A Demonizing Call

Speaking for himself? Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's call last month for Israel to be
Speaking for himself? Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's call last month for Israel to be "wiped off the map" may underscore his fundamentalist Islamic bona fides, but it could spur greater interest among Iranians in their country's Jewish history, the author argues. (Associated Press)
By Roya Hakakian
Sunday, November 20, 2005

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called last month for Israel to be wiped off the map of the world, he displayed a disregard for the international community that proved he is a genuine disciple of the late Ayatollah Khomeini. But his proposal also showed that he hasn't learned any lessons from recent Iranian history. In a country where public opinion takes shape in direct opposition to the regime, the objects of hostile statements like Ahmadinejad's almost always win friends among young Iranians.

Take the United States. Twenty-five years of demonizing America has only sent the Great Satan's popularity skyrocketing so high that many political pundits speak of Iran as the biggest red state outside U.S. borders. Now, in similar fashion, the passion for the Palestinian cause is cooling, and the average Iranian is beginning to look at Israel with new interest.

The ailing economy has turned unemployed young Iranians into pragmatists. One popular slogan at student demonstrations in recent years has been: "Let go of Palestine; pray think of our miseries!" Bloggers are expressing their exhaustion with the regime's embrace of the Palestinian cause at the expense of Iranians' welfare. Though this year's annual anti-Israel parade reportedly drew tens of thousands, that was far fewer than the hundreds of thousands, even millions, who attended in the early 1980s.

For the first time in decades, opposition leaders, no longer afraid of taking an unpopular position, are challenging the assumption that Iran's official anti-Israel stance is sound foreign policy. There's some momentum behind the idea that in a region dominated by Sunni Arabs, Israel is Iran's most natural strategic ally. Writing about a recent trip to Iran in the New York Review of Books, historian Timothy Garton Ash pointed to developments like these as evidence of the Iranians' "friendly curiosity about Israel."

But curiosity is easier to come by than enlightenment. As religious fundamentalism becomes a universal affliction, inflammatory statements like Ahmadinejad's should blend into the thicket of radical utterances issuing from around the world. The blame for the fact that it doesn't falls chiefly on Iranian intellectuals.

Even though Iran has long had a substantial Jewish population -- before 1979, it was between 80,000 and 100,000, including my family -- there is a dearth of reliable literature in the Persian language about Israel and Jewish history. Government-sponsored institutions, to be sure, have been prolific on the subject, publishing openly anti-Semitic titles ranging from "The Jewish Lobby in America," "History of the Jewish Plutocracy" and "Israel and the Shah's Secret Police" to "An Exploration of Judaism" with chapters on "The Crimes and Murders of the Jews," "Jews: A Racist Nation" and "The Old Testament: A Pawn in Jewish Hands." But more than 2,000 years of Jewish presence in Iran has yielded no more than a handful of scholarly books and articles.

This is not because the story of Jews in Iran belongs to a bygone era. Even with the standoff between Iran and Israel, and the 1999 arrest of 13 Iranian Jews on espionage charges, Iran continues to be home to the largest community of Jews in the Middle East outside of Israel. Though the population has shrunk significantly -- to somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000, according to Maurice Motamed, the Iranian Jewish parliamentary representative -- the community's importance lies not in its size but in its ancient roots. The Jewish existence in Iran precedes that of the Muslims, dating to at least the 6th century B.C., when the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem and the fall of the First Temple drove the Jews into exile.

It has been a bittersweet existence: sweet, because Jews living in Iran were spared the rampant pogroms of Russia and Europe; bitter, because they were nonetheless subjected to hostility. My generation, growing up before and during the 1979 revolution, knew little about this hostility and how it played out -- Jews being relegated to second-class status, forced to convert, barred from social and economic advancement, and denied rights as basic as walking on the sidewalk on rainy days. But they had deeply shaped our parents and our family narratives.

And it is a life that, in print or otherwise, has been muted. Jews, who adopted Persian as their language and celebrate all the secular holidays with fervor, have made major contributions to Iranian art and culture. And yet, most non-Jewish Iranians' familiarity with Jewish life and tradition barely goes beyond a few fond accounts of neighbors who occasionally ask them to switch their lights on or off on the Sabbath, and who are admired not for their colorful ways, but for being so indistinguishable from the surrounding Muslim community. The term by which the majority of Iranians refer to a Jewish person is still the derogatory "Johoud," the equivalent of "dirty" in the Persian vernacular.

The history of this particular ignorance is important. Nearly 50 years ago, Khomeini began to make his first public speeches, which were riddled with anti-feminist, anti-modernist and anti-Semitic sentiments. In them, he introduced Israel and the United States as the two evil pillars supporting the monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. This idea caught the imagination of the secularists fighting the Shah, and soon the struggle against him, against U.S. imperialism and against Zionism all became one.

But in reality, the rhetoric was a facade for anti-Semitic sentiments that predated the politics of the pre-revolutionary era. When the Holocaust was still a recent memory, even diehard progressive Iranians had no second thoughts about calling for the destruction of Israel. Leftist organizations sent their recruits to Lebanon for military training, and many made their names by carrying out military operations against the Israeli army. When the leading intellectual of the '60s and '70s, Jalal Al-Ahmad -- who saw Westernization as the root of Iran's problems and coined the term "westoxification" -- returned to Iran from a 10-day trip to Israel, few of his fans were moved by the admiration he expressed for the kibbutz and the Jewish immigrants who had come together to build a utopia in the Middle East. In 1967, when the Israeli soccer team faced their Iranian counterparts in a historic match in Tehran, the fact that swastika-marked balloons flew over the stadium and that Iranian Jews were pelted with rocks and their businesses looted seemed as natural as the celebrations that followed Iran's victory.

These realities should have inspired introspection among Iranian intellectuals (after all, self-criticism was as popular as the Beatles in those days). But they didn't, even though, from the '60s through the late '70s, Iran's elite championed the cause of the world's downtrodden: the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the Eritrean Liberation Front, the Irish Republican Army, the Basques, the Chileans under Pinochet, even the Greeks long after the colonels were gone. In the euphoric post-revolutionary period, when a book about the suffering of Bolivian mineworkers became a bestseller, members of the Baha'i faith were disappearing by twos and threes, and Jews were fleeing Iran by the hundreds, my family eventually among them, without a mention in any books, or even a flier.

With their silent consent to the ill treatment going on at home, Iran's intellectuals committed an error so common in history that they can almost be forgiven for it. The injustices suffered by a minority as small as the Jews must have seemed inconsequential at the time; only in hindsight, in light of the democratic movement's derailment and the loss of all the liberties that the 1979 revolution promised, does their significance grow. But they did foreshadow what was to come. In so blindly echoing the Ayatollah's bilious views, these intellectuals failed to differentiate themselves from the clerics -- the first grave step toward their loss of political power after the revolution. Fifty years after it was first spoken, Martin Niemoeller's famous warning proved true in Iran: First they came for the Baha'is, then the Jews, then the women, until they came for the average Iranian who, by then, had no choice but to subject himself to the dark rule of theocracy.

While President Ahmadinejad does not truly represent Iran and its attitude toward the Jews today, he does represent an old bigotry that the nation has yet to address. When it does, Iranians will finally be granting long overdue recognition to some of the country's most loyal citizens. And they may also save the Jewish community from extinction. If Iran can continue to be a sanctuary to Jews and other minorities, it will have maintained the very elements that have, throughout history, brought it both glory and distinction.

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Roya Hakakian, a freelance journalist, is the author of two books of poetry in Persian and a memoir "Journey From the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran" (Crown).

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