Jews of Iran: a community on borrowed time

Johanna Afriat

Digital Journalist

9 min read
A Jewish woman prays at the Abrishami Synagogue in Tehran, Iran, on November 28, 2013.
BEHROUZ MEHRI / AFPA Jewish woman prays at the Abrishami Synagogue in Tehran, Iran, on November 28, 2013.

'In the event of war with Israel, the mullahs will not hesitate to use them as bargaining chips'

In 1979, shortly after the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the coming to power of the mullahs, notables from the country's Jewish community asked to meet Ayatollah Khomeini, the country's new strongman ruler. 

The Jewish leaders brought a tray filled with gold and silver in which they concealed a check for ten million dollars: the Jewish community of Iran had just bought its peace. The next day, Khomeini declared that anyone who attacked a Jew should be held accountable. 

After the fall of the Shah and his autocratic power, Iran’s Jews aspired to continue living as peacefully as possible in a region they had already inhabited for 2,000 years. Unlike the Jewish communities in other Muslim lands, this minority never suffered persecution in Iran, and was therefore never forced to flee. Those who immigrated to Israel after its founding in 1948 did so of their own free will.  

However, these hopes did not last long. The arbitrary show trial and execution in May 1979 of businessman Habib Elghanian - one of the wealthiest and most influential figures in Iran's Jewish community - marked for many Iranians Jews the signal that they should leave. While there were 100,000 before the Islamic Revolution, the vast majority of them left the country.  

The others chose to stay, and are still there with their children and grandchildren. Now numbering between 9,000 and 15,000 according to estimates, Iran's Jewish community remains the third largest in the Middle East, after those of Israel and Turkey. 

How does one explain the fact that there are still so many Jews living in this fundamentalist Muslim country, a state which nourishes a real obsession for the eradication of Israel?

A golden prison

The fact that this community has a large number of elderly people speaking only Persian, and for whom leaving would be difficult, is not negligible. However, the main reason why Jews stay is their relative financial well-being. 

"Jews are undeniably materially successful in Iran, and know that their possessions and savings converted into dollars would be worth next to nothing. They cling to what they have," Jewish community president Zion Hasid told i24NEWS, speaking to the studio in Israel from Iran. 

Hassid, who lives in Jerusalem, left Iran for Israel some 60 years ago, when he was 20 years old. This businessman, who made his fortune in real estate, finances cultural activities intended to bring Israelis closer to their Iranian origins, and tries to promote immigration from Iran which remains, to his great regret, stubbornly modest. 

While Israel welcomed some 600 Iranian Jews in the early 2000s, for more than a decade little or no immigration from that country has been recorded in the Jewish state. 

Even the financial incentives of the government in 2007, supported by philanthropists, did nothing to change this: the $10,000 promised to each Iranian immigrant upon arrival were not enough to trigger a major wave of immigration, and only a hundred families answered the call. 

However, the period seemed particularly auspicious, with the presence in power of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who constantly sharpened his murderous rhetoric with regard to Israel, calling for the country to be wiped off the map. But the country's Jews, again, chose to turn their backs. 

Certain reflexes - guarantors of their security - are an integral part of the way of life for Iranian Jews. Many traders, exporters or businessmen, most of whom live in Tehran with their families, do not hide their origins, but know that they must go about their business without making waves and above all while refraining from discussing politics. 

Thus, the jewelers of the capital do not hesitate to put pendants in the shape of the Star of David in their windows but avoid sensitive subjects with their customers. 

The anti-Zionism and support for the Palestinians that many of these Jews display is also dictated by this same instinct for self-preservation. In 2015, we could see Dr. Ciamak Moresadegh, a Jewish deputy, engage in a violent anti-Israel diatribe alongside President Rouhani, whom he accompanied to the UN General Assembly. 

"They criticize Israel in public because they know that is what is expected of them, but in their hearts and in the synagogues their prayers are turned to Jerusalem," Hassid told i24NEWS

Beyond these constraints, the Jews of Iran, most of whom are religious, benefit from a community life such as is found in many diaspora countries: they have synagogues where they celebrate weddings and bar mitzvas (there are around fifteen in Tehran alone), schools, ritual baths as well as kosher products and restaurants. 

All this under the benevolent eye of the regime, which while proclaiming its aversion to Israel and Zionism, has always taken care to establish a distinction with Judaism. It never fails to highlight its respect for the Jews, a point it advertises widely. 

The seat reserved for the Jewish community in parliament - as for every minority - or the recent state-funded renovations to synagogues and the tomb of Mordechai and Esther (of Purim fame), are part of this strategy of the "white paw."

"Unlike in Europe, there are no guards at the entrance to our synagogues and our schools," said the Chief Rabbi of Iran, Yehuda Garami, in 2020. 

So many aspects that allow the Jews to affirm that they are treated as equals with the Muslim population of the country, with whom they maintain good relations. 

"Iranians have no hostility towards Jews. Most do not even have any towards Israel. They hate the (Iranian) regime and are not in solidarity with its positions," affirms Hassid.  

But the Jews who left Iran are not fooled. "This community lives in a gilded prison and doesn't realize how limited their rights are. They live in a circumscribed space that they call freedom because they have no other reference," Hassid told i24NEWS

"As children, we were beaten daily on the way to school, and our mothers were not allowed to touch fruits and vegetables in the market because ‘Jews were unclean,’ but we thought that was all normal, because that's how we always lived," he laments. 

Additionally, Jews cannot work in the public service, nor in the army, nor in higher education and journeying to Israel is prohibited, Hassid said. Not exactly what you’d call ordinary, equal, citizenship therefore. 

AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi
AP Photo/Ebrahim NorooziAn Iranian woman holds a national rally commemorating the 37th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran, Iran, on February 11, 2016.

Anti-Zionism versus Anti-Semitism

For the Iranian intellectual and writer Ramin Parham, who lives in France, the denial demonstrated by Iranian Jews results as much from their own survival instinct as it does from the propaganda of the Iranian regime. 

Parham points out that the concept that anti-Zionism is distinct from anti-Semitism was not invented by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS) or the radical left, but was developed by the fathers of the Islamic revolution with the aim of reassuring the western world. 

"The mullahs are above all good communicators, who quickly understood that the credibility of the regime on the international scene relied on its respect for the Jews and other minorities in the country. But it is only a question of saving appearances," Ramin Parham told i24NEWS

The Jews versus the "Zionist regime" is a rhetoric that has simultaneously allowed Iran to make Israel its number one enemy, while generating an insoluble conflict of loyalty for the country's Jews. "We are Jews, but we are not Zionists," the minority claims. 

The Iranian regime has eyes and ears everywhere – a fact not lost on its Jewish population - and suspicions of dual allegiance are never far away. Nor do they forget the fate of ten Iranian Jews convicted in 2000 of spying for Israel, some of whom were executed. At most we have heard them say, about the Holocaust cartoon competitions and Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial, that the president "must not be sufficiently informed."

Moshe has lived for several years in Israel, while his parents are still in Iran. However, the scars of fear are still present on him, and he was reluctant to talk about his family, out of fear for their safety. 

He appeared to weigh each of his words, before speaking. The Jews of Iran live well, and their Muslim neighbors respect them, he said.

"If they work and live in their corner without being noticed, there is no problem," he told i24NEWS. However, he regrets that his parents do not have the opportunity to travel to Israel and that he cannot visit them, he admits. He has not seen his parents in three years.

Parham affirms this idea. This distinction between the Jews and Israel will not survive an open conflict between Iran and the Jewish State. 

A hypothetical scenario that seems more and more likely, while Iran inches closer to the nuclear threshold, and that the agreement about to be signed in Vienna may do nothing to curb. 

"The Jews of Iran are all potential hostages. In the event of a war with Israel, the mullahs will not hesitate to use them as bargaining chips. They are on borrowed time."   

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