M., a Jewish man in his fifties from Tehran, celebrated the festival of Simhat Torah this week. He did not build a sukkah in his yard or invite his Muslim friends and neighbors in, but he attended the special Simhat Torah service. As an observant Jew, he goes to the nearby synagogue three times a day for morning, afternoon and evening prayers.
“It’s a small synagogue in downtown Tehran,” he tells us from Iran over Skype. “In the middle of the week, about 15 Jews who live in the area worship there. This week, like on any other holiday, there were more people than usual. The members of Tehran’s Jewish community attend the synagogue, pray in Hebrew and celebrate the festivals — but other than that, we’re just like all the Iranians.”
M. speaks with us in English. “I don’t speak Hebrew because I went to public school, where we studied with Muslims. But you can learn Hebrew in Jewish private schools. There is a large Jewish community in Iran. Tehran has a large synagogue that serves the community, but I go to a small synagogue that’s close to my home. I eat kosher food, which can be bought at the synagogue. There are also people who help me buy medications and take care of me.”
I ask him whether he is not afraid to say that he is a Jew. He says no. “All the Jews in Iran live like the Muslims. Everybody — Muslims, Jews, everyone — shares the economic problems here.” But when I ask him about the situation, he answers, “If people don’t have a lot of money, how is it that they go shopping every evening and eat out? Some things are expensive. Not everything.”
The Jews are active on Facebook
The conversation with M. takes place during extreme tension between Israel and the Islamic republic, and against the backdrop of news about the economic crisis that is affecting Iran. Still, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statement, in a CNN interview when he was in the United States, was surprising: “There are many Jews living in Iran with whom we are very close.”
Despite the statements that the Iranians have closed off access to the Internet, it seems Iranians are quite active on Facebook. The Jewish community’s representative in the Iranian parliament, Ciamak Moresadegh, has an Internet-based newspaper that is also translated into Hebrew, but its articles do not have exact dates, so it is hard to say when they were last updated. We tried unsuccessfully to contact him. In an AP interview last March, Moresadegh was quoted as saying, “No matter who dares to attack our country, we will stand against the threats like other Iranian people. The Iranian Jewish community will stand by their compatriots under any circumstance, forever.”
It is not easy to make contact with Jews from Iran who will agree to talk about their situation. Many of them do not respond at all. Some of them give brief answers, but note that they prefer not to talk about political subjects because they trust nobody. From talking with them, it's obvious that the economic situation in Iran has deteriorated, but the Jews’ situation is actually fairly good.
D., a man in his forties, married with a child, lives in Tehran, where he has a devout Jewish family. Like M., he writes that he is experiencing the difficult situation in Iran as an Iranian, not as a Jew, and afterward, our connection is broken. Only several hours later does he send me a message: “I apologize, but I do not know you and cannot trust you. I will not be able to talk about the situation.”
Y., who lives in Tehran, in his fifties, says that the Jewish community is suffering, like everyone. “There are religious and political freedoms, but not social freedom,” he writes in Farsi. While he does not describe himself as a religious man, he holds “religious family festivals.” One of his three children is still in school. The two others graduated from the University of Tehran and are now working. “The economic situation here is very bad,” he says. “Everybody thinks of their own family. But my situation is actually not bad. There’s nothing to worry about.”
Newspapers? News? There is no time for such things
In the past, M. owned a men’s clothing store in Tehran. He was considered well off. Several years ago, he was diagnosed with a serious illness, and since then has stopped working. He lives alone. His father, brother and sister are dead. They are buried in Iran, which is one of the reasons that he has remained there. Two other sisters, aged about 70, went to live in the U.S. about 20 years ago.
“I never felt like I was being attacked because I was Jewish, or that my religious freedom was harmed,” he says. “I have a good friend, a Muslim, who takes care of me. He takes me to the doctor, and even to the movies and the park, and invites me for meals. Everyone is very good to me and helps me. Before I got sick, I had a lot of money. Medications in Iran are good, a little expensive, but they can be obtained with private insurance and government insurance.”
Like others, he is careful when it comes to talking about the political situation, the nuclear program or the fear of an attack. When I asked him how the Jews felt about the speeches of President Ahmadinejad and Prime Minister Netanyahu in the U.N., he answered, “I don’t know about that. I don’t read newspapers. I have no satellite television, I don’t watch the BBC, and my friends and I never talk about politics. When I go to synagogue and meet other Jews, we pray. We don’t talk about politics or discuss the situation. Whatever happens is between the governments, not between the nations themselves. The people don’t talk about the administration. They’re too busy to talk about the administration.”
The fear that the Jews live with is evident in conversations with their relatives who live in Israel. D., a Jewish woman in her 70s who lives in Tehran, does not call her family in Israel often anymore. Until five years ago, she used to come to Israel and even tried to live here. But they do not expect her anymore. The long, frequent telephone conversations have also become shorter, and her relatives are hard-pressed to know what exactly is going on in the country they remember from their childhood. Although the family moved to Israel or the U.S., D. remained behind in Tehran, taking care of her husband's grave, and preserving the culture and tradition to which she is accustomed.
"To telephone her, we have to dial about 15 digits through a telephone number abroad that makes the connection,” says A., a relative of hers from Raanana. “All the Jews there live in fear that their telephones are tapped. So when we speak with her, the conversation is just ‘How is everyone?’, making sure that everything is all right, and then that’s it. We hang up. We are originally from Isfahan and she is from Tehran, and every city has its own dialect that outsiders don’t understand. So she talks to us in the dialect of Isfahan and uses code words so that we’ll understand.”
Stars of David in many places
In order to understand the Jews’ connection to Iran, we must go thousands of years back in time. The proclamation of King Cyrus and the period of flowering and splendor of the Jewish community under the Shah’s regime made Iran a place of historical and religious significance for Jews. The large Jewish communities in Iran concentrated in the capital, Tehran, and after that in Shiraz, Hamadan and Isfahan. The tomb of Queen Esther and Mordechai is in Hamadan, in the south of the country.
About two years ago, pro-Islamist groups in Iran claimed that when Esther and Mordechai had caused the execution of Haman and his family, they caused the deaths of hundreds of Iranians at the king’s hands. But when crowds of rioters tried to destroy the tombs, claiming that the place was anti-Iranian, the police intervened.
The tomb of the prophet Daniel, which is located south of Tehran in Shush (ancient Susa), attracts Jews and Muslims alike. According to an article written by a visiting AP correspondent, the tomb itself is in an underground crypt that is usually open to Jews only. Muslims can visit the building above, which is decorated with mirrors. Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, ordered a sign placed there that reads: “This is the shining tomb of the prophet Daniel the wise, who showed the way for believers who suffered for the sake of God.”
Until the Khomeini revolution in 1979, there were 80,000 to 100,000 Jews in Iran. Today, opinions are divided about their actual number. According to a census published last July, only 8,700 Jews live there. But experts on Iran and Iranian organizations in Israel and the U.S. say that the number is much higher — about 25,000.
“The religious Jews in Iran are not like the religious Jews in Israel,” says Kamal Penhasi, who came to Israel from Tehran in 1979 and lives with his “totally Israeli” wife in Holon. “The religious people there don’t walk around wearing skullcaps, and they don’t always show outward signs of being Jewish. But they have no problem when it comes to freedom of worship or the holidays. They’re suffering a lot because of the political problems between both countries. Most of them love Israel and are Zionists, but that’s where they live every day. They need to make a living and have good work relationships, and that can cause problems.”
Penhasi, editor of the Farsi newspaper Shahyad, serves as the chairman of the Iran-Israel Organization and is a board member of the umbrella organization of Iranian emigres. He says that the Iranian authorities are very respectful of all religions and allow everyone the freedom to visit the holy sites in Iran. “In Khomeini’s time an order was issued that all religions who had a prophet like in Islam, even Judaism, and that believed in one God, were considered sacred, so they must be given freedom of worship. Since then, the leaders of Iran have made a distinction between Zionism and Judaism, claiming that the Jews in Iran are their brothers, while the Jews in Israel are the enemy. The most infamous action taken against the Jewish community was in 1999, when 12 young men were arrested in Shiraz on charges of spying for Israel. Since then, nobody knows of anything specific about the Jews in Iran except the fear for the tomb of Mordechai and Esther.”
The prayers of Iran’s Jews are usually read aloud in Hebrew. Stars of David are visible in many religious places, but not only in synagogues or sites sacred to Jews. “A few years ago, an edition of the Quran was published that had a Star of David on the cover,” says Kamal. “On the roof of the airport in Mehrabad, which was the largest international airport in Iran until 2000, there is a Star of David on the roof of one of the buildings. In Revolution Square in downtown Tehran, the municipality built a special memorial. It was only after the formal inauguration ceremony that it was discovered that its builders had also placed a Star of David, a symbol of Iranian Jewry, at the site. After a month, a decision was made to demolish the entire memorial.”
Kamal says that about a year and a half ago, a new law was passed in Iran, stipulating that if an Iranian traveled to Israel for a family visit and returned to Iran, he would be sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. The umbrella organization of Iranian emigres in Israel sent a letter of protest to the Iranian authorities. The letter was publicized on the Internet and in the world's media. How can the Iranian regime stop Jews from going to their most important and most sacred place, Jerusalem? the letter’s writers asked. “It’s hardly necessary to say that we received no answer,” says Kamal.
He notes that most of the Jews in Iran are members of the upper class, which is evidently the reason that the crisis has not necessarily affected them as it has the middle class. “Many families who came to Israel were very wealthy in Iran. When they arrived in Israel, they realized that money, which had a high value in Iran, was worth much less in Israel. Many of them went into economic shock when they learned that a small apartment in Israel cost more than a million shekels.”
“It’s much more comfortable here”
B., a man in his twenties from the city of Kamyaran in western Iran, near the Iraqi border, tells us that he is studying for a test at university. “It’s a very difficult test in Iran,” he writes in English. “My best friends are Muslim, but I have no problem saying I’m Jewish.” He also knows Hebrew (“I just know how to read it. I learned from my teacher”), even if he attended an Islamic school. He keeps kosher at home, and on Simhat Torah, the special hakafot ceremony took place in his synagogue.
But unlike others, B. does not hesitate to write explicitly against the authorities. When I ask him whether he saw the speeches of Ahmadinejad or Netanyahu, he answered, “Yes, and I hope that Israel and the U.S. will bomb Iran. Then the regime will change.” When I ask what he means, he replies with three dots.
Q. How do you feel about the fact that Iranians don’t like Israel?
“That’s not true. Ninety percent of the people in Iran like Israel. Don’t get confused between the people and the government. I have relatives in Israel — three uncles, a sister, and more, and we’re in video contact. They’re sorry they left, and at night they dream of Iran and still hope to return. They love Israel, but they love their home in Iran more. It’s much more comfortable here than anywhere else.”
Q. Even though the economic situation is difficult? People have no money. They’re demonstrating in the streets.
“That’s true, but the pressure isn’t all that great. It’s only a period in time. It will pass.”
Q. Aren’t you afraid of war?
Life under Ahmadinejad’s autocratic regime is lived under large degree of censorship. Watching certain films or listening to certain kinds of music (for example, female vocalists) is forbidden. Kamal Penhasi recalls that everyone suffered from those rules. “Before the revolution, the regime took care of day-to-day life. After the revolution, they took a gang of people, mostly criminals that had been released from prison, and made them into the Islamic police unit. About 20 years ago, the police unified all those units. Their job is to keep religious order and serve as a modesty patrol that protects the government’s interests.
“These gangs arrest people who go to parks or public places, or who dress in a modern way. In the best case, they impose fines. In less than good cases, they beat them severely and even imprison them. But don’t misunderstand — beneath the surface, there are drugs in Iran. There’s alcohol. There are movies, and Farsi music from Los Angeles that’s sold on the black market.”
K., an Iranian Jew who lives in Los Angeles, a member of the Iranian community in the U.S. who is in contact with Jewish communities in Iran, told us this week, “The sanctions are killing Iran.” Because of his broad connections, he asked to remain anonymous, mainly to protect his Jewish friends in Iran.
“Although the Jews are considered better off financially, they are affected by the sanctions just like the rest of the citizens. An acquaintance of mine who lives in Iran is renting out an apartment, and her tenants are having difficulty paying the rent. If until a month ago she was living well with $10,000, today she has 25 percent less because of the decline in the dollar exchange rate. The high prices make it difficult to buy chicken, bread and eggs, and there’s a feeling of economic pressure.”
180,000 Iranians in Israel
The large waves of immigration from Iran to Israel took place when the state was established and also in 1979, with the Islamic Revolution and Khomeini’s rise to power. During that period, Iran entered a war with Iraq that lasted for eight years, and the airports were almost completely shut down. Khomeini adopted the approach that the Jews themselves were not the worst thing in the world, but Jews in Israel were the great enemy. This anchored the respect that the Islamic authorities have for the Jews of Iran and the permission that they have to keep their religious customs and visit the holy sites.
Iranian culture has existed in Israel for many years. There is a radio station that broadcasts in Farsi; there is ample Farsi music and, of course, Persian restaurants. According to the Iran-Israel Organization, about 180,000 Iranian Jewish emigres live in Israel, including members of the second generation who were born here. The largest community is in Holon, and there are dozens of organizations and non-profit groups for Iranian emigres.
“That’s our main problem: we’re not united,” Kamal says, laughing. “Even the Beit Koresh community center, which was supposed to be the cultural center for Iranian emigres in Holon, didn’t succeed in becoming that, although the Iranian government sent a budget, too.”
As far as anyone knows, there is almost no immigration from Iran to Israel now. A few people arrived during the 1990s. “There was a kind of tradition where Jews, and even Muslims, came to Israel through a third country for medical treatment, since the standard is so much higher than in Iran. That was when Khatami was president and talked about dialogue, so people turned a blind eye to it.”
R., who lives in Holon and whose family recently came for a visit from Iran, recalls, “They do it with pounding hearts. They tell no one, look right and left all the time so that no one will know what they are planning, neither in Israel nor in Iran, and their hearts keep pounding even after they return home because they never know who was following them. Many of the Jews are Zionists who love Israel, but they won’t say so, of course. When they talk with us, they ask mostly about the family and the children, day-to-day things. Nobody on either side will say anything about the regime because a moment later, you know that someone could go into their home and make them disappear.”
Q. So why don’t they just stay in Israel?
“Most of the Jews there are considered wealthy. They have expensive cars, many of them are merchants, live in beautiful homes in good areas. When they come here, they won’t have the same lifestyle. Besides, just try to uproot someone from the country where he has put down roots, whose elderly parents live there. The culture is completely different — there, Jews are respected. It’s a matter of Persian honor, which is a very serious matter. Here, you have to fight for respect.”