All is well! The Iranian Parliament has a Jew!
It was a tad early for “Purim Torah,” but on Taanis Esther, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded to a question from an NBC correspondent by insisting that Iran cares deeply for and is entirely protective of its Jews.
Asked about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent assertion in his speech before the U.S. Congress that “Iran’s regime is not merely a Jewish problem, any more than the Nazis were a Jewish problem,” Mr. Zarif bristled and changed the topic to the Israeli leader’s citation in his speech to Megillas Esther.
“He even distorts his own scripture,” said the Iranian about the Israeli. “If — if you read the book of Esther, you will see that it was the Iranian king who saved the Jews.” We needn’t engage Mr. Zarif on the finer points of the Purim story, but the question in the end, of course, isn’t what Achashverosh was or did, but what Iran is and does (and wants to do).
(Mr. Zarif, incidentally, also proudly cited Koresh, as having granted the Jews of his time permission to rebuild the Beis Hamikdash — apparently oblivious to the irony of the fact that the aforementioned edifice was to be built, and in time was built, in Yerushalayim.)
The Iranian foreign minister animatedly explained how “We have a history of tolerance and cooperation and living together in coexistence with our own Jewish people, and with … with Jews everywhere in the world.” And he added, “If we wanted to annihilate Jews, we have a large number of Jewish population in Iran” who, presumably could provide a convenient first-stage opportunity. But, Mr. Zarif went on to proudly state, Jews “have a representative in Iranian parliament allocated to them, disproportionately to their number.”
A recent CNN article happily swallowed that sunny Iranian party line, describing the Iranian Jewish community of Esfahan in warm and delicate tones. It characterized the community’s members as happy, and interviewed several. Not one of them had anything negative to say about the current Iranian regime, clear proof of its benevolence (or, perhaps, of the very opposite).
Esfahan Jewish community leader Sion Mahgrefte, the article noted, while he “declined to comment directly on political matters, especially in the current heated environment,” did assert that the members of his community felt very much at home in Iran.” Puts one in mind of James Baldwin’s line about home being “not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.”
The NBC interviewer was, thankfully, less meek. She presented Mr. Zarif with a statement made by Iran’s “supreme leader,” Sayyid Ali Khamenei, in which he declared: “This barbaric, wolf-like and infanticidal regime of Israel which spares no crime has no cure but to be annihilated.” “Can you understand,” the interviewer asked, “why Jews and others would take umbrage at that kind of language?”
He could not, of course, and insisted that “annihilating” a country of six million Jews (evocative number, that) is one thing; hating Jews elsewhere, something entirely another. Slippery fish, that distinction between Jews and a country of Jews.
Iran’s Jews may not be overtly persecuted these days, but there are subtle sorts of repression too. No Iranian Jew can dare speak up in defense of Israel in any way, for fear of his life. And not long after the inception of the current “Islamic Republic,” the Jewish community’s leader at the time was arrested on charges of “corruption” and “friendship with the enemies of G-d” and executed. Other Iranian Jews have likewise been executed over ensuing years for being “spies.” (One wonders how thin the line is between being a Jew in Iran and a spy.) Criticism of the Iranian policy of appointing Muslims to oversee Jewish schools, moreover, resulted in the shutting down of the last remaining Iranian Jewish newspaper, in 1991.
And so, Iran’s claim of love for its Jews, and some Iranian Jews’ claim to feel safe and protected, has to be taken with a grain, or perhaps a nuclear missile silo’s worth, of salt. It is belied not only by Iran’s execution of Jews and its declared wish to annihilate a country with arguably more Jews than any other, but by the less guarded words of Iran’s allies and proxies.
Like Hassan Nasrallah, a leader of Hizbullah, the group conceived in 1982 by Iranian clerics and still funded by Iran. “If they [Jews] all gather in Israel,” he said in 2002, “it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.”
Thank you, Hassan, for your candor.