“Iran’s Jews – Shalom Saalam”
Dateline, SBS Television. 16th May 2007
Synagogues and Kosher cafes are not what you’d expect to find in the Islamic Republic of Iran, but the country is in fact home to the largest Jewish community in the Middle East, outside of Israel. This story gives a rare insight into this community, who as you’ll see live with both freedom and fear.
REPORTER: Bronwyn Adcock
It is Thursday night in central Tehran and inside this unmarked, nondescript building a special event is under way. Some of Iran’s 25,000-strong Jewish community are celebrating the festival of Purim, commemorating the ancient tale of a plot to kill all the Jews of the Persian Empire. It’s a story of survival that shows the deep Jewish roots here going back more than 2,500 years.
HAROUN YASHYAEI, JEWISH COMMUNITY LEADER, (Translation): Iran is, in fact, the cultural homeland of Judaism. It’s interesting to note there are even more sites relating to Jewish history in Iran than there are in Israel.
For almost 30 years though, Iran’s Jewish community has lived in an Islamic State. Synagogue board member Robert Khalder believes the Islamic Revolution of 1979 was good for their faith.
ROBERT KHALDER, COMMUNITY LEADER, (Translation): I think that a positive outcome of the Islamic revolution for the Jewish community is that most Iranian Jews in Iran have become more religious. Obviously, living in a religious environment is more conducive to becoming religious than a non-religious environment.
Robert Khalder is one of few people here who agreed to speak with me.
ROBERT KHALDER: She is my mother.
Iranian Jews prefer to keep a low profile, and are uneasy about foreign journalists constantly asking what’s it like to live in an Islamic state.
ROBERT KHALDER (Translation): I don’t know why it’s so important to the people of the world. We are comfortably doing everything we want to do here. We can perform all our religious, cultural and traditional celebrations. Our schools, our holy days, we have all those in complete freedom. But as I said, maybe this is not projected in the West.
The existence of a Jewish community here has long fascinated the West primarily because of the Iranian Government’s hostility towards the Jewish state, Israel. And Iranian Jews recently came to international attention when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad described the Holocaust as a myth. For Iran’s only Jewish Member of Parliament this was too much. Maurice Mottamed describes himself as Iranian first and a Jew second, but felt compelled to speak out.
MAURICE MOTTAMED, MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT, (Translation): When Mr Ahmadinejad, in his capacity as President of Iran, denied the appalling tragedy of the Holocaust, I issued a statement which was distributed worldwide, objecting to his assertions about the Holocaust because the Iranian President attempted to deny and reject the most awful tragedy known to human history. And I publicly declared there and then that this was a huge insult to all Jewish people around the world.
Despite the controversy caused by Ahmadinejad’s comments, Maurice Mottamed says the President was not supported by other Iranian politicians, and later appeared to modify his views.
REPORTER: Holocaust denial is frequently linked with anti-Semitism. Did the President’s comments make you feel insecure about the position of the Iranian Jewish community?
MAURICE MOTTAMED, (Translation): Fortunately there was never any threat to the safety of the Jewish community. The main reason for this is that the general policy of the Iranian Government has never entailed anti-Semitism and hopefully that will continue to be the case in the future.
In modern-day Iran there are virtually no cases of anti-Semitic violence of the kind you hear about in some parts of Europe, indeed all indications are that Jews and Muslims live harmoniously. Nowhere is this better illustrated then here, at this Jewish hospital in southern Tehran. It’s one of only four Jewish charity hospitals in the world and reputedly one of the best hospitals in the country. I’m shown around by a Muslim man who’s worked here for two decades.
MAN: Intensive care unit.
Staff here are Muslim and Jewish, as are patients. Farangis Hassidm, a Jew, is in charge of administration.
FARANGIS HASSIDM, HOSPITAL ADMIN: Whoever comes to our hospital we are asking, “What is your pain? What is your suffering?” We are not asking what’s their religion, or how they think, or what’s their ideology, no. And most of the patients, more than 95 patients that we are treating in this hospital they are not Jewish.
The hospital runs primarily on donations from Jews both in Iran and abroad, though recently the government of President Ahmadinejad made a donation of 25 million tomans, or A$32,000.
DR SIAMAK MORSEDEGH, DIRECTOR OF HOSPITAL: 25 million tomans is not a significant payment, a significant amount according to our costs. But in the other hand, as a part of this donation, it have a cultural effect on us and says that government wants the hospital to persist and to work and to serve Iranian population.
REPORTER: So it was a positive message as well actual..?
DR SIAMAK MORSEDEGH: Yes, it is a positive message. This message say to us that conditions is not very bad and there is not a specific problem between Iranian Jewish society and Ahmadinejad Government.
All around Tehran there is a significant, albeit discreet, Jewish presence. Inside this building is a Jewish library with books in Hebrew and in Persian, where pictures of Islamic revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini and Moses sit side by side. There’s a kosher butchery where kosher meat is served up by Muslim butchers. And there is also at least one kosher restaurant. It’s here I try and talk to some young Iranian Jews who believe their country is misunderstood in the West.
WOMAN, (Translation): They think Iran is undeveloped and backward but that is not the case.
But before we get too far, our interview is stopped by a member of the Jewish community.
MAN, (Translation): You should stop filming now. That’s enough. Stop, please. You only have a permit from our council.
INTERPRETER, (Translation): But we got the permit.
MAN, (Translation): They gave you a permit to film in the synagogue, that’s all. Please stop, we have problems. If our members happen to say the wrong thing by mistake. This woman is very cluey. I’ve listened to her. She’ll go to the other side of the world, something will be printed and we’ll get in trouble for it.
Free speech is limited for everyone in Iran, so this incident is not necessarily evidence that Jews are being singled out. However, a US State Department report has noted that Jews here are reluctant to talk about mistreatment, fearing government reprisal. Moses Baba, a well-known Tehran identity and antique dealer, is a good example of the fact that Iranian Jews enjoy a degree of freedom that would surprise many in the West. In recent years, Jews like Baba have been allowed to freely visit Iran’s archenemy, Israel.
MOSES BABA, (Translation): They came to our synagogues on Saturdays and told us, “You can go to and from Israel as you please.” They promised we would have no problems. Every year, I first go to Turkey. Turkey, then Israel, then the US, then back to Turkey, then Iran.
While many Iranian Jews are now travelling freely, statistics show that the number leaving for good is actually falling. Despite the fact he has children and grandchildren in Israel, Moses Baba says he isn’t going anywhere.
MOSES BABA, (Translation): Because I love Iran. I swear to God. Each time I go abroad, I stay 20 days, then run back. There are some fantastic Muslim people here, unique in the world. They are faithful, God-fearing, they respect me a lot.
Amazingly it was the Islamic revolution’s leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, who paved the way for the protection of Jews in the Islamic state. Haroun Yashyaei is a Jewish community leader who was in contact with Khomeini back in 1979.
HAROUN YASHYAEI, (Translation): The Imam’s clear and unequivocal view was that Zionism is a political ideology and of course he was opposed to Zionism. Judaism is a religion, which he respected. And Iranian Jews, as he stated in one of his speeches, are citizens of Iran, and their rights as citizens are respected just like those of all other Iranians.
Iranian Jews have certainly fared better than some other religious minorities in Iran, such as the Baha’i. But Maurice Mottamed, the Jewish Member of Parliament, says discrimination does exist.
MAURICE MOTTAMED, (Translation): But if you want to compare the rights of religious minorities with those of mainstream Muslim populations, we have to say that there are some glaring differences. We have successfully abolished some of them and continue to pursue solutions to our problems.
These problems include a law that says if one member of a Jewish family converts to Islam, then they will inherit over the other members. There’s also discrimination in the workplace – Jews can’t take sensitive positions in the armed forces or intelligence and have problems rising to higher levels of management in some government departments. Down the road from the synagogue a mural celebrates armed attacks on Israel.
REPORTER: Does it trouble you that the Iranian Government, at the very least, verbally support groups that attack and kill Jewish civilians in Israel?
MAURICE MOTTAMED, (Translation): As representative of the Jewish community in the House I have always opposed violence and bloodshed towards innocent people on both sides, Palestinians and Israelis.
For Mottamed, or any other Iranian Jew, supporting Israel is absolutely out of the question.
MAURICE MOTTAMED, (Translation): Currently, Iranian foreign policy is opposed to recognising the state of Israel. Politics may dictate, from time to time, flexibility, and at other times it may dictate aggression. In any case, we are a section of this community and must be in agreement with Iranian policies.
Perhaps to Westerners used to the scenes of conflict between Jews and Muslims in Palestine, the concept of Jews living happily in a Muslim state is a strange one. But here in Iran it doesn’t appear unusual.
HAROUN YASHYAEI, (Translation): No-one says “I’m a Muslim and you’re a Jew.” Iran’s cultural link with its Jews is stronger than the link with its Muslims. You see, the common points of agreement between Judaism and Islam are a lot closer than with other religions. Jewish theology is in complete harmony with Islamic theology.