LOS ANGELES, Sept. 3 (JTA) – Despite Iran’s hostility toward Israel, the Islamic republic’s 25,000-strong Jewish community goes about its daily life without government interference, according to a former Iranian Jewish leader. Iran’s Jewish community operates an active network of synagogues, schools, libraries and community centers, says Parviz Nazarian, who was a Jewish community leader in his native Tehran before the 1979 Islamic revolution. Nazarian, a leader of the 30,000 Iranian Jews living in Los Angeles, bases his evaluation on continuing contacts within Iran and a scrutiny of the Iranian media. “As long as Jews obey the government’s social rules – women must wear a chador (body veil) in public, and no drinking in the streets, for instance – they are now free to conduct their own religious services, study Hebrew and Judaism and own businesses,” he says. Nazarian’s analysis of Jewish life in Iran is confirmed by David Hirsch, a librarian and Middle East expert at the University of California at Los Angeles who recently attended the Tehran International Book Fair. In a written report on his trip, Hirsch described a visit to the crowded Abrishami Synagogue in Tehran. He wrote of Iranian Jews milling outside the synagogue with “no guards or visible security measures.” At the Jewish school, Hirsch found “official Iranian text books on the principles of Judaism available for grades 2 to 5, and the school is marked with a mural of the Ten Commandments.” Nazarian, who was a successful industrialist first in Iran, then in Israel and now in Los Angeles, acknowledges that there are occasional anti-Semitic attacks and incidents. But he ascribes these to Islamic zealots rather than to official government policy. Nazarian is heartened by the landslide victory in Iran’s May presidential election of the relatively moderate Mohammed Khatami. He also nourishes optimistic hopes for an eventual return of the “natural strategic partnership between Israel and Iran, to maintain peace in the region.” He urges Americans to draw a distinction between the Islamic fundamentalists, who overthrew the Shah and encourage terrorism against Israel and the United States, and the mass of Iranian people, “who are good people, very intelligent and sophisticated.” Although the present Iranian Jewish community is but a remnant of the 250,000 Jews who lived there in the 1940s, Nazarian takes great pride in the 2,700-year history of Judaism in his native country. Between 1949 and 1952, close to half of all Iranian Jews left for Israel. In Los Angeles, which has the largest Iranian-Jewish population outside Israel, Nazarian is president of the charitable organization Magbit. Magbit raises around $500,000 a year, which initially went to support Russian immigration to Israel through Operation Exodus. Magbit now underwrites 400 scholarships for immigrants to Israel or their children to study at the country’s main universities. Recently, Nazarian and his wife, Pouran, endowed a chair of modern Iranian history at Tel Aviv University, which, he hopes, will eventually serve as a “messenger” between Israel and Iran.
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Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.