|Op Ed columnist from NY Times
At Palestine Square, opposite a mosque called Al-Aqsa, is a synagogue where Jews of this ancient city
gather at dawn. Over the entrance is a banner saying: “Congratulations on the 30th anniversary of the Islamic
Revolution from the Jewish community of Esfahan.”
The Jews of Iran remove their shoes, wind leather straps around their arms to attach phylacteries and take
their places. Soon the sinuous murmur of Hebrew prayer courses through the cluttered synagogue with its
lovely rugs and unhappy plants. Soleiman Sedighpoor, an antiques dealer with a store full of treasures,
leads the service from a podium under a chandelier.
I’d visited the bright-eyed Sedighpoor, 61, the previous day at his dusty little shop. He’d sold me, with some
reluctance, a bracelet of mother-of-pearl adorned with Persian miniatures. “The father buys, the son sells,”
he muttered, before inviting me to the service.
What Iran's Jews Say
by Roger Cohen
Accepting, I inquired how he felt about the chants of “Death to Israel” — “Marg bar Esraeel” — that punctuate life in Iran.
“Let them say ‘Death to Israel,’ ” he said. “I’ve been in this store 43 years
and never had a problem. I’ve visited my relatives in Israel, but when I
see something like the attack on Gaza, I demonstrate, too, as an Iranian.”
The Middle East is an uncomfortable neighborhood for minorities, people
whose very existence rebukes warring labels of religious and national
identity. Yet perhaps 25,000 Jews live on in Iran, the largest such
community, along with Turkey’s, in the Muslim Middle East. There are
more than a dozen synagogues in Tehran; here in Esfahan a handful
caters to about 1,200 Jews, descendants of an almost 3,000-year-old
Over the decades since Israel’s creation in 1948, and the Islamic
Revolution of 1979, the number of Iranian Jews has dwindled from about
100,000. But the exodus has been far less complete than from Arab
countries, where some 800,000 Jews resided when modern Israel came
In Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Iraq — countries where more than 485,000 Jews lived before 1948 — fewer than 2,000 remain. The Arab
Jew has perished. The Persian Jew has fared better.
Of course, Israel’s unfinished cycle of wars has been with Arabs, not Persians, a fact that explains some of the discrepancy.
Still a mystery hovers over Iran’s Jews. It’s important to decide what’s more significant: the annihilationist anti-Israel ranting, the Holocaust
denial and other Iranian provocations — or the fact of a Jewish community living, working and worshipping in relative tranquillity.
Perhaps I have a bias toward facts over words, but I say the reality of Iranian civility toward Jews tells us more about Iran — its sophistication
and culture — than all the inflammatory rhetoric.
That may be because I’m a Jew and have seldom been treated with such consistent warmth as in Iran. Or perhaps I was impressed that the
fury over Gaza, trumpeted on posters and Iranian TV, never spilled over into insults or violence toward Jews. Or perhaps it’s because I’m
convinced the “Mad Mullah” caricature of Iran and likening of any compromise with it to Munich 1938 — a position popular in some American
Jewish circles — is misleading and dangerous.
I know, if many Jews left Iran, it was for a reason. Hostility exists. The trumped-up charges of spying for Israel against a group of Shiraz Jews
in 1999 showed the regime at its worst. Jews elect one representative to Parliament, but can vote for a Muslim if they prefer. A Muslim,
however, cannot vote for a Jew.
Among minorities, the Bahai — seven of whom were arrested recently on charges of spying for Israel — have suffered brutally harsh treatment.
I asked Morris Motamed, once the Jewish member of the Majlis, if he felt he was used, an Iranian quisling. “I don’t,” he replied. “In fact I feel
deep tolerance here toward Jews.” He said “Death to Israel” chants bother him, but went on to criticize the “double standards” that allow Israel,
Pakistan and India to have a nuclear bomb, but not Iran.
Double standards don’t work anymore; the Middle East has become too sophisticated. One way to look at Iran’s scurrilous anti-Israel tirades
is as a provocation to focus people on Israel’s bomb, its 41-year occupation of the West Bank, its Hamas denial, its repetitive use of
overwhelming force. Iranian language can be vile, but any Middle East peace — and engagement with Tehran — will have to take account of
Green Zoneism — the basing of Middle Eastern policy on the construction of imaginary worlds — has led nowhere.
Realism about Iran should take account of Esfehan’s ecumenical Palestine Square. At the synagogue, Benhur Shemian, 22, told me Gaza
showed Israel’s government was “criminal,” but still he hoped for peace. At the Al-Aqsa mosque, Monteza Foroughi, 72, pointed to the
synagogue and said: “They have their prophet; we have ours. And that’s fine.”