[Marxism] Iranian Jews speak out

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Jan 13 08:07:49 MST 2006

Just as Venezuelan Jews have dissociated themselves from attacks on Hugo 
Chavez for alleged anti-Semitism, this article points to a reality 
different than the one that expected from the mounting media assault on the 
president of Iran--even though it is from 8 years ago.


from the February 03, 1998 edition

[ Editor's note: The Christian Science Monitor archive includes stories 
dating back to 1980. Some early articles lack sufficient formatting, and 
will appear as one long column without paragraph breaks. We apologize for 
the aesthetics and hope that the information will still be of value to you. ]

Jews in Iran Describe a Life of Freedom Despite Anti-Israel Actions by Tehran

Michael Theodoulou, Special to The Christian Science Monitor

TEHRAN, IRAN - One of the most striking of many murals in Iran's capital, 
Tehran, is a towering portrait of Fathi Shkaki, a leader of the militant 
Palestinian group, Islamic Jihad. He was assassinated by Israeli agents in 
1995 after he masterminded a series of suicide bombings against Jewish 
civilians. A slogan beneath his face hails him as a hero of the Islamic 
revolution in Palestine. Yet, stroll a little farther along Palestine 
Street and you come to the Abrishami Synagogue, the biggest of 23 
synagogues in Tehran. It is regularly attended by some 1,000 worshippers. 
It comes as a surprise to many visitors to discover that Iran, a country so 
hostile to Israel and with a reputation for intolerance, is home to a small 
but vibrant Jewish community that is an officially recognized religious 
minority under Iran's 1979 Islamic Constitution. "[Ayatollah Ruhollah] 
Khomeini didn't mix up our community with Israel and Zionism - he saw us as 
Iranians," says Haroun Yashyaei, a film producer and chairman of the 
Central Jewish Community in Iran. Like Iran's Armenian Christians, Jews are 
tolerated as "people of the book" and allowed to practice their religion 
freely, provided they do not proselytize. They elect their own deputy to 
the 270-seat Parliament and enjoy certain rights of self-administration. 
Jewish burial and divorce laws are accepted by Islamic courts. Jews are 
conscripted into the Army. "We are one of the oldest Jewish communities in 
the world," Mr. Yashyaei says. "When Muslims came to Iran, we had already 
been here for centuries." "Take it from me, the Jewish community here faces 
no difficulties. If some people left after the revolution, maybe it's 
because they were scared," says Farangis Hassidim, a forceful but 
good-humored woman who is charge of the only Jewish hospital in Iran. She 
adds: "Our position here is not as bad as people abroad may think. We 
practice our religion freely, we have all our festivals, we have our own 
schools and kindergartens." For her, the well-equipped hospital in central 
Tehran is a model of religious harmony. "We have about 200 staff, 30 
percent of them Jewish," she says. "These days, I'd say about 5 percent of 
our patients are Jewish, the rest are Muslims." A sign outside the hospital 
reads in Hebrew: "Love thy neighbor as thyself." Nevertheless, many Jews 
emigrated after the 1979 Islamic revolution to the United States, the 
favored destination, and to Israel. In just under two decades, their 
numbers in Iran have dwindled from 100,000 to about 40,000, 25,000 of them 
in Tehran. The shah, overthrown in 1979, was on good terms with the Jewish 
state; opposition to it was a cornerstone of Khomeini's revolution.

A tight-knit community Like other minorities, many Iranian Jews feared an 
uncertain future, although their religious rights were enshrined in the 
Constitution. Nevertheless, Iran's Jewish community remains the largest in 
the Middle East outside of Israel, and human rights activists confirm that 
members are not persecuted because of their religion. Since the Islamic 
revolution, the Jewish community has become more tight-knit and devout, 
according to worshippers at the Abrishami Synagogue. After prayers, there 
is a festive atmosphere as families, greeting each other with the Sabbath 
greeting "Shabbat Shalom," spill out into the courtyard. Savory snacks are 
handed out as families share gossip and children dart up and down the 
stairs playing tag. A small portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini is painted on 
the wall of the stairwell. Privately, there are grumbles about 
discrimination, much of it of a social or bureaucratic nature. Some 
complain it is impossible for Jews to get senior positions in Iran Air, the 
national airline, or in the national oil company. A woman teacher says she 
has been passed by for promotion several times because she is Jewish and 
now hopes to emigrate to Los Angeles. A car-parts dealer says Jews have to 
wait much longer for travel documents and exit visas. The most pressing 
complaint is that, despite many petitions to parliament, Jewish schools 
must open on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath. Like so many other Iranians, 
those at the Abrishami synagogue are relying on the new president, Mohamad 
Khatami, to support them. "He's a kind man; let's hope he can help us with 
this schools question," says the parts dealer. Jews also hope for a genuine 
Middle East peace settlement that would enable a more moderate Iran to 
recognize Israel, where many Iranian Jews have relatives. That clearly is a 
long way off, despite hints over the weekend of some kind of 
people-to-people dialogue. Even Mr. Khatami, with his reputation as a 
relative moderate, called Israel a "racist, terrorist state" in a recent 
interview on CNN television. Contacts with the Jewish state are banned, 
although some visit through third countries, while mail is usually routed 
through London.

Why leave? At an antiques shop in central Tehran, Isaac, the elderly owner, 
says many Jews who once owned shops along the broad, bustling avenue have 
left in the past 20 years. He has not seen his sister since she emigrated 
to Israel 16 years ago, but he has no plans to leave. "The Jewish community 
has been here for centuries, and this shop has been in the family for more 
than 50 years," he says, reeling off the famous customers who have visited. 
"Gen. [Charles] de Gaulle was here. "But look at this," he adds, 
brandishing an old black-and-white photograph of himself with his arm 
around curvaceous 1950s film star Gina Lollobrigida, who sports a beehive 
hairdo. "Really, it's OK here, and it's home," he says.



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