Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Iran friendly to Jews? Yes and no

In the wake of President Ahmadinejad's controversial visit to New York, this UPI report tries to give a balanced picture of Iran's treatment of its Jews. However, it fails to provide any sense of the fear and intimidation felt by non-Muslim minorities in Iran, nor does it refer to the traditional anti-Jewish bigotry inherent in Shi'ism.

WASHINGTON, Sept. 25 (UPI) -- The Iranian president’s meeting with an anti-Israel Jewish group in New York Monday and a television series in Iran about the Holocaust reflect the country’s complex relationship with its Jewish population and reveal a sympathy from their Muslim compatriots that is hidden by Tehran’s bombastic rhetoric toward Israel.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has garnered international anger by denying that the Holocaust happened, while at the same time government-run television aired the series "Zero Degree Turn." Based on the actions of actual Iranian diplomats, the series tells the story of a fictional Iranian diplomat who provides passports for Jews to leave Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.

The series has been a massive hit, and its airing on state-run television has been puzzling to some who note Iran’s history of Holocaust denial.

In 2005 Ahmadinejad called the genocide of Jews in World War II a myth, but during his speech at Columbia University in New York on Monday, he seemed to distance himself from the position, saying the subject needed more research to verify the details. (...)


Iranian leaders, including former presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, have long questioned the Holocaust, according to Abbas William Samii, an Iran expert and regional analyst with the Center for Naval Analyses.

“So it is not just one guy spouting off crazy stuff, it is a perspective shared by leading officials in that regime. The distinction is that Ahmadinejad has no clue how his comments play out in the rest of the world, and so he seems to say whatever he is thinking. Other figures such as Rafsanjani and Khatami, the former presidents, recognize that their comments have an international impact, so they try to keep those views limited to their domestic speeches,” Samii said.

But the Iranian government, including Ahmadinejad, does claim sympathy with Jews.

“We are friends with the Jewish people. There are many Jews in Iran living peacefully with security. You must understand that in our constitution, in our laws, in the parliamentary elections, for every 150,000 people we get one representative in the Parliament. For the Jewish community, one-fifth of this number they still get one independent representative in the Parliament,” Ahmadinejad said at Columbia University.

What is crucial to the Iranian government’s thinking is the somewhat fuzzy but bold line they draw between the Jewish religion and the state of Israel.

“What the government tries to do is to say, at home we respect Jews, and they go on to say what the Iranian government objects to is Zionism, rather than Judaism. So they try to make that distinction. And it is on that basis, according to the Iranian government, that it opposes the Israeli state,” Samii said.

As if to underscore this point, while in New York, Ahmadinejad met with the Neturei Karta, a very small organization of orthodox Jews who oppose Zionism and the state of Israel.(..)

The government also makes token gestures to the Jewish population. It funds a small part of a Jewish charitable hospital in Tehran and in September announced it would build a $3.2 million Jewish cultural and sports center in Tehran.

These actions by the government can also be attributed to self-interest, a self-interest that is apparent in the Iranian television series about the Holocaust.

“I think the reason they are doing this is, other than straight entertainment value, and showing the program as history of Iran, it is trying to make the regime look good. Demonstrating that Iranians are friendly towards Jews, that they are a kind and generous people,” Samii said.

The government’s relationship with Iranian Jews is not always cordial, however. In 2000, 10 Jews were prosecuted on charges of spying for Israel. Human Rights Watch, and international group that monitors religious freedom, among other things, condemned Iran at the time for persecuting the Jewish defendants and said the charges were unsubstantiated.

According to the U.S. State Department’s 2007 International Religious Freedom Report, Iran guarantees freedom of worship for Jews in the country, but in practice they face persecution and “government imprisonment, harassment, intimidation, and discrimination based on their religious beliefs.”

This discrimination is common, if not overt.

“It is not so clear that there is a state policy, but discrimination does take place against Jews in terms of getting jobs, in terms of economic, and in terms of access to education. For example, applicants for university places have to pass examinations on religious subjects. If you are a Muslim, the chances of passing a test on Islam are much greater than if you are a Jew or a Christian,” Samii said.

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