Imagine being a Jew in Iran
Current condition of Iranian Jewry
By Pooya Dayanim
March 12, 2003
There are several reasons why it is difficult to obtain accurate and verifiable
information concerning the condition of the Jews in Iran: the reluctance of the general
population to speak out about their condition, the position of the Iranian Jewish
community under the Islamic laws that govern today's Iran and the background and
contacts of some of the Iranian Jewish communal leaders in Iran and outside of Iran.
This article will attempt to provide a brief summary of the current condition of Iranian Jewry and attempt to address why there is scant material available to human rights organizations, researchers and students.
I. General overview
Several reports on human rights in Iran, including the most recent report issued by the US Department of State, have commented upon the reluctance of Iranian Jews to speak out on conditions affecting them, while others have taken the official statements of the Iranian Jewish Community supporting the Islamic regime at face value, none of the reports have bothered to take a closer look at questionable background and contacts of those who claim to speak on behalf of the Iranian Jewish community.
This reluctance to criticize, or even the eagerness to support the Islamic Regime, however, is not evidence of informal intimidation of the Jewish Community by government officials, but is also, and more significantly, a result of an obligatory contractual agreement between the minority community and the Islamic Republic.
The silence, therefore, of the Iranian Jewish community inside Iran concerning
discrimination and persecution is in itself evidence of the dangerous and precarious
situation the community finds itself in and which it is unable to denounce without
breaking its contractual agreement as a religious minority living in a Muslim land.
This contractual agreement under Sharia Islamic Law presupposes complete loyalty to the Islamic Regime, in exchange for which the minority community receives second-class limited privileges in practicing its religion. If the terms of this contract are breached, supposedly even by individual members of the community, the limited privileges of the entire community can be suspended or revoked or the minority community (in this instance the Jewish community) can even face deportation from the country.
Under these circumstances the Iranian Jewish Community must avoid any statements that could be interpreted as critical of the regime and forces the government-imposed or government-tolerated leaders of the Iranian Jewish Community to turn in or turn against those individual members of the community who are brave enough to dare to speak out about the true condition of Jews in Iran.
After the arrest of 13 Jews in Shiraz and Isfahan in March of 1999 on trumped up charges of spying for Israel and the United States, the Iranian Jewish Community leaders inside Iran (Parviz Yeshaya, Manouchehr Eliasi and Maurice Motamed) not only did not inform anyone on the outside world about the situation but became enforcers of silence asking Iranian Jewish leaders outside of Iran to remain silent as well.
It was only in July of 1999 that the case was revealed to the world in an exclusive interview granted the BBC by an Iranian Jewish leader based in the United States (home to 65,000 Iranian Jews compared to the 22,000 that still remains in Iran) who feared that the imprisoned Jews faced immediate execution and decided to break his silence and save their lives.
However, even during the trail, during which the Iranian Jewish Community knew
they had the support of the international media and governments worldwide, statements
from the official Iranian Jewish community were very measured, generally limiting
themselves to faith that the accused would be treated fairly.
While the Islamic Republic does not guarantee the right of free speech and protest to any of its citizens, the situation, because of the Islamic Law, is considerably worse for the Jews. If an Iranian Muslim criticizes the Islamic Republic, he himself can be punished; if a Jew does it, under the laws of the Islamic Republic his actions may legally affect the well being of the entire Jewish community.
Given, moreover, the suspicion in which Jews are generally held because of actual
or perceived connections to Israel, the level of intimidation, especially regarding
anyone who could be thought to speak for the community in general is extreme. Iranian
Jewish leaders in the United States who have been brave enough to speak out have
repeatedly been threatened by Iranian agents that their life and the life of their
loved ones are in danger because of their decision to speak out and that they should
The threat of retaliation against the entire community is an ever present factor in the minds of Iranian Jews and all community leaders. The Islamic Republic reminds Iranian Jews of their uncertain fate and future from time to time in speeches that are delivered by the leaders of the regime.
On May 18, 2001, in a televised speech, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, directly attacked the Jews, calling Jews the enemies of the prophet Mohammad and threatened the Jews with expulsion and expropriation of their property, citing a similar action taken by the prophet Mohammad against the three Jewish tribes in Medina in which they were annihilated. This attack, placed in the context in which the Jews of Iran were still feeling shock of the Shiraz show trials reveals the true feelings of the Islamic Regime toward the Jews of Iran.
There is good reason to believe, therefore, that there is an effective mechanism
of intimidation operating against the Iranian Jewish Community, and their refusal
to report incidents of severe discrimination and persecution is in itself evidence
of the dangerous situation that Jews in Iran live under.
II. Anti-semetic media campaign and its effect on Jews
Since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini and the rise of the so-called reform movement in Iran, there has been an explosion of anti-Semitic propaganda in the Iranian press that is shocking based in its volume and intensity.
Perhaps one of the most shocking examples of anti-Jewish propaganda (discovered by Iranian Jewish scholar Faryar Nikbakht) is the anti-Semitic distortion of Koranic texts in popular translations of the Koran that are being published in Iran.
On the very first page of the Koran, where the original Arabic reads only "those who raised God's anger" or "those who strayed" the Farsi translation, used by the overwhelming number of Iranians not familiar with Arabic, inserts the word "Johood", a negative term applied to Jews in Iran and roughly the equivalent of terms such as "Yids" or "Kikes".
Such insertions occur in dozens of places throughout the text. In some cases,
the translators have even added several anti-Jewish lines themselves. For the Iranian
masses, this is a very powerful source of anti-Jewish propaganda, since it seems
that having a negative attitude toward the Jews is, in fact, the word of God.
According to a well-researched paper in Farsi (which has never been translated to English due to lack of funding) by Faryar Nikbakht (whose work is perhaps the only source for a researcher on anti-Semitism in today's Iran), the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence coordinates much of the anti-Semitic propaganda in the Iranian press. Anti-Semitic articles published in fundamentalist journals such as Sobh or Yalesarat (the publication of the Iranian Hezbollah) frequently contain information that would be available only to the secret police.
Moreover, much of the propaganda is distributed semi-official government media
such as Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), or through other government-controlled
magazines and newspapers. Therefore, these articles should be viewed as government-inspired
attempts to incite anti-Jewish sentiments in the Iranian populace. The US State Department's
International Religious Freedom Report for 2001 confirms these assertions by stating
"The Government fuels anti-Bahai and anti-Jewish sentiment in country for political
purposes." The following is some of the anti-Semitic material being published
In January 1993, the government-controlled daily, Kayhan revived the so-called blood libel according to which the Jews are accused of killing non Jewish children to use their blood to bake their Passover matzoh. The Kayhan, has modernized this libel, however, by stating that Serbs who were killing Muslims were also following Talmudic instructions. In view of the clear absurdity of this claim, it should be noted that Kayhan is the closest daily to Iran's clerical leadersip. The blood libel has been repeated again in several other publications in recent years.
Another anti-Semitic classic is the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" a forgery claiming that it was the secret aim of the Jews to enslave the world. The "Protocols" has been expanded in their Farsi version and have been distributed several times. Iranian newspapers celebrated the anniversary of the publication of this book last year in Iran by republishing it.
Iran has also become the world headquarters for the publication of a constant stream of European and American revisionist historians who have denied the existence of the Holocaust. Primary among these are the works of Roger Garaudy, a French revisionist to Shia Islam. Garaudy's books have been widely translated and distributed in Iran, in part not by the fundamentalists, but rather by the so-called reform circles.
However, the most widely publicized example of the Islamic Regime views on the
Holocaust came again from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who in March
2001, denied the Holocaust and called the survivors of the death camps "a bunch
of hooligans who emigrated to Palestine."
A large part of the anti-Semitic campaign waged by the government takes place in Farsi to not raise attention of the non-Farsi speaking world. For example, when some specifically anti-Semitic articles appear in Farsi newspapers with wide distribution, the articles are omitted from their international edition and from the website of those newspapers.
It is clear that the Iranian authorities do not wish to highlight their anti-Semitic
activities and want to present Iran as a shining example of religious tolerance.
When Maurice Motamed, the sole Jewish MP in Iran's Parliament, was interviewed by
the Forward in his trip to the United States this past month for example,
there were Iranian diplomats present and the interview took place at the residence
of Iran's Ambassador to the UN to make sure that he does not say anything that the
regime finds unproductive to its PR efforts.
III. The Life of Jews in Iran
A. IRANIAN JEWS AND THE IRANIAN LEGAL SYSTEM
The Jews suffer from official inferior status under Iranian Law and are not protected by police or the courts. The amount of financial compensation a Jew can receive from a Muslim in case of murder or accidental death of a relative is equal to one-eighth of that which would be paid if the victim was a Muslim.
In practice this means that a life of a Jew in Iran has very little value. In
addition, since Iranian courts routinely refuse to accept the testimony of a Jew
against a Muslim, most cases of this sort are not even prosecuted and the police
do not even investigate such claims. As a result of their legally inferior status,
Jews find themselves outside the protection of the courts and police. This is not
simply a perception on their part, but rather, sadly, a harsh reality. In none of
the cases of the murder of Jews in Iran has a perpetrator ever been found, much less
B. IRANIAN JEWS AND THEIR EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITIES
Ayatollah Khomeini's edicts concerning the Jews, published in his book "Tozieh Almasael" (Explanation of Problems), state clearly that while there is no Islamic law prohibiting a situation in which a Muslim may work under a Jew, this is a shameful situation for a Muslim to be in. These edicts still carry the force of law in Iran, and as a result, Jews have been barred from any position in which they would be superior to Muslims.
Jews are excluded from most government positions. Virtually all government entities (most sectors in Iran are government-owned) have a "Muslim only" policy and they print this requirement in their job notices in newspapers. This formal exclusion of Jews from large areas of employment is badly damaging to the Jews.
Most private companies, thanks to the anti-Semitic media campaign in Iran, do
not hire Jews either. Most Jews are forced into self-employment, but due to general
public prejudice, few buy anything from them. The US State Department Religious Freedom
Report of 2001 confirms that Jewish businesses have been targets of vandalism and
C. IRANIAN JEWS AND THEIR EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES
All Jewish university students must pass a course on Islamic ideology. In general, the professors in these courses are, by definition, very dedicated to their ideology and many Jewish Students that I have interviewed have reported that attending such a course has been a humiliating experience, in which their religion has been ridiculed and trivialized. Jewish students who protest are expelled and blocked from entering the University. Jewish students have also reported that instructors have arbitrarily failed them to block their educational goals.
Parents of Jewish elementary and secondary school students, I interviewed in Vienna (processing center for Iranian Jewish refugees) in July of 2002, report frequent verbal and even physical abuse of their children by allegedly anti-Semitic teachers. Iranian "Jewish" schools are forced to stay open on the Jewish Sabbath. Principals of "Jewish" schools in Iran by law must be Muslim and are generally selected based on their Islamic credential.
D. IRANIAN JEWS AND RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
Judaism is one of the recognized minority religions in Iran. Jews, therefore, are allowed to conduct religious services and give religious education to their children. The privileges of religious education, can, however, be suspended it is thought by the authorities that such an education may prevent Jewish children from converting to Islam once they group.
Many informed observers believe that one reason that Jewish rabbis and teachers
were arrested in Shiraz was the fact that they were instructing in the spirit of
Orthodox Judaism. The US State Department Religious Freedom Report for 2001 notes
that the Jewish community, and its religious, cultural and social organizations,
are closely monitored by the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance and the Ministry
of Intelligence and Security.
The form that this monitoring has taken is either sending agents posing as Jews to synagogues or forcing Jewish communal leaders to inform on the activities of the Jewish community. This situation has created an atmosphere of terror and mistrust in the Jewish community. Many Jews who flee Iran relate that they told no one of their plans to emigrate, not even friends or relatives in fear of an unknown collaborator informing authorities of their plans.
E. IRANIAN JEWS AND THEIR COMMUNITY LEADERS
One of the biggest problems in gaining accurate information about the Iranian Jewish community is its leaders and questions that have surfaced in recent years about them and their allegiance.
The most influential Jewish leader in Iran is Parviz Yeshaya. A noted anti-Zionist, he was one of the first Jews to support Ayatollah Khomeini. Yeshaya has maintained his solid revolutionary credentials by calling for, amongst others things, the destruction of the State of Israel. Parviz Yeshaya has been the head of the Jewish Central Committee in Tehran since the revolution.
An article published by Ronen Bergman in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz in
August 1999 stated that Israeli officials are investigating claims that Yeshaya is
a collaborator of the government of Iran. An anonymous American Jewish leader interviewed
by the New York Jewish Week in 1999 while discussing the plight of the imprisoned
Jews in Shiraz stated that Yeshaya put them there. No one knows for sure the truth
about these allegations but the fact that they are being made makes observers second
guess whether or not Yeshaya has the best interested of the Iranian Jewish Community
Questions have also arisen about Iranian Jewish leaders outside of Iran as well. An August 1999 Ha'aretz article revealed contacts between Iranian Jewish lawyer Hamid Sabi and officials from the Ministry of Intelligence and Security.
In September 1999, New York Times best-selling author and Iran expert,
Kenneth Timmerman reported in Iran Brief that Sabi was representing Noushab
Corporation (owned by a semi-governmental Iranian foundation) in court against Coca
Cola. These revelations have caused concern among observers about whether or not
it is proper for Sabi to be involved in the affairs of Iranian Jews when he represents
Iranian government interests abroad.
Most disturbingly are revelations about an entity based in the United States called the Iranian Jewish Federation. According to Kenneth Timmerman, this entity represents a small minority of Iranian Jews abroad. However, in literature in Farsi that the Iranian Jewish Federation publishes and in its contacts with US officials it insists that it is an "umbrella" organization representing the Iranian Jews based in the United States.
In 1998, Sobh-e-Iran, a Farsi daily, published reports about an alleged meeting between the Iranian Jewish Federation and Hadi Nejad Husseinian, the Iranian ambassador at the UN at the time, in Los Angeles. The Iranian Jewish Federation has never issued a statement denying such a meeting or their contact with the mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran at the UN. New York Jewish Week has reported that between 1994 and 1999, the Iranian Jewish Federation allegedly had failed to notify international Jewish agencies of the disappearance of eleven Iranian Jews who had attempted to flee the country.
In the same article, Malcolm Hoenlein, an American Jewish leader who is closely
involved in the Iranian Jewish issue admitted that he had not been informed of the
affair by the Iranian Jewish Federation. In August 2000, the Iranian Jewish Federation
agreed to meet Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi in his visit to Los Angeles
before cancelling under public pressure.
Iranian Jews face severe discrimination and persecution in Iran. Their future is uncertain. Due to circumstances this note has attempted to highlight, an observer or a researcher attempting to study the condition of Iranian Jewry faces severe difficulties in obtaining material to study. Interested parties must make themselves educated about Iranian law, Islamic law, the Farsi language, the nuances of Iranian culture, an understanding of the collective psyche of Iranian Jewry, to be able to even attack the topic. This explains why so little research is available and why more is necessary.
Pooya Dayanim is president of the Iranian Jewish Public Affairs Committee (IJPAC).
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