Thursday, September 12, 2013

Give Jews of Iran full civil rights

 Former President Khatami visits a Jewish synagogue in Tehran

Assuming that it was President Rouhani himself who Tweeted New Year greetings to the Jewish community, Jerrold Sobel writes in the Israeli Advocate (no online link) that the gesture would have far more meaning if Iran extended full civil rights to its Jews (with thanks: Tom Gross):

Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-Syrian scholar and president of the International American Council on the Middle East.  He presently serves on the advisory board of the Harvard International Review.  Last week Front Page Magazine published an article written by him entitled: “Humanitarian Tragedy:  Iran’s Beleaguered Jewish Community”

According to Mr. Rafizadeh, at the outset of Khomeini’s rise to power he sought support from the influential Jewish community by  professing the Jewish people in Iran should enjoy the same citizenship rights as every other citizen.  But once the Shah was deposed those rights never materialized.  Almost immediately, both Khomeini and the ruling Mullahs began arresting the most prominent Jewish leaders and businessmen, many of which were accused of spying for Israel and soon executed.  Seeing the handwriting on the wall, those that could, particularly the wealthy began a mass emigration to both the United States and Israel.

In a Parliament of  290 seats, 3 or 1.1 percent are represented by Jews which are not elected but appointed.  None however are allowed to occupy key governmental positions.  Constitutionally, Jews cannot hold decision making positions such as being a member of the influential Guardian Council, a Commander in the Iranian Army, or serve as the President of the nation.  Furthermore, they are not allowed to serve as judges at any level nor assist in the judicial and legislative systems.  The author concludes by stating these “laws based on the Quran, and Shari’a law only begin to encompass the deep-rooted religious inequality of the region.”  Some disagree.

“They have no problems, praise God,” said Rabbi Yitzhak Ba’al Haness who before emigrating to the United States in 1990 was the chief Rabbi of the southwestern Iranian city of Shiraz.  Neglecting to mention the arrest and imprisonment of several of his former students on trumped up charges of spying for Israel, the Rabbi went on to say: “Life is perfectly fine and there have never been any problems.”  When asked why he left, he replied because his children went to the United States to study in American yeshivot and he just followed.  Once again, oh skeptical me.  When questioned, former congregants in the Shiraz Jewish community felt the Rabbi, fearing for his life, more fled than emigrated.

The director of the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism, Dr. Esther Webman concurs: “There's still a very basic fear.  You can't paint a fantastic picture showing everything is alright....“Jews have to follow very clear and rigid rules.”

Others argue, with 30 active Synagogues in Teheran, despite the aforementioned, on a comparative basis Jews are tolerated far better in Iran than in most, if not all other Islamic countries in both the Middle East and Africa.  If you wish to use toleration as a measuring stick they’re right.

However, in an interview given to a reporter from the Institute for War and Peace, Moshe Hakimi, a Jewish man living in Iran’s second largest city Mashhad paints a different picture.  He had this to say:  “Every newborn is told from his first years of life that we are living in times of crisis and that they must lead a double life.  They are told we must not talk about our personal lives in front of non-Jewish people.  This absolute secrecy becomes second nature after reaching puberty.”  Some feel so threatened that many choose to convert to Islam, but continue to practice Judaism in secret.  As previously referenced, they too became known as “Crypto Jews.”

He goes on to say:  “All Jewish converts to Islam have two names: for example, my grandfather's Muslim name was Sheikh Aboulghasem and his Hebrew name was Benjamin.  My father's Muslim name was Ebrahim and his Hebrew name was Abraham. Outside they call me Mousa and at home, I'm called Moshe.  In my father's lifetime, many of the Jews had very Muslim names. They even went to Mecca on pilgrimage and became Hadjis.”

Further accentuating the deprivations of Jewish life in post revolution Iran, a female student named Sepideh had this to say about her chances of getting married to a Jewish man:  “There are almost no educated Jewish boys left in Iran to consider for marriage.  Emigration is the last resort that we must consider so that maybe we can experience a future free of restrictions.”

All things considered, Rouhani’s gesture wishing the Jews of Iran a blessed Rosh Hashanah is welcomed.  Duplicitous or not, such words would never have left the lips of the unabashed antisemite Ahmadinejad.  However if Rouhani truly seeks a rapprochement with his Jewish citizenry he should begin extending them full civil, political, economic, and social rights.  Likewise, ceasing the constant defamation of Israel would go a long way in breaking the rigid climate of fear and antisemitism Jews live under as second class citizens.  Actions such as these would belie skepticism and really mean a L’Shana Tovah; a good year, to the Jewish community of Iran.

BBC corrects estimates of Iranian Jewish population (BBC Watch)

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