed not only relative freedom, but also prosperity in Iran.
The Persian Jewish community dates back more than 2,700 years (see “Ancient & Modern Collide”); it preceded the Iranian Muslim community by 1,000 years. Before the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Jews in Iran enjoyed a relatively free and prosperous life under Shah Pahlavi. While most of the Jews in neighboring Middle Eastern and Gulf countries fled — or were forced to flee — following the Jewish state’s founding in 1948, Iranian Jews stayed — and thrived.
“Iranian Jews were probably the richest Jewish community in the world per capita,” said Menashri. “They were well-educated and successful. With the Iranian revolution, everything changed. They went from the height of their success and from being the elite of the country to feeling the fear of persecution.”
When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took the reins in 1979, he ushered in an era — today’s era — characterized by conservative Islamic values, anti-Semitic rhetoric and distrust of the West. Most Jews believed they no longer would be free to succeed professionally or to worship freely. A burgeoning Jewish population of well over 100,000 quickly shrunk to today’s 20,000 to 25,000 people; by some estimates there are as few as 9,000 Jews in Iran today.
Most Iranian Jews emigrated via Europe to the United States (Los Angeles, Great Neck, N.Y., and also Baltimore) or Israel.
The shrinking community in Iran made the Jews more introverted and isolated and with lesser economic resources and opportunities, said Farideh Farhi, an independent scholar and affiliate graduate faculty at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. Still, she said, Jews in Iran continue to be a part of the fabric of Iranian civil society.
A Protected Subclass
“Things are bad [in Iran], of course they are, for the Iranian Jewish community and other minorities. But you have to keep things in some perspective,” said Professor Ali Banuazizi of Boston College.
In an email interview, Alireza Miryousefi, head of the press office for the Iranian mission to the United Nations, said “there is no anti-Semitism inside Iran historically, and the Iranian Jews are one of the biggest communities in the Middle East and enjoy their rights in light of Iran’s constitution.”
Miryousefi pointed to two articles in the constitution that make life for Jews in Iran possible. According to Article 13, “Zoroastrian, Jewish and Christian Iranians are … within the limits of the law, free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education.” In accordance with Article 64, the Jews are entitled to one government representative.
“Jews are not persecuted,” said Meir Litvak, director of the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University. “They can live their lives, do their businesses, provided they keep quiet and behave themselves. … I don’t think they are on the verge of pogroms. … The Iranians are too smart. If they can show Jews can live under Muslim rule, the Jews won’t need a Jewish state.”
Theologically speaking, explained Nader Hashemi, assistant professor and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, the Jews are considered “people of the Book” or “people of Divine revelation.” He said the Jews have more than a dozen synagogues operating freely in Tehran and several others in smaller cities like Shiraz and Isfahan. While they don’t enjoy “full and equal rights,” as Hashemi put it, they live well for a minority community under authoritarian rule.
According to materials available online through the Iranian Jewish cultural authorities, the community has many synagogues, special schools, cultural complexes, youth, student and women’s centers, senior facilities, libraries and more. (A full picture of local offerings can be read at iranjewish.com.)
One U.S. Jewish communal professional, who asked he and his organization not be noted in this article, said Jewish life in Iran is richer than in many midwest American cities.
“One can live a satisfying Jewish life in Tehran, probably more so than in some places like Iowa,” he noted.
Judaism Versus Zionism
How is all this possible when Iranians are regularly spewing anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric, which is deeply embedded as state policy?
Just last month, Iran was featured prominently on the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s list of Top 10 anti-Semites of 2012. (See “Ultimate Top 10,” page 33.)
“It has now been some 400 years that a horrendous Zionist clan has been ruling the major world affairs,” was a recent statement by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Iran’s First Vice President Mohamed Rahimi charged at a ceremony in Tehran marking International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking that the Talmud “teaches [the Jews] how to destroy non-Jews so as to protect an embryo in the womb of a Jewish mother.” As “evidence” of Jewish control of international illegal drug trade, the vice president revealed there isn’t “a single addict among the Zionists.”
Iran’s military chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi, noted last year, “The Iranian nation is standing for its cause … the full annihilation of Israel.”
Some, like Hashemi, would argue that it’s just rhetoric — rhetoric that scares but is not based in reality on the ground.
“There is a general perception in the U.S. by Jews that the Iranian government represents a 1930s Nazi-style threat to world Jewry, that if Iran gets a nuclear bomb there is going to be another Holocaust,” said Hashemi. “But this flies in the face of the fact that in Iran, despite the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic [sentiments] of the regime, the country has allowed a sizable Jewish community to remain free of persecution for the last 33 years. If Iran was really determined to exterminate the Jews, to get an atomic bomb and wipe out the State of Israel and then world Jewry, would it not begin with the Jews in its own backyard?”
The Jews, too, try to believe they are immune — as long as they stand up against the State of Israel.
“Many members of the Iranian Jewish community would draw that distinction [between Judaism and Zionism]. To be a Jew is not to be pro-Israel or [for] the present Israeli government,” said Banuazizi. “The Jews are telling the Iranian authorities they are not a threat or an enemy of the state. They are saying Iran is their country, their home.”
They keep a low profile, said Davis. They don’t comment on politics.
And that works — for now.
Some authorities worry the situation could shift in an instant. Most of the clerics, said Kazemi, don’t distinguish between Zionism and Judaism. Even Ayatollah Khomeini, in some of his writings and speeches, fails to make a distinction.
“I believe the people of the regime believe what they are saying. And it does not even matter [if they do], because when you have a leadership that is this cynical, what is to stop the people from believing?” said Litvak. “Can you seriously discount these inciting suggestions? Think of Rwanda. Think of Bosnia. In today’s world, incitement against any group of people cannot be dismissed for the possibility that it will eventually turn out to be something very nasty.”
The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in Vienna is a first stop for many Iranian Jewish refugees. While the organization could not provide this reporter with an immigrant to interview, a representative for the organization was able to supply the following, very recent anecdote:
“B” is a 24-year-old Jewish refugee who fled Iran after suffering discrimination and harassment because of her faith. She is currently being processed for resettlement to the United States. “B” has been called a “devil worshipper” because she is Jewish and was once held in a detention center for 10 hours for wearing a Star of David. But much of the discrimination she has suffered has centered on her attempts to pursue a college education. While she was taking the entrance exams for the free government universities in Iran, she was forced, as are all admitted Jewish applicants, to answer questions about Judaism. After the exam answers were printed in the local newspapers, “B” was certain she had answered nearly every question on the exam correctly. However, she was later informed that she had scored only 68 out of a possible 100. After talking with other Jewish friends, she discovered they had all received the same grade. Thus unable to attend the state schools, “B” had to pay to enroll in the private Islamic Azad University. In the mandatory religion classes, her professors always singled her out. One forced her to sit at the front of the classroom and explained that this was so he could “control her.” On the second day of class, this professor set a philosophical trap for “B” by commanding her to tell the class about the Jewish belief in the Messiah. After she began to speak, “the professor sat down next to me and began to laugh. He told the class, ‘Look at this Jew girl — she lies! Their rules are not correct.’ He told me to move away from the other students, and then he started. He said Jewish people are unclean, they believe in reincarnation, and they drink blood. The other students called me very bad names.” “B” was able to complete a Bachelor of Science degree but continued to suffer harassment in the school. “B” is traveling to the U.S. alone but will join family there. She is hoping to continue her studies in the U.S.
What is accurate, the life of general peace and prosperity or the account provided by “B”? No one outside of Iran really knows.
An individual in Baltimore may try to paint a darker picture of the situation in Iran so donors would have more pity on him, provide more assistance, explained one community leader on condition of anonymity. In contrast, someone with relatives still living in Iran would be more cautious, painting a rosy picture of the situation to appease the Iranian government.
A Nuclear Iran
The situation for Jews in Iran is, of course, compounded by the high global tension and fear of Iranian nuclear proliferation.
The persistent question: What, if anything, should the U.S. or Israel do to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb — or even nuclear capability?
First of all, as sanctions continue to take effect, all Iranian citizens are affected, including the Jews. And there is no clear indication that the sanctions are working.
“I am in the camp that argues that sanctions harm the population of Iran more than those with political and economic power,” said Farhi. “I think the Iranian Jews, like the rest of the middle- and lower-class Iranians, are being harmed by the restrictions on economic opportunity.”
If Israel strikes Iran, Iranian-American Jews say they will fear for the safety of their family in Israel, in America, and even more so, in Iran. But even talk of an attack has its consequences on the indigenous population.
“Iran and Israel are locked into this incredible conflict,” explained Banuazizi, noting that Iran is now also in a state of war with the West.
“Every day we hear about the attacks — bomb, bomb, bomb Iran. [Israeli President Binyamin] Netanyahu is at the forefront,” Banuazizi said.
“The Iranians are suffering from this situation,” noted Kazemi, “and the Israelis are fully aware of that.”
He said that he believes Iran does not want a nuclear bomb in order to attack Israel but rather “as an element in the power balance. … The possibility of Iran using [the bomb] is extremely remote.” But, he said, if Israel attacks Iran someone will pay the price — and it will likely be the Jews in Iran. The Iranian government will have to do something to respond if it is attacked.
So why don’t the Jews leave now — just get out before it is too late?
The answer for most is simple: They don’t want to.
On paper, said Mark Hetfield, president & CEO (interim) of HIAS, there are no governmental barriers to immigration. There were efforts over the last five years to try to convince Persian Jews to leave Iran — mostly in the form of pressure from family members and friends in the U.S. and Israel. However, those efforts were considered a failure, for they did not create much movement. The Jews wanted to stay.
The number of Jews leaving Iran has diminished in the last four years. In fiscal year (FY) 2009, 136 Persian Jews emigrated. That number dropped to 89 in FY 10, to 37 in FY 11 and to 26 in FY 12, according to HIAS reports.
Hetfield said he believes the decrease in emigration is a combination of desire and red tape. It can take up to two years to leave Iran through Vienna, he said, as immigrants need a specific visa from the Austrian government to enter the country.
“This creates some lag time,” he said.
In addition, once an immigrant arrives in Vienna, he or she must apply for refugee status in order to enter the U.S. with the assistance he or she needs to be successfully absorbed. Refugee status enables the person to receive rent assistance, food, furniture, language courses and job referrals, among other benefits. One has to prove he or she deserves this status.
Refugees often rely on the Lautenberg Amendment, which dictates that persecuted religious minorities fleeing Iran and the former Soviet Union be immediately seen as refugees. The legislation expires each year at the end of September and must be reinstated in order for HIAS to process applications. This often takes up to six months.
“This should be a no-brainer,” said Hetfield. “Who wants to keep Iranian minorities locked up in Iran?”
However, he noted, HIAS can take no applications through Vienna while Vienna waits to see if the U.S. will again pass the legislation; the Viennese government does not want refugees hulled up in its country. Hetfield said he thinks this fear of getting turned down plays a key role in the decrease in Jewish applicants.
And it may be.
Still, the Baltimore Jewish community would like to see Persian Jewish families put back together. Golfeiz said putting politics aside, he thinks family members need one another, and he wants Persian families to reunite in Baltimore.
“Each family is missing someone,” he said.
He and Ohr Hamizrach Rabbi Rouben Arieh said, “We need to get them out.”
Rabbi Arieh did not discount the connection of Persian Jews to the land of Iran, but he said, as Jews, we are trained to start over. In Baltimore, he noted, 150 Iranian families — 700 people — are making it in this new and vibrant Iranian Jewish community.
“Jews run from one place to another, and we start making it again,” Rabbi Arieh said. “This is Jewish history. We can go on. Look at our shul, we are a community within a community. This building alone shows we can go on.”