Monday, November 21, 2005

Between Cyrus and Haman: the Jews of Iran

For the Jews, Persia has embodied both good and evil: the benevolence of Cyrus, who liberated them from Babylonian slavery and permitted them to rebuild the Second Temple in Jerusalem - and the evil of Haman, who had wanted to destroy them - explains Abbas Milani in the International Herald Tribune. (With thanks: Lily Amior).

"Today, there sits in place of Cyrus one who has inherited not the magnanimity of Cyrus, but the malice of Haman: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who openly calls for Israel to be "wiped off the map."

" Even in the modern history of Iran, the two strands, one lofty and humane, the other base, have continued to thrive side by side. In 1941, as Hitler was beginning to put in motion his murderous "final solution," the Iranian government convinced Nazi "race experts" that Iranian Jews had lived in Iran for 2,500 years, were fully assimilated members of the Persian nation and must be afforded all the rights of Iranian citizens.

"The Nazis accepted the argument, and the lives of Iranian Jews residing in Europe were saved. Moreover, thousands of European Jews were saved when Iranian diplomats provided them with Iranian passports. And in the years after World War II, the Iranian government and people were exceedingly helpful - according to Israel's first ambassador to Iran - in facilitating the travel of hundreds of Iraqi Jews escaping persecution and heading for what was soon to be Israel.

" Iran in fact was the first Muslim country to de facto recognize Israel and established close ties that lasted till 1979. But even then, the dread spirit of Haman was also in the air. As the Iranian government and many of its people were involved in helping Jews in their hour of need, there were also some ayatollahs who delivered fiery speeches against Jews, and against Israel. Clerical support for the oppression of Jews, which often hid its ugly head behind slogans against Zionism, began to emerge at the time.

"When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in 1979, he became the standard-bearer of this tradition. He paid lip service to the idea that Jews would be treated as equals in Iran. Islam, after all, affords Jews many rights as "people of the book." But in fact, Jews were subjected to many cruel and unjust punishments. The first nonmilitary, nongovernmental person sent to the firing squad by the Islamic revolutionary courts was a Jew, Habib Elganian, a prominent Iranian businessman.

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