The Jews of Iran Are Fleeing

Kever of Mordechai Hatzaddik and Esther Hamalkah in Hamadan, Iran.
Kever of Mordechai Hatzaddik and Esther Hamalkah in Hamadan, Iran.

 

Jews of Hamadan, 1917
Jews of Hamadan, 1917

 

(L-R) Kvarim of Mordechai Hatzaddik and Esther Hamalkah in Hamadan, Iran.
(L-R) Kvarim of Mordechai Hatzaddik and Esther Hamalkah in Hamadan, Iran.

 

Archaeological site found in Shush
Archaeological site found in Shush

 

On Erev Purim, Hamodia military correspondent A. Pe’er takes us on a tour of Iran: He has warm regards from Hamadan, the site where Mordechai and Esther are buried, and from Shushan. But at the same time, he discovers, the ground is trembling beneath the feet of its Jews.

 

The Jewish community in Iran was once considered the second-largest in Asia and the Middle East, but that’s not the case anymore. Not that long ago, it was estimated that 25,000 Jews lived there. But the Jews of Iran are fleeing. Anyone who could leave has done so. Today, there are a bit more than 8,000 Jews remaining. An up-to-date, not- so-cheerful, report from our brethren in exile.

The Jews of Iran already celebrated an early Purim this year—albeit covertly—after learning that they had gotten rid of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. In many shuls, Jews had aliyos and made the brachah of “Baruch shepetaranu mei’onsho shel zeh.” They pin great hopes on Hassan Rouhani, the new president, and not because he has ever displayed a special affinity for Jews. Rather, any replacement for Ahmadinejad, who introduced the term “erasing Israel from the map” into the lexicon and who denied the Holocaust, is welcome.

Ahmadinejad’s term was the worst time for Iran in the past 35 years since the Khomeini revolution. Dozens of pro-Nazi groups have reared their heads in Iran and persecution of Jews has spiked drastically. The president would send inspectors to Jewish schools, talmudei Torah and shuls, making the residents’ heretofore quiet lives virtually unbearable.

Many Jews have been deliberating for years whether to emigrate and join their families abroad. In the years prior to Ahmadinejad, they preferred to stay in Iran, with its familiarity. But that has changed in the past six years. People were ready to sell their assets at laughable prices as long as they could leave with their families. Shuls have closed, and some that used to have thrice-daily minyanim are now only open on Shabbos. Thousands have fled.

Only a short time ago, Iran’s Jewish community was estimated to number some 25,000 people — making it the second largest in the Middle East after Israel. But today, only around 8,000 Jews remain in the country.

The thriving communities in Iran, established in the times of Mordechai and Esther, are nearing their end. A community that had centuries of great Rabbanim, yeshivos, talmudei Torah, schools, chessed institutions, nursing homes, publishing houses, hospitals and kosher food stores has all but disappeared.

It’s not that Jews are openly persecuted in Iran. “We are treated well,” says one of the community leaders by phone. “I’m not leaving, but I understand those who made the decision to do so.” My caller believes that many Jews are pinning hopes on Rouhani. he doesn’t have much say in things that are relevant to us, Rouhani is personally friendly with Jews, who know him and speak of him as a fair person, at least as far as interpersonal relationships are concerned, without going into diplomatic and global issues,” he emphasizes.

“We’ve been through a few tough years,” he says. “A lot of my former neighbors have moved to either Israel or the United States. A few went to Italy, Belgium, France or England. Two are in Vienna, two are in Argentina and one family is in Brazil. They have scattered. And that’s a shame for us because we feel their absence in our daily communal life.”

“I remember the years when we were tens of thousands, and every commercial block had dozens of Jewish stores. They would organize Minchah in one of the stores. On chagim, the stores would be closed and we could walk through the busy market and know that this store wasn’t open because its Jewish owner was in the beit knesset. Today, many Jews sell their assets, even if they haven’t decided yet to leave. The young generation does not find its place here. They are leaving first, and their parents follow them. It pains me to say it that most Jews haven’t gone to Eretz Yisrael; some go because of siblings or children who live there. But the rest choose to go to other countries around the world and join Iranian expat communities there. These communities are largely very wealthy, but they also conduct beautiful Jewish lives.”

At the end of 2011, Iran held a census whose results were published last year. It showed that there are just 8,700 Jews in Iran today. “I don’t know how exact this number is,” our source tells me. “But it definitely indicates a trend. It’s apparent in many ways. For example, we once had kosher food stores. Today, they have disappeared. It’s very hard to find kosher food. In Teheran, they sell food in one of the rooms of the large beit knesset, one of the two that remain active all week long. Dozens of other batei knesset in Teheran have closed. A few open for Shabbat morning tefillot or on the chagim. It’s hard to get a mohel. The chevrot kadisha are mostly Muslim laborers working for one Jew in each chevrah who tries to maintain Jewish burial customs.

“Some Jewish schools remain open, but there are hardly any Jews there. They still bear their old names, there are still mezuzot on the door, if they haven’t been taken down, but from the principal down to the students, they are virtually all local gentiles. There are no Jewish studies. There’s no study of the Hebrew language, of course. Some batei knesset have Hebrew teachers, and after the tefillot, they gather the Jews and review the alphabet so that they can learn to read from a Hebrew siddur.”

He says that Torah shiurim are actually flourishing because several young Iranians who left the country to learn in yeshivos around the world have come back in recent years and have made an effort to preserve Torah learning. There is a lack of klei kodesh of all kinds, from chazzanim to baalei koreh, shochtim and more. “We have hardly any Rabbanim,” he says.”

“The Jews of each community, Teheran, Shiraz, Isfahan or wherever they are living, meet in beit knesset on Shabbat. Although they come to pray, it is really the kiddush afterwards that’s important to them. That’s when they meet other Jews, exchange experiences, and just talk. At the same time, there are lessons for the children, and some batei knesset have begun offering shiurim for women.

“We don’t have a lot of assimilation; it happens very rarely. But because the young men and women want to marry within the Jewish community, they often travel to Iranian expat communities around the world, marry there, and then bring their families to live with them.

“Outside the batei knesset, you see fewer signs of Judaism. Once upon a time, you could see sukkot in the courtyards of homes and on the roofs, or menorot in the windows on Chanukah. Today, people try to build sukkot that can’t be seen and light their menorot inside the house. Before Pesach, there’s no difficulty in obtaining matzot, wine and kosher products, most of which are imported. Purim is celebrated joyously; after all, it’s our special holiday,” he says.

“We are Jews, but we know that we are citizens of Iran. Certainly, it pains us when we hear declarations that Israel has to be destroyed, but all the declarations are intended for the extremists. They don’t represent the sentiment among the Iranian nation, which likes the Jews. Many speak with longing of the years that there was diplomatic cooperation with Israel. Very quietly, people express their wishes that those days would return,” he says. As for the nuclear issue, no one wants to talk about it. “Thatit,” he says. “That’s not a topic for us to talk about, even in casual conversation…”

Many of Iran’s Jews have been affected by the increasing displays of racism and support for Nazis around Iran, says research Dr. Leora Handleman-Baavor, a lecturer in Middle Eastern and African history at the Tel Aviv University and a research peer in an Iranian studies center.

She relates that there is a pro-Nazi news site that disseminates the worldview of Adolf Hitler in Persian, and is legal in Iran. In fact, it has been approved by the Culture Ministry, which is responsible for registering and approving all sites that operate within Iran.

According to the Iranian news network Roos, Ali Mahmad Ramin, the deputy minister in the Culture Ministry who is responsible for the media, is the central figure behind the Hiterlist forum. According to Mahmad Raza Yazdan Pana, a Roos journalist, Ramin serves also as the director of the “World Holocaust Fund” in Iran, and boasts of his ties with pro-Nazi elements formed during his years of study in Germany. Moreover, he also served as the “senior advisor for Present Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regarding Holocaust denial.”

While in the past, similar sites were blocked and removed from Iranian media for violating the country’s laws, Dr. Handelman says that in the last two years, the Islamist Republic has displayed more tolerance of overt racism on websites. Interestingly, aside for their anti-Semitic content, these forums express views that contravene the regime’s pan-Islamic views. Many pro-Nazi Iranians are loyal to the ideology whose main principle is the superiority of the Persian/Iranian race, and according to which Arab Muslims and ethnic groups not of Aryan extraction are untouchable and repulsive. Moreover, some of these groups even support the founding of a secular nationalist socialist Iranian state, which would do away with the laws of Islam.

After this site was exposed, it changed its headline at least three times from The Nazism Association of Iran to the Association for the Research of World War Two and the Third Reich, to the Forum of World War Two and the Third Reich. In addition, Hitler’s image and a flag of the Nazi party were removed from the home page and replaced with military scenes of World War Two, and the red background of the headings were replaced with brown ones.

Many of those posting on the site use screen names such as Himmler, Goering, Goebbels, Mussolini, Stalin, Bismarck, and Ahmadinejad.

Dr. Handelman says that racial persecution is constantly on the rise in Iran, and spiked during Ahmadinejad’s term. For example, the national-socialistic workers’ party in Iran clearly declares that the members of the Nazi party in Iran identify themselves with hatred of Arabs and Muslims and clearly, “We are enemies, heart and soul, of the Arabs and Muslims. We also hate Jews and are absolutely, anti-Arab.”

In Iran, there is a media outlet called Hitler. Its profile conveys its entire target population. Under the image of an SS soldier it says, “Are you an admirer of Adolf Hitler? Are you anti-Zionist? Are you against historical writings of those who won World War Two? If so, please help the Adolf Hitler Association!” The site provides bank account information through which one can give donations.

The Jews of Iran live much more fearfully than they used to. There are more incidents of Jews being arrested, prosecuted, and even murdered. Every loud rap at the door makes them tremble. They don’t know what tomorrow will bring. They are mostly afraid that Iran’s nuclear installations will be attacked and they will be the first to pay the price. When they are called to join demonstrations against Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians, they do so. Not willingly, but with the understanding that as Iranians, they are against Israeli policy. They also carry signs in Hebrew prepared by the Revolutionary Guards.

Iran’s Jews are free to travel around the country. This Sunday, many of the country’s Jews will travel by car, train or bus to the city of Hamadan, 350 kilometers south of Teheran, where Mordechai Hatzaddik and Esther Hamalkah are buried. Iranian tradition holds that this is the Shushan Habirah of the Megillah. However, archaeologists believe that that the Persian city of Shush is the real Shushan Habirah and have found archaeological proof, such as palaces, walls, streets and streams that support this theory.

At the entrance to Hamadan, alongside large signs cautioning people to drive safely, there is another sign depicting Iranian children setting an Israeli flag aflame.

The Jews are closely following the talks between America and Western powers and their government. They hope that something good will come out of it, something that will benefit them as well. But they are doubtful.

The Jews cooperate with their government’s policy of smiling at the world, and do so, at least externally. But nothing has really changed, and the centrifuges continue to spin, so everything is really the same, sources in the community say.

The kever of Mordechai and Esther has become a national museum site in Iran. It is guarded and maintained regularly. Once, the kever was located outside the city, but today, Hamadan has grown into a large city and it homes about the kever area in every direction. A gate surrounds the site, and there are specific hours when it is open. In front of the kever is a small shul with sifrei Torah, and it is from there that you access the room with two kevarim, covered with table clothes and carpets and Hebrew phrases on the walls.

Some Iranian Jews, and expats with foreign citizenship, come especially around Purim time to daven at the kevarim of Mordechai and Esther. Some also travel to Shush, as some opinions consider that the real Shushan.

Today, Iran’s Jews find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place because of the internal crisis in the Islamic Republic says Iran expert and researcher, Dr. Orly Rachimian, from the department of Middle Eastern Studies at Ben Gurion University in the Negev, who specializes in Iran and its Jews.

As Iran faces many challenges, including ongoing talks with the West and Tehran about its nuclear program and the cancellation of the “biting sanctions” that affects the country’s economy, the murder of two members of the Jewish community arouses fear and questions as to the future of Iran’s Jews. Over the past few months, a few horrific incidents targeting Iran’s Jews have been reported.

Furthermore, Dr. Rachimian believes that there has been a significant rise in anti-Semitic publications on official and quasi-official government sites. Although such items refer to the Jewish nation as a whole, and not to the Jews of Iran in particular, there is a clear trend to blame the local Iranian Jewish community for the citizens’ economic problems.

Since thirteen Jews were arrested in Shiraz around Pesach of 1999 and accused of spying for Israel, there have been no official reports of harassment of Jews. There were unofficial reports, such as the execution of a Jewish woman named Adiva Bat Yaakov and her husband in an Iranian prison. The state of Iran’s Jewish community raises the interest of international media from time to time, especially in light of Ahmadinejad’s provocative statements against the State of Israel and denial of the Holocaust.

Last year, western media stations reported that a Jewish woman named Tova N. was executed in Isfahan by her Muslim neighbors who wanted to take over her house to make room for the expansion of their mosque. Relatives said that after the woman filed a complaint with authorities, she was murdered in cold blood in front of her sisters.

In response to this incident, Iran’s official media sites quickly broadcast an exclusive interview with the Iranian parliament member and representative of the Jewish community Simak Moreh Tzeddek. He rejected the reports that “the woman was murdered because she refused to move out of her home to accommodate the expansion of a mosque,” and called such reports “silly.” Moreh Tzeddek added that he had personally been at the funeral and had even visited the woman’s home, which was located “three alleyways” from the nearest mosque. Likewise, he added, that the background for the incident was criminal and that the attackers took jewelry and cash (in dollars) and that the police had already arrested four suspects. Christian parliament member Robert Baglarian also noted that no one had been murdered in Iran because of his religious beliefs or values. He also urged the police to deal with the incident and arrest the murderers.

About a month later, a news item was published about the death of a 24-year-old Jew, the son of a well known businessman, named Daniel Meah-Garafta in Teheran. Sources in the Jewish community related that the man was shot to death in his home and his luxury car was stolen.

Several months ago, Iranian newspapers publicized images of a violent holdup of a jewelry store in Shiraz. Closer perusal of the photos shows that the store bears a sign that it is owned by the Cohen family. Although it is impossible to know whether there is any religious basis to this story, it’s important to note that it’s very hard to verify the details of such incidents, because they are publicized by the government run media outlets.

Dr. Rachimian says it is very hard to verify the official crime figures in Iran, which have risen significantly in recent years.

With that, the murder of two Jews in central cities in Iran in recent months has generated varying responses by analysts regarding the Jewish community. On the one hand, some see the incidents as targeted harassment and a source of concern. That is despite the Jews being protected by the Republic’s constitution, being represented in parliament, and enjoying a measure of freedom of religion. Those who support this theory say that “Iranian Jews live in fear,” and are under constant threat.

Concurrently, the researcher says, there is another approach that believes that the incidents are part of the greater picture of a country in economic crisis because of international sanctions. The citizens’ quality of life continues to deteriorate, and the tensions that rise to the surface as a result are vented on the weaker sectors of society.

A rise in violence towards minorities at times of socio-economic crisis is not a new trend in the Islamic Republic. The Six-Day War (1967), which was a breaking point in the Israel-Iran relations, was also a reason for increased violence against Jews. Following the revolution in 1979, there was a series of executions of Jews, and their property was damaged.

Interestingly enough, says Dr. Rachimian, is that while there are those in Iran who harass Jews and dispute their place as an integral part of the Iranian nation, the regime is “trying to restore order” and prevent a deterioration of the status quo. The reassurances of the religious minority parliament representatives cited above indicate a dialogue whose objective is to minimize the severity of the stories to enable the continued inclusion of Iran’s Jews as part of the nation. Had they blamed the perpetrators for intentionally targeting the Jewish community, they would have contributed to the “marking” of the Jews and highlighting them as “others.” Including these incidents in overall crime statistics enables them to include the Jews in the Iranian nation and to divert the spotlight away from the uniqueness of the cases involving Jews.