Iran’s Jewish community reflects a complicated relationship with Israel

October 2, 2013

In his address this week to the U.N. General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Iran threatens his country’s existence, accused the Islamic republic of institutionalized anti-Semitism and called its new president a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

But one group that rejects such claims is Iran’s large community of Jews, a lasting reminder of the long relationship between Persian and Jewish culture that complicates the tense ties between the two countries over Iran’s nuclear program.

Fewer than 30,000 Jews live in Iran today, compared with more than 100,000 in the 1970s, but besides a mass exodus after Iran’s 1979 revolution and the founding of the Islamic republic, their numbers have remained consistent, and they constitute the largest population of Jews in the Middle East outside Israel.

A recent State Department report on religious freedoms around the world said of Iran that anti-
Semitic rhetoric by some government officials has resulted in a “hostile environment for the Jewish community,” but barring “some exceptions, there was little government restriction of, or interference with, Jewish religious practice. However, the Jewish community experienced official discrimination.”

Those incidents have mostly involved difficulties securing government jobs or gaining entry to state-run universities, but Jews here insist that they practice their religion openly and are free to leave and that those who remain do so because they want to, not because they must.

Some Jews who have left, immigrating mostly to the United States or Israel, report being pressured to convert to Islam or otherwise harassed, and many who remain complain about an inability to see relatives living overseas, especially those in Israel.

Several Jewish activists were executed in the early days of Iran’s revolution. And there have been several instances of Iranian Jews arrested on charges of spying for Israel, but such cases have become increasingly rare.

Chafing at Netanyahu’s words

Members of Iran’s Jewish community say allegations by Israel, such as recent claims of a foiled Iranian terrorism plot in Tel Aviv and ongoing accusations that Iran is building a nuclear weapon for use against Israel, distort the Islamic republic’s relationship with Judaism and its own Jewish population.

Netanyahu’s warnings, coupled with ongoing questions about whether the Islamic republic officially recognizes the Holocaust, have cast a negative light on Iran just days after a historic phone call between the country’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, and President Obama signaled the start of a new era in relations between Tehran and Washington.

Israeli leaders deeply oppose any thaw in the U.S.-Iranian relationship, but Jews here, along with most Iranians, believe that restored ties with the United States could lead to an easing of the international sanctions imposed on the country over allegations that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.

The chairman of Iran’s Jewish Association, Homayun Sameyah, said in an interview that the Rosh Hashanah greetings that Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, posted on Facebook and Twitter last month reflected a friendlier approach to Jews everywhere on the part of Iran’s leaders. He drew a contrast between Rouhani and his more confrontational predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“During the Ahmadinejad years, because of his Holocaust denial, some Jewish activists had problems here, but now that we see that Rouhani has a different opinion, we’re hopeful that such difficulties are behind us,” Sameyah said.

For more than a century, since the Qajar dynasty of the 19th century, Jews have had a representative in the Iranian parliament. But very few Iranian Jews enter politics, even though the regime does not bar them from doing so.

“We are not tenants in this country. We are Iranians, and we have been for 30 centuries,” Ciamak Morsadegh, Iran’s lone Jewish lawmaker, said Monday. Morsadegh traveled as a member of Rouhani’s delegation to the United Nations.

In his office at the Dr. Sapir hospital, one of the oldest medical facilities in Tehran, Morsadegh rejected criticisms by Israeli officials and others who dismissed his presence in the delegation as mere window dressing for an anti-
Semitic political system. “As a member of parliament, it is my duty to represent the interests of all Iranians, not just Jews,” he said.

Standing by their homeland

Community leaders say that Jews here have become more religious since Iran’s revolution. With 60 active synagogues spread across Iran, including a dozen in Tehran alone, sermons and religious courses perpetually draw large participation.

But that gravitation toward deeper faith has not included an embrace of Zionism or any upsurge in immigration to Israel, the leaders say.

“There is a distinction between us as Jews and Israel,” said Haroon Saketi, who owns a clothing boutique in the city of Isfahan. “We consider ourselves Iranian Jews, and it has nothing to do with Israel whatsoever. This is the country we love.”

Iranian Jews are quick to point out that, other than their religious beliefs, there are no cultural differences between them and other Persians, the ethnic group that dominates Iran.

At Tapo, one of three Jewish-owned restaurants in Tehran, diners relish plates of kebab koobideh, minced lamb on skewers, and ghormeh sabzi, a stew of fresh herbs, dried lemons and kidney beans that many consider Iran’s national dish.

“Our food is exactly the same as what other Iranians eat,’’ said Davood Shoumer, who runs the restaurant during the day. “No difference, but our meat is kosher.’’

Jason Rezaian has been The Post’s correspondent in Tehran since 2012. He was previously a freelance writer based in Tehran.
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