Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Jewish Hospital 's role in Iranian Revolution

 The nursing staff outside Sapir Hospital

Love thy neighbour as thyself: that was the motto of the Jewish Hospital in Tehran, all the more poignant during Iran's Islamic Revolution. Fascinating article in Haaretz by Leor Sternfeld, a PhD student in Texas researching Iran's social history. (With thanks to Orna for her translation from Hebrew)
The 1979 revolution in Iran was one of the most popular in the 20th Century. Although it became "an Islamic Revolution”, it started as a revolution of the masses, including Iran's minorities.

In this respect, the Jewish community was no exception. The victory of the Islamic factions overshadowed the participation of other groups. In addition, the animosity between Iran and Israel resulted in a union of interests and similar narratives amongst the fighting factions: the Iranian administration  refuses to share the “rights “of the revolution and Israel makes it convenient to forget the role that the Iranian Jews played during the revolution.

Stories like the one below demonstrate the cooperation of many Jews with Iranian citizens, it also casts doubt on the familiar assumption about Israel’s  unreserved support of the Shah’s dictatorial regime.

 In the heart of the historic Jewish community there  is a Jewish Hospital called Sapir (after the doctor who established it – Dr Ruhalla Sapir). In the past it was called Cyrus the Great (Koresh Kabir - BIMARSTAN)  after the king who was known in Jewish history to have given the Jews their freedom from Babylonian exile and let them return to Jerusalem.

At the entrance to the building there is a big sign, written in Hebrew and Farsi, “Love thy neighbour as thyself”. That was the motto that guided the hospital staff. It was more poignant during the Revolution. The 1979 Revolution was in fact the culmination of many demonstrations and skirmishes between demonstrators and the Shah's army.

The demonstration started in 1978: it resulted in many injured. It was dangerous to seek hospital treatment: the hospitals were obliged to report to the secret police (SAVAK) on the arrival of injured demonstrators who were taken for interrogation, rarely to emerge.  It was not long before it was acknowledged that the Jewish Hospital did not turn in the injured to the Secret Police. Therefore more and more demonstrators went to the Jewish Hospital. In those days Jewish intellectuals formed a small group. Most of them were communists. They tried to encourage activists from the Jewish community to join the Revolution. The group managed to get elected as the community leadership in March 1978.

Two of the activists  were in prison during the Shah’s regime and there they met Ayatolla Sayed Mahmood Talakani, who became Khomeini’s envoy in Paris. Together the group and Talakani established a First Aid Unit that drove through Iran’s streets and collected injured demonstrators and evacuated them to the Hospital.

On Ashura Day (one of the most important and holiest days in the Shi'ite calendar)  in December 1978, there occurred the largest demonstration against the Shah. The Iranian media called it “the Demonstration of the Millions” and it is still remembered as one of the milestones to deposing the Shah. It is estimated that 5,000 – 12,000 Jews took part (out of 40,000 Jews living in Tehran at the time).

The Hospital was ready for casualties, 70-80% of the injured were brought to the Jewish hospital, and the state of emergency took 72 hours. The staff was motivated by humanitarian reasons. To turn in the injured was against all their principles.

After the Revolution, the Jewish Intellectual Group established a revolutionary newspaper called “Tamuz” that was popular everywhere. In its second edition, it published one two-page article about the hospital’s function during the Revolution.

 Nurse Prangis Hasisdim was quoted as saying: “we were looking after so many injured, for hours the hospital resembled a war zone. At one point we heard a loud noise from the car park when I saw many soldiers looking for demonstrators and revolutionaries; we were under siege for 24 hours but did not turn in anyone”.

 After the Revolution, the majority of hospitals and schools were nationalised, including the Hospital. Its name was changed from Koresh Kabir to Chosro Golesorchi, after a leftist Iranian exile who was executed by the Shah’s regime after a well-documented court case.

The Jewish community and the Doctor’s family decided to fight the decision to change the Hospital’s name.  They lodged a complaint and asked to change the name of the Hospital to its former name. They were successful and the name was changed to Sapir Hospital.

The Jewish community was a part of the Iranian social tapestry, its sons and daughters were represented in the whole political spectrum - from supporters of the monarchy to radical revolutionaries.

The story of the Hospital shows the range of political activism, from revolutionary activity to helping out for pure humanitarian reasons. What’s more: the members of the Jewish community enjoyed extra privileges, being a minority, but they extended a helping hand to their neighbours, applying the Mitzvah, ”Love thy neighbour as thyself.”

Read article in full

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