Iranian Jewry Today
In late June 2012, Mohammad-Reza Rahimi, the Vice President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, addressed an international conference on the proliferation of illicit drugs. In describing Iran’s narcotics problem, Rahimi acknowledged his country’s extensive border with Afghanistan, the largest producer of illegal opium in the world. But he also blamed the crisis on the Babylonian Talmud.
Rahimi parroted old anti-Semitic screeds about the Talmud preaching Jewish superiority and claimed that it “teaches [Jews] how to destroy non-Jews.” Given the alleged absence of “Zionist” addicts from the world—apparently Rahimi is unaware of Israel’s documented heroin problem—the Vice-President took the presence of Jews in the international drug trade as an indication of the Talmud’s evil influence.
The New York Times and several major Western media outlets published Rahimi’s anti-Semitic remarks and suggested that the affair further increased Iran’s growing isolation and intensified the nuclear crisis unfolding between Israel, Iran, and the United States. But the media largely neglected to consider how such remarks affected, and were received by, Iran’s own Jewish community. Indeed, the broader discourse concerning the current Iranian nuclear crisis has focused solely on Jews living in Israel. Iranian Jews are simply not mentioned.
Numbering approximately 30,000, Iranian Jewry constitutes the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside of Israel. Very soon after Rahimi’s speech, the website of the Tehran Jewish Association posted a letter that its director, Dr. Homayun Sameyah, had dispatched to the Iranian Vice President. In it, Sameyah takes issue with Rahimi’s allegations against the Talmud, and argues that “besides discussing matters of religious law, [the Talmud] also describes the lives of the sages and prophets, aspects of proper morals and behavior, and matters of health and medicine, within the limits of that time’s science.” The letter respectfully but firmly requests that the Vice President clarify his remarks and correct any potential misunderstandings which they may have brought about. Finally, it asks that Rahimi reiterate the difference between Zionists and Jews—a distinction that originated with Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, when the Jewish community sought assurances that it would be safe in the new Republic.
Sameyah’s letter of protest, along with other official statements, articles, and announcements uploaded to the Tehran Jewish Association’s website, provide a fascinating viewing-point into the Jewish community in Iran today. But like most sources of information on the Jews in the Islamic Republic—including Western journalism and even scholarly publications—the view is more peephole than window, and it allows for only a limited and frequently obstructed glimpse at the complexities of this fascinating community.
Jews constitute the oldest minority in the Islamic Republic today; by a long shot. The community has an ancient and illustrious history in Iran, dating back to the Babylonian exile in the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. when Jews found themselves under the mostly benevolent rule of the nascent yet soon vast Iranian Achaemenid Empire, founded by Cyrus. Aside from sporadic episodes of persecution, Jews prospered under the various dynasties that ruled Iran. But that changed when the Safavids came to power at the turn of the 16th century and inaugurated Shiite Islam as the state religion. Iranian minorities of all stripes did not fare well under Shiite Islam, particularly in its medieval articulation. The longstanding Shiite persecution complex coupled with newfound hegemony over vast territories often proved a dangerous cocktail, while severe purity laws precluded most forms of contact between Shiite Iranians and everyone else.
By the close of the Qajar period (1786-1925), the Jewish population was seriously depleted. Yet the modernization of Iran and particularly the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911, which gave parliamentary representation to Jews and other recognized minorities, finally brought a measure of relief. The ascension of the Pahlavi monarchy (1925-1979) improved the situation for the Jews quite dramatically. As a result of this brief upturn in Jewish fortunes, the Islamic Revolution of 1979 is often seen as a radical deterioration for Iranian Jews. Indeed, many Iranian Jews now living outside of Iran’s borders still pine for the autocratic reign of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (1941-79), over thirty years on.
Unquestionably, the numbers confirm a major decline: Within a decade of the Islamic Revolution, the community had dwindled by some 75 percent. The popular persecution that followed the revolution, and the difficult years of the Iran-Iraq war made life in the new Republic unbearable for much of the Jewish community. Numerous Jews, other minority groups, as well as many liberal-thinking Muslims, packed up their things and escaped. The mass exodus and the stories that Iranian Jews brought with them have to a great extent defined the public perception of what it means to live as a Jew in Iran. Yet, in the years since many of those Jews departed, various political changes have significantly affected Iran’s remaining Jews: The Iran-Iraq war, the years of reform at the turn of the millennium, and now the complexities of Ahmadinejad’s presidency and the ever-mutating Iranian political scene have successively altered the map dramatically.
In February and March of 2009, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen penned a pair of now infamous articles about a trip he took to the Islamic Republic. The image that Cohen painted of Jewish life in Iran was particularly rosy. He observed that furious protests against Israel’s war with Gaza did not spill over into anti-Semitic diatribes and, more personally, that he had “seldom been treated with such consistent warmth as in Iran.” The response from many journalists around the country was swift and severe. Their resounding message was that Cohen did not know how to read Iran and its Jews. He had been duped.
In certain respects, the fault lines highlighted by the Cohen fiasco parallel the dispute between Israeli scholars of Iran. On one side, a number of academics, mainly affiliated with major Israeli centers for Middle Eastern studies, are closely aligned with the government’s approach regarding the Iranian nuclear threat. Many also see the situation of Iranian Jewry as particularly dire. On the other, scholars associated primarily with the Left, such as Ben-Gurion University’s Haggai Ram, criticize the government’s view, and offer radical and even subversive re-readings of the current crisis which suggest that Israel’s fear of Iran is largely self-manufactured. Recent work by Orly Rahimiyan—an extensively published doctoral candidate also at Ben-Gurion—makes the case for a more nuanced assessment of the ethno-national identity and political situation of the Jews in Iran today. Rahimiyan argues that Iranian Jews have constructed a complex hybrid identity for themselves that cannot easily be untangled. In this regard, Iranian Jews are very much Iranian, although they are also strongly Jewish.
Following years of secularization during the reign of the Shah, Jews in the Islamic Republic became visibly more religious. (This might be attributed to the general religious fervor that the country has experienced since the late 1970s. Alternatively, it might be related to the fact that the synagogue is one of the few public communal spaces still available for Jews.) In practice, Iranian Jews can visit Israel via a third country. Receiving an exit visa is no longer the bureaucratic nightmare it once was, and technically speaking, many Iranian Jews could leave the country if they so desired. In the summer of 2007, what began as a genuinely felt offer of financial incentives to Jewish Iranians who wanted to immigrate to Israel turned into a debacle that deeply insulted Iran’s Jewish community.
Many outside observers attribute Iranian Jewry’s frequent criticisms of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians solely to efforts to appease the Islamic regime. But as disconcerting as the thought may be, it is possible that the critique springs from the widely held Iranian view of the Jewish state, which sees Israel’s rule over the Palestinians through the lens of Iran’s traumatic encounters with colonialism and related Western attempts to intervene in its political affairs.
Nonetheless, there are reasons to be concerned about Iranian Jewry. Contrary to Cohen’s observations, not every official parses the difference between Zionist and Jew as neatly as the Jewish community would want him to. In a famous case, just before Passover in 1999, thirteen Iranian Jews were incarcerated in the city of Shiraz on suspicion of spying for Israel (three were later released but the rest were deemed guilty). And beyond his remarks about the annihilation of Israel, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial has made the community extremely uncomfortable. So uncomfortable, in fact, that in early 2006 the Jewish community sent a letter of protest to the President (the letter, which unlike the dispatch to Rahimi did not merit an official response, is also uploaded to the Tehran Jewish Association website). While this episode reflects the highly negative influence that official Iranian rhetoric has had on the Jewish community there, it also reveals a community confident enough to register its complaint in full view.
Roger Cohen wrote his Times articles just months before the massive, unprecedented unrest of the summer and fall of 2009 that came to be known as the Green Movement. The protests, which erupted in the wake of a stolen presidential reelection and which the regime and its civilian minions violently suppressed, alerted the world to a republic that was far less stable than previously thought and to a new generation of Iranians no longer willing to be trampled. Where the Jews stood during this tumultuous period is unclear: The status of most religious minorities was simply not part of the reformist discourse. Still, one cannot help but notice the letter of congratulation to Ahmadinejad on his 2005 election which appears on the Tehran Jewish Association’s website, and the virtual silence that followed his 2009 reelection.
Early analysis of the Green Movement saw the protests not as revolutionary, but as a civil rights movement that wanted a fair vote. But three years later, following a dramatic Arab Spring, some of the young Iranians who were involved in the movement have come to the realization that their efforts to effect change within the system led only to beatings and humiliations. Despondency reigns. The Islamic Revolution wrought by their parents does not speak to them, nor does it define their identity—even for some of those who are deeply Muslim. A burgeoning underground music and radical arts scene reflects a generation in the throes of the painful process of crafting a new Iranian identity. Thus, despite the appearance of order, the situation remains ripe for change.
A number of Western analysts and Iranian expats continue to hope for the return of the Pahlavi monarchy, yet all indications suggest that there is virtually no chance of this happening. A true revolution, if it is to come at all, will take place organically, and may very well emerge from a newly formed Iranian identity. The precise nature of this identity is anyone’s guess. Some evidence suggests that Zoroastrianism—the ancient religion of Iran—may play a role, though now in a de-ritualized, nationalistic form. To an extent, the Shah went down this path already, and used it to push a unified secular Iranian national identity that partially effaced minority identities. This time around, however, maybe we will see a pan-Iranian Islamic-Zoroastrian hybrid that allows space for the country’s many minority groups, including Jews and Christians. Perhaps even something similar to the vibrantly diverse ethno-religious realities reflected in the pages of the Babylonian Talmud. If only Vice President Rahimi had bothered to open it.
Shai Secunda is a Mandel fellow at the Scholion Center for Interdisciplinary Jewish Research, and a lecturer in the Talmud department at Hebrew University. He blogs at the Talmud Blog, which he founded and now co-edits.
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