Jews coexist with Muslims in Iran

Category: Life & Society, Middle East Topics: Jews, Muslims Views: 7631

The Hebrew testament written on gazelle leather rolled out at Mullah Jacub's Synagogue, Isfahan, Iran, built about 600 years ago.

Tehran, Iran - Enmity runs deep between arch-foes Iran and Israel. And that confrontation complicates the lives of Iranian Jews, who make up the largest community of Jews in the Middle East outside the Jewish state. 

Iran's Jews are buffeted by inflammatory rhetoric from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about "wiping Israel off the map" and denying the Holocaust, and a politically charged environment that often equates all Jews with Israel and routinely witnesses the burning of the "enemy" flag.

But despite what appears to be a dwindling minority under constant threat of persecution, Iranian Jews say they live in relative freedom in the Islamic Republic, remain loyal to the land of their birth, and are striving to separate politics from religion.

They caution against comparing Iran's official and visceral opposition to the creation of Israel and Zionism with the regime's acceptance of Jews and Judaism itself.

"If you think Judaism and Zionism are one, it is like thinking Islam and the Taliban are the same, and they are not," says Ciamak Moresadegh, chairman of the Tehran Jewish Committee. "We have common problems with Iranian Muslims. If a war were to start, we would also be a target. When a missile lands, it does not ask if you are a Muslim or a Jew. It lands."

The continuous Jewish presence in Iran predates Islam by more than a millennium. One wave came when Jews sought to escape Assyrian king Nebuchadnezzar II around 680 BC; others were freed from slavery by Cyrus the Great with the conquest of Babylon some 140 years later.

Anti-Semitism historically 'rare'

Historically, say Jewish leaders, anti-Semitism here is rare, a fact they say is often lost on critics outside, especially in Israel, where many Iranian Jews have relatives. Still, the Jewish community has thinned by more than two-thirds since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, to some 25,000; the largest exodus took place soon after the Islamic Republic was formed, though a modest flow out continues.

"Our problem is that the Israel issue is not solved, and that affects us here," says one Iranian Jew who asked not to be named.

But that does not affect every Iranian Jew. Surgeon Homayoun Mohaber measures his nationalism in blood, and bits of metal - the kind of support that Iranian Jews say has defined their small community's ties to Iran.

During the Iran- Iraq War of the 1980s, as an Iranian military surgeon, Dr. Mohaber conducted more than 900 frontline operations, was himself wounded, and gave blood twice to save fellow Iranian soldiers.

Today, in his Tehran clinic, he keeps a jar full of bullets and shrapnel fragments, extracted during the war from wounded soldiers.

"The relations between Jews and Muslims, between 70 million Muslims and 30,000 Jews, are very good," says Mohaber. "In Israel, the situation for Iranian Jews is quite misunderstood."

"[The Islamic regime] made very good respect for me all the time, and did not care about my religion after the revolution," says Mohaber, who avoided a general purge of Jews from the officer ranks after Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

But some episodes have shaken those who remain. In 1999, charges of spying for Israel were brought against 13 Jews in Shiraz and Isfahan, sparking a new exodus and widespread fear.

Amid a welter of international criticism, 10 of those charged were handed sentences - later shortened - that ranged from four to 13 years in prison.

Jews in Tehran at the time told the Monitor of their fears that "Zionist groups connected with the US" were hurting their cause by using the issue against Iran. Today, all 13 are free, and remain living in Iran.

"The effect [of the Shiraz cases] was very bad," recalls Mohaber. "But they have rectified it. I think it was a political case between Iran and Israel."

Fine line between faith and politics

The saga underscored the delicate line Iranian Jews draw daily between their religion and politics. Outside Iran, "they think our condition is very bad, living as a minority in a religious country, with law based on Islamic law," says Mr. Moresadegh, of the Jewish Committee. 

Iran's Jewish community is recognized by the Islamic Republic.

He notes "some difficulties," including restrictions on government employment, but says that Mr. Ahmadinejad's questioning of the Holocaust, while very unwelcome, "has no effect on our daily life." The president's fierce anti-Zionist speeches culminated with Iran hosting a controversial Holocaust conference last December. 

"It is quite clear that a bunch of Zionist racists are the problem the modern world is facing today," the president said in his Iranian New Year message on March 21. They aim "to keep the world in a state of hardship, poverty, and grudge and strengthen their rule. The great nation of Iran is opposed to this inhuman trend." 

The Iranian Foreign Ministry recently facilitated a day-long visit to significant Jewish sites in Tehran for the diplomatic corps. Privately, Iranian officials said the event was designed to reassure Iranian Jews, after unease over the December conference. 

Jewish leaders portrayed themselves as ordinary Iranians, facing the same problems and with the same aspirations for their nation. 

"The Jewish community was probably one of the first [minority groups] to join in with the revolution, and in this way gave many martyrs," Maurice Motamed, holder of the one seat set aside for Jews in Iran's 290-seat parliament, told the diplomats. "And after that, during the eight years of the imposed [Iran-Iraq] war, there were many martyrs and disabled given to Iranian society." 

"Every revolution is followed by some issues, problems, and restrictions [on minorities]," said Mr. Motamed. "Fortunately, all these effects have been completely removed in the last ten years." 

The diplomatic tour - with a number of Foreign Affairs Ministry officials - visited a Jewish school, a home for the elderly, a community center, and one of 100 synagogues left from Iran, during Friday Sabbath prayers. 

"We have obviously had migration out of Iran," says Afshin Seleh, a teacher of Jewish heritage with a white yarmulke skullcap, who says he loses two to three students per year in classes of up to 30. Upon the walls of the Jewish school are portraits of revolution leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and Iran's current supreme religious leader. 

"There have been different voices [coming] from the government, so people felt unsafe," says Mr. Seleh. "But our existence here has always been separate from politics in Iran, and we always had peaceful coexistence with the Muslim community." 

Part of that coexistence has been gratitude for the Dr. Sapir Hospital, a Jewish charity hospital that would have closed years ago, but for subsidies from Jews inside and outside Iran, doctors say. 

During the 1979 revolution, the hospital refused to hand over those wounded in clashes with the security forces of the pro-West Shah Reza Pahlavi. Ayatollah Khomeini later sent a personal representative to express his thanks. Ahmadinejad, too, has made a $27,000 donation. 

Still, the Iran-Israel standoff has spilled over into many avenues of life here, with varied results for Iranian Jews. 

Strong anti-Zionist undercurrents developed in Iran - and across the Middle East - since Israel's creation in 1948. Those views came to a boil in Tehran after the 1967 war, when Israel crushed Arab foes and occupied the West Bank, Gaza, and Sinai. That war marked a turning point in Iranians' attitudes toward the Jewish state, and sometimes toward Iranian Jews. 

During the Asian Cup final in 1968 (which Iran won, 2-1) Iranian fans wore eye patches and chanted abusive slogans, to mock the Israeli defense chief Moshe Dayan. According to published reminiscences, "some homes of Jews in Tehran were attacked and set on fire." 

In a match-up between Iran and Israel in the final of the 1974 Asian Games in Tehran, protesters against Israel, members of then-shadowy Islamic groups, prepared to attack the Israeli soccer team. 

"Our aim and dream," recalls Ezat Shahi, identified as a "revolutionary fighter" in recently published memoirs, "was to create an event similar to the 1972 Munich Olympics, when the Israeli team was taken hostage by Palestinian gunmen from "Black September," in a standoff that left 11 Israeli athletes dead. 

Security measures forced protesters to scale back those plans, but rioting broke out that night. 

"On that night, [the authorities] couldnt prevent people from doing what they wanted," says a witness who asked not to be named. "As soon as Israel expanded its power [in the 1967 war] and oppressed the Palestinians, even the liberal part of Iranian society started to call them Zionists." Those flames, encouraged by Islamist groups that would play a key role in the 1979 revolution, helped define the Islamic Republic's opposition to Israel - but not necessarily to Iranian Jews. 

"There is always [talk] outside the country that religious minorities are under pressure," says Mr. Motamed. "It is important to say that what people say about minorities is completely wrong," 

"Jews here have great Iranian roots - they love Iran," says chairman Moresadegh. "Personally, I would stay in Iran no matter what. I speak in English, I pray in Hebrew, but my thinking is Persian."

Scott Peterson is a Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

  Category: Life & Society, Middle East
  Topics: Jews, Muslims
Views: 7631

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Older Comments:
What I do not understand is why, if knowing what the state of israel represents, the Jews and their Rabbis who are good and kind people, openly support Israel against their own conscience? To understand what I mean take a look at this Israeli Documentary made by a Jewish media organisation. You can also look for 'not so cool facts about israel' on I do not think you will ever see this on US or UK TV, and it probably won't be long before Israel forces Youtube to censor this clip:


People from all faith can coexist in all Muslim countries with out
any problem or fear but it is the Muslims always victim. The dont
have any freedom in non Muslim Country, no wonder even in the
Communist country like Russia. The Christian can practise their
religion with out any problem but Muslims can not do so. They
are not allowed built a Mosque and enlarge the existing one in
Russia to meet the demand of increasing Muslims prayer place.
Nevertheless no body can stop the truth of Islam from spreading
fast and all over the world until last day.

Here is a direct lik to Ahmedinejad's speeches.No Arab leader dares speak like this.

Also here

I am not a supporter of any regime and I am not Iranian. The only regime I support is that of Allah s.w.t. Besides no one knows the intentions except Allah. Politics aside, one must seek Truth, both physically and spiritually. Truth here is that Ahmedinejad has no animousity with Jews but only with The Zionist political regime of Israel. Given their 50 odd years of history in Palestine, they have proved to be a vicious, barbaric system which has no place in any culture. Jews above ll has the responsibility to change themselves in order to accept their neighbours in peace and live in peace. This policy of use of brutal force to subjugate those who oppose you has no place in any society.

KAM FROM ** said:
It is fact that non_Muslims always co-existed in Muslim World for the past 1400 yearsas long as they know their 'proper place"


Re: about "wiping Israel off the map"

This phrase was passed along to the Media by Jewish special interests and it has now made its way to Islamicity.

How much lower can Islamicity stoop to pease special interest groups?


Firstly Ahmedinejad did not say "wiping off israel from map of the world" as it is commonly repeated. He said 'wiping off Zionism from pages of history." Zionism as a poltical movement not as Jewish/Judaism entity. Zionism is a policy of separation and not inclusion. It flagrantly promotes "us and them" mentality. All its education and military system promotes this idiology. There are many Jews who oppose Zionism.

Woof. Got that over with! As for Jews, they are the closest to Muslims in faith. A true monolethic belief with almost all prophets coming from the 12 tribes of Israel that we, Muslims believe in. The Quran refers to The Covenant made with Ibrahim and his progeny which applies to Moses and the 12 tribes. (q2:47) & (Q20:80). Yet this Covenant is conditional on Jews keeping their promise to uphold Divine Decree (Quran 2:124), as is the case in their own book of Torah (Old Testament) which has prescribed a severe punishment for those who transgress from this Covenant/Contract with G-d. Yet The Quran refers to them as "kuntum khaira ummatin". The verb is in the past," You were the chosen.." but stuffed it up!! and with the advent of Islam, all people became equal. There is no more favouritism by God except in deeds. We are ALL chosen now.

The challenge for Jews today: Is how to regain that favourtism with G-d? (Q2;40)Through their deeds because in truth that is what God wanted them to be, a model for uprightness, virtue, wisdom and worship of ONE G-d. By choosing them to be representatives of God, they had a heavy burden to carry. To be a living model for God's qualitites. They stuffed up in many ways, which in itslef a subject of much more words than can be covered here. BUT God's part of The Covenant is still valid. So, to our Jewish brothers, we embrace you if you truly follow your own book. Q2:40 and 2:44. Such is Islam, a religion of peace and inclusion and the first Muslim was Abraham, your forefather. Shalom.