Iran wouldn’t appear to be a likely candidate to house the largest Jewish community in the Muslim world. After all, Iran is run by a fundamentalist Islamic regime whose president has threatened to destroy Israel and who regularly denies the Holocaust.
But Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran currently is home to an estimated 25,000 Jews.
What is life — and Jewish life — like for these Iranian Jews? How do they reconcile their dual identities? And why do they choose to stay in a land that, at least from an outsiders perspective, appears increasingly inhospitable?
History, in part, holds the answer to these questions.
Iranian Jews have lived in the region for more than 2,700 years. During that time, they’ve survived waves of forced conversion, anti-Semitic propaganda, derogatory dress codes and economic, legal and social persecution.
But there have also been times when they flourished, like they did under the pro-Western regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who ruled until the Islamists took over in the late 1970s.
Indeed, some 100,000 Jews lived in Iran before the 1979 Islamic Revolution prompted an exodus.
Through these ebbs and flows, Iranian Jews have learned that oppressors, no matter how tyrannical, are only temporary masters.
For this reason, as George Haroonian, a community activist in Los Angeles put it, Iranian Jews tend to think of the current anti-Semitic, anti-Israel climate as only “a temporary disruption in the long centuries of the relationship between Jews and Iranians.”
“These people know this government will vanish, but Israel will stay and Iran will stay,” Haroonian, who runs a magazine for Iranian Jewish emigres, said. “We have to think of it in those terms.”
For many Iranian Jews, that means making their peace and carrying on.
“Right now, the situation is like a calm before a storm,” said Frank Nikbakht, the former public affairs director of the Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations. “The problem is as long as the situation seems to be normal, it’s very difficult to ask somebody to pack up and leave a country they’ve lived in for hundreds of generations.”
But there have been occasional anti-Semitic outbursts during the past decade or so.
In 1999, 13 Iranian Jews were accused of spying for Israel, and 10 were imprisoned. Though all were released by 2002, the incident sent shockwaves throughout Iran’s Jewish community.
During that period, reports also rose about 11 others who went missing between 1994 and 1997. Haroonian said that Iranian American Jews are “very much still following the issue,” since “the Iranian government has not given straight answers of what happened to these people.”
In other ways, too, the situation for Iranian Jews is difficult.
Anti-Semitic propaganda is pervasive, say those interviewed for this article, and Jewish citizens have been stripped of many rights, such as their ability to provide testimony in court or hold a position superior to that of a Muslim.
Things have gotten so bad that several weeks ago, reports that Iran would be enacting a law mandating a Nazi-like uniform for Jews was widely believed in the West. That report, however, proved to be false.
To cope with their lack of freedoms, Jews in Iran have mastered the art of separating their private lives from their public ones.
Outwardly, Iranian Jews do their best to blend in and stay quiet.
“In order to be as safe as possible, you must hide most of your feelings,” Nikbakht explained. “You keep a low profile and agree to the government position, whatever it is.”
Haroonian concurred. “Many Jews have sort of accepted, internalized the idea of being inferior to the majority Muslims. It’s the relationship of, You do your thing and I’ll do my thing and we don’t step over the lines.”
Iranian Jews, at least publicly, often mask their affiliations with both Judaism and Zionism.
When an Iranian Jewish dance troupe traveled to Russia recently, several members refused to eat pieces of cake decorated with the Israeli flag.
And members of the community keep mezuzot on the inside of their doors instead of the outside.
What happens inside those houses is another story, however.
In recent years, Jewish practice may have strengthened in Iran.
“Jews in Iran have become more religious since the revolution,” confirmed Pooya Dayanim, president of the U.S.-based Iranian Jewish Public Affairs Committee. “As their numbers have dwindled, solidarity and action among them has increased.”
He cited 13 active synagogues in the country, as well as a Jewish hospital and slew of Jewish day schools.
Nikbakht attributed this upswing to waning public entertainment, as well as a general trend toward religious extremism in the country.
“When you see the environment is doing something, you tend to do the same in order to say its not only you who are close to God, it’s us too,” he explained.
Still, practicing Judaism under the current regime has proved difficult. State law forces Jewish schools to remain open on the Sabbath, and specifies that Hebrew lessons are not permitted outside prayer time.
Schools are required to have Muslim principals, since Jews must occupy subordinate positions at all times, and prayer books are printed in Farsi instead of Hebrew, as a means of controlling what is studied.
These obstacles, perhaps, also account for the slow trickle of Jews out of Iran.
The Hebrew Immigration Aid Society holds a contract with the U.S. State Department to operate an immigration center in Vienna, where Iranian Jews are detained until they can enter the U.S. Refugee Program and emigrate. Statistics provided by the organization show that about 200 Iranian Jews were resettled in 2004, and about 300 in 2005.
Haroonian reported that relatives in the United States are “giving messages to their families saying, ‘think about your future, the future of your young kids.’ “
Many Jews in Iran are dismissive, he said.
“When they hear about assimilation and divorce rates here, and security issues in Israel, so many choose to stay,” Haroonian said. “They think it’s not very rosy here either.”
But Sam Kermanian, secretary-general of the Los Angeles-based Iranian Jewish Federation, pointed to other, more pragmatic reasons for staying put: Many are too old, or too sick to leave.
“Those who remain to a large extent would have a more difficult time adjusting to life in a different country,” he said.
He added that others may not have the financial means to leave.
But unless Iranian Jews speak up, agencies in a position to help them will continue to receive mixed messages.
“We certainly have noted with concern the flow of new stories of problems and statements by the government,” Gideon Aronoff, president and CEO of HIAS, said. “But we really do leave it to the people on the ground to assess their own circumstances.”
Nikbakht reiterated this claim.
“Most of the Jewish organizations outside the country have made it clear to relatives or co-reglionists in Iran that whenever they want to leave, the Jews outside the country are ready to help them,” he said. “Beyond that, there is no large-scale, organized effort to get them out. All we’re doing is telling them, if you want to get out, we’re ready to help you.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.