Iran Jews "calm" after spy case
By Tom Hundley
July 16, 2000
The Jews of Tehran live on Palestine Street. That twist only begins
to suggest the complexities faced by Iran's durable Jewish community, the
largest in the Middle East outside of Israel.
Some 30,000 Jews still live in Iran. Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution--before
fundamentalist zealots insisted on changing the name of Palace Street to
Palestine Street--the number was 80,000.
Many feared that that this month's conviction of 10 Iranian Jews on
charges of spying for Israel would trigger another exodus.
Kurosh Baradarian, 23, doesn't think so. Standing outside his father's
kosher butcher shop, Baradarian, an engineering student at Tehran's Azad
University, discussed the implications of the verdict with an American
reporter and a group of Jewish and Muslim acquaintances from the neighborhood.
"It was calm before the verdict. It's calm now. Jews are free to
stay or leave, but nothing serious has happened to make them leave,"
The others agreed. Yusef Beroukhim, 48, who is Jewish and owns a cosmetics
shop on Palestine Street, said he knew of several families that were planning
to leave, but not because of the spy trial.
"It's for economic reasons. Or because they are lonely because
all their relatives are living in America," he said. "I've been
to France, Italy and England, but the feeling I have here is that this
is my home. Iran is a nice place."
Western governments, Jewish groups and human-rights organizations were
quick to denounce the verdict, which saw 10 of the accused Jews sentenced
to prison terms ranging from 4 to 13 years. Three other Jews were acquitted
while two Muslims involved in the case received 2-year sentences.
A Revolutionary Court conducted the trial behind closed doors in the
southern city of Shiraz, where most of the accused lived. No evidence was
ever made public, although confessions of two of the defendants were broadcast
on national television. All but one of those convicted signed confessions,
admitting to accusations of contact with Israel, belonging to an illegal
group and espionage.
While relieved that none of the accused was sentenced to death, the
U.S. and other countries criticized the trial's secrecy and warned Iran
that the case could hurt its efforts to restore ties with the West. Israel
denies having any contact with the accused and said their only crime "was
that of being Jewish."
Iran's Jews are not sure what to think.
"If they were real spies, they should have been executed,"
said Baradarian, the student. "I don't know if the judge was trying
to be kind to them or what, but the light sentences prove they couldn't
have been spies."
Parviz Ahoubim, a businessman and frequent spokesman for Tehran's Jewish
community, pointed out that most of the accused were simple shopkeepers
with limited education.
"I don't think Israel would want such men as spies. A spy should
be someone very intelligent who has years and years of training,"
Others in the closely-knit Jewish community said they knew some of the
accused, and that while they were skeptical of the spy allegations, they
believed several may have been involved in other illegal activities.
Jews have lived in Persia, what is now modern-day Iran, since the 6th
Century B.C. when Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon, modern-day Iraq, and
freed its Jewish slaves.
Jews are perhaps most closely associated with the Iranian city of Hamadan,
where the tomb of Esther is located. But only about three dozen Jews currently
live in Hamadan. Tehran has the largest Jewish community in Iran, with
about 10,000 members and 23 active synagogues.
In the 19th Century and early 20th Century, when Iran was ruled by the
Qajar dynasty, Jews were often the targets of Russian-style pogroms and
Things improved under the Pahlavis. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last
shah, maintained good relations with Israel.
The creation of Israel in 1948 and the enmity this bred among the Arabs
brought about the demise of large Jewish communities that had thrived for
centuries in Morocco, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Between 1950 and 1980, an
estimated 1 million Jews from Arabic countries left their homelands. Most
resettled in Israel.
In the Middle East, Iran and secular Turkey are the only Muslim countries
that retain a significant Jewish minority.
In Iran, the reign of the ayatollahs began in 1979 and Jews were subject
to the same rigid social restraints imposed on everyone--the head-to-toe-covering
of women, strict separation of the sexes for many activities, the prohibition
of many books and films and types of music.
The Islamic constitution, however, recognizes Jews as a protected minority
and gives them a guaranteed seat in the parliament. They are allowed to
practice their religion and teach Hebrew in their schools. They also receive
a partial dispensation from the ban on alcohol.
"This is an Islamic country, and we have to obey their laws. If
you don't violate any laws, you will not suffer here," said Beroukhim.
Others acknowledged it was not always that simple. Iran's Jews are in
the awkward position of sharing a religious identity with Israel, a nation
with which Iran is in a virtual state of war.
"It's a dispute between governments. I don't know who is right,"
said Baradarian. "I have never seen an Israeli person. I have never
talked to one. Religiously, we are the same, but you find good people and
bad people from all religions."
In general, Iranian Muslims are proud of the official tolerance accorded
the Jewish minority, and despite the government's ceaseless harangues against
Israel, the Jewish community here has not been viewed as any kind of fifth
The spy case could change that. A recent editorial in one hard-line
Islamic newspaper questioned the loyalty of Iran's Jews, warning ominously
that they "had failed their test."
According to the newspaper, Jomhuri Eslami, "It was expected that
the Jews would want these spies to pay for their crime more than anyone
else, but instead they have defended them vigorously."
The Jewish Association of Tehran, a community group, responded with
a statement accusing Israel of orchestrating public opinion against Iran
in order to provoke an exodus of Iranian Jews.
"We love our country ... and that is why we condemn once more all
the propaganda campaigns against the Jews and the Islamic Republic and
proclaim our loyalty to the interests of Iran and the Iranian government,"
the statement said.
Although there are ominous rumblings among some fundamentalist Muslims,
Iranian Jews on the whole feel rooted and safe in the wake of the secret
trial of 10 of their brethren.
GRAPHIC: PHOTOS 2PHOTO: In one of Tehran's 23 active synogogues in April,
an Iranian Jew prays at the onset of Passover. Of the country's 30,000
Jews, 10,000 live the capital. So far, the spy trial has not prompted an
exodus. Agence France Presse photo by Henghameh Fahim.; PHOTO: In Shiraz,
where the trial was conducted behind closed doors, a Jewish merchant sells
residents sugar in the city's Jewish quarter. Agence France Presse photo
by Behrous Mehri.