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Iranian Jews are ‘tolerated,’ but still live in occasional fear

NEW YORK, June 15 (JTA) — The Persian King Cyrus conquered Babylonia in 538 B.C.E., freed the Jews from captivity and provided the resources to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. Today, contemporary Persia — Iran — is one of the most virulently anti-Zionist countries, from which even a phone call to Israel is impossible. So when 13 Jews arrested earlier this year were recently charged with spying for America and Israel, the “Zionist regime,” their situation became unquestionably bleak. According to the Anti-Defamation League, at least 17 Jews, including Jewish community leaders, have been executed since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran — many of whom were accused of spying for Israel and the United States. Of these executions, the most highly publicized was the death of Habib Alqanayan, a head of the Jewish community, in 1979, the ADL said. Israel and the United States have publicly denied the veracity of the charges against the 13 men, who include a rabbi, religious teachers and Jewish community leaders. While Iranian Jews and their family members living abroad have been reluctant to talk about their daily lives — fearing retribution from Iranian authorities — some information is known about the community. Iran’s 2,500-year-old Jewish population is the largest Diaspora community in the Middle East, with an estimated 25,000 to 35,000 Jews. A recent report by the Israeli daily Ha’aretz put the number at 27,000, citing Iranian Jewish sources. Iran’s pre-Revolution Jewish population is estimated to have been 100,000, but most left for the United States and Israel as anti-Zionism and anti-capitalism heated up under the Islamic regime. Jews are considered a “tolerated minority” in Iran, a state that is ruled by Islamic law, or Shariah. This protection came in the form of a fatwa, or religious decree, issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini when he returned from exile in Paris in 1979 to announce the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. As do the other recognized religious minorities living in Iran — Christians and Zoroastrians — the Jewish community has its own representative in the Iranian Parliament. In 1997, according to one news report, there were 11 functioning synagogues, two kosher restaurants, a Jewish hospital, an old-age home and a cemetery in Tehran alone. Jews are allowed to congregate and pray in synagogues, which have become for many Jews since the Revolution, a social center as well. Jews are permitted to drink alcohol in private — unlike Muslims, for whom liquor is prohibited — but Jewish women must cover their heads in accordance with the Islamic dress code. Jewish merchants are permitted to close their businesses on Saturday, but one of the explanations for the recent arrests is that some of the religious Jews refused to open their stores on Shabbat. Jewish religious education is encouraged and taught by Jewish teachers, although the schools are run by the Muslim state. Hebrew is taught only in private and is popularly associated with Israel, and thus Zionism. Nasrin Jahaverian, whose brother, Nasser Levihaim, is one of the men in custody, told JTA that Iranian authorities might have targeted him because he frequently volunteered as a Hebrew teacher. Most Iranian Jews live in the capital, Tehran; only a few thousand live in the regional centers of and Isfahan and Shiraz, where the Jews in custody were arrested. Shiraz is known as a more traditional city than Tehran, and Jewish and Muslim residents tend toward religious conservativism. According to one source originally from Shiraz, more members of the Bahai religion — a minority group considered heretical by the Shi’ite Muslim leadership — have been executed in Shiraz than elsewhere in Iran. Despite Jews’ official status, several Iranian Jews living in America interviewed by JTA attested to popular, even “rampant,” anti-Semitism in Iran in the form of job discrimination and the destruction of personal property. One Tehran native who moved to the U.S. in 1982 said, “You lived quietly and into yourself,” and described the communal philosophy as: “You don’t bother them; they don’t bother us.” Jews in Iran try to “minimize contact” with its Muslim neighbors “out of fear of exactly these kinds of incidents,” he said, referring to the arrests. An Iranian Jewish woman living in New York said, “It’s a question confronting Jews in Iran: Are you loyal to Israel or Iran? “It’s a test question non-Jewish Iranians put to Jewish Iranians,” she said. Official actions against Jews suspected of Zionist ties can be severe. In 1998 Iran executed a 60-year-old Iranian businessman for allegedly spying for Israel, according to Human Rights Watch. In 1997 two people were hanged after they were convicted of espionage charges, according to the human rights organization Amnesty International. In 1996, an anonymous Iranian Jew testified in the U.S. before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights that he was imprisoned for more than two years because he was suspected of spying for Israel. The man reportedly said he had been arrested, held and then released “suddenly, with no explanation.” But he said he was “under constant surveillance” and told to leave Tehran. His case was “extreme,” he told the committee, but exemplified the “constant state of fear” in which Iranian Jews live. The tension inherent in Jewish life in Iran emerged in remarks by the Jewish representative to Iran’s Parliament published Saturday. According to a news report, Manouchehr Eliasi demanded “true justice for the suspects. “This is not the first time Jews have been arrested in Iran on charges of spying for the Zionist regime, and we hope such a thing is not true and they will be acquitted,” he reportedly said in an interview with the centrist daily Entekhab. “We have no links or contact to the Israeli government because we distinguish between Judaism and Zionism,” he said, according to the report. On Friday, Iran’s chief jurist reportedly announced to thousands gathered at Friday prayers at Tehran University that the men would “receive capital punishment” if found guilty, and denounced the Israel and the United States. Worshipers reportedly chanted “Death to Israel” and “Death to America,” and called for the suspects’ execution.