Monday, October 15, 2012

'The Jews in Iran live in fear of phone tapping'

“There are religious and political freedoms, but not social freedom,” says one Iranian Jew in his fifties.
Photo credit: AP

 The blessing of the Cohanim in an Iranian synagogue (Photo: AP)

The pious are nominally free to practise their religion and the wealthy are to an extent shielded from the effect of sanctions on Iran, but all Jews are fearful of being spied on. Long feature in Israel Hayom by Bat-Hen Epstein Elias:

M., a Jewish man in his fifties from Tehran, celebrated the festival of Simhat Torah this week. He did not build a sukkah in his yard or invite his Muslim friends and neighbors in, but he attended the special Simhat Torah service. As an observant Jew, he goes to the nearby synagogue three times a day for morning, afternoon and evening prayers.

“It’s a small synagogue in downtown Tehran,” he tells us from Iran over Skype. “In the middle of the week, about 15 Jews who live in the area worship there. This week, like on any other holiday, there were more people than usual. The members of Tehran’s Jewish community attend the synagogue, pray in Hebrew and celebrate the festivals — but other than that, we’re just like all the Iranians.”

M. speaks with us in English. “I don’t speak Hebrew because I went to public school, where we studied with Muslims. But you can learn Hebrew in Jewish private schools. There is a large Jewish community in Iran. Tehran has a large synagogue that serves the community, but I go to a small synagogue that’s close to my home. I eat kosher food, which can be bought at the synagogue. There are also people who help me buy medications and take care of me.”

I ask him whether he is not afraid to say that he is a Jew. He says no. “All the Jews in Iran live like the Muslims. Everybody — Muslims, Jews, everyone — shares the economic problems here.” But when I ask him about the situation, he answers, “If people don’t have a lot of money, how is it that they go shopping every evening and eat out? Some things are expensive. Not everything.”

The conversation with M. takes place during extreme tension between Israel and the Islamic republic, and against the backdrop of news about the economic crisis that is affecting Iran. Still, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statement, in a CNN interview when he was in the United States, was surprising: “There are many Jews living in Iran with whom we are very close.”

Despite the statements that the Iranians have closed off access to the Internet, it seems Iranians are quite active on Facebook. The Jewish community’s representative in the Iranian parliament, Ciamak Moresadegh, has an Internet-based newspaper that is also translated into Hebrew, but its articles do not have exact dates, so it is hard to say when they were last updated. We tried unsuccessfully to contact him. In an AP interview last March, Moresadegh was quoted as saying, “No matter who dares to attack our country, we will stand against the threats like other Iranian people. The Iranian Jewish community will stand by their compatriots under any circumstance, forever.”

It is not easy to make contact with Jews from Iran who will agree to talk about their situation. Many of them do not respond at all. Some of them give brief answers, but note that they prefer not to talk about political subjects because they trust nobody. From talking with them, it's obvious that the economic situation in Iran has deteriorated, but the Jews’ situation is actually fairly good.

D., a man in his forties, married with a child, lives in Tehran, where he has a devout Jewish family. Like M., he writes that he is experiencing the difficult situation in Iran as an Iranian, not as a Jew, and afterward, our connection is broken. Only several hours later does he send me a message: “I apologize, but I do not know you and cannot trust you. I will not be able to talk about the situation.”

Y., who lives in Tehran, in his fifties, says that the Jewish community is suffering, like everyone. “There are religious and political freedoms, but not social freedom,” he writes in Farsi. While he does not describe himself as a religious man, he holds “religious family festivals.” One of his three children is still in school. The two others graduated from the University of Tehran and are now working. “The economic situation here is very bad,” he says. “Everybody thinks of their own family. But my situation is actually not bad. There’s nothing to worry about.”

In the past, M. owned a men’s clothing store in Tehran. He was considered well off. Several years ago, he was diagnosed with a serious illness, and since then has stopped working. He lives alone. His father, brother and sister are dead. They are buried in Iran, which is one of the reasons that he has remained there. Two other sisters, aged about 70, went to live in the U.S. about 20 years ago.

“I never felt like I was being attacked because I was Jewish, or that my religious freedom was harmed,” he says. “I have a good friend, a Muslim, who takes care of me. He takes me to the doctor, and even to the movies and the park, and invites me for meals. Everyone is very good to me and helps me. Before I got sick, I had a lot of money. Medications in Iran are good, a little expensive, but they can be obtained with private insurance and government insurance.”

Like others, he is careful when it comes to talking about the political situation, the nuclear program or the fear of an attack. When I asked him how the Jews felt about the speeches of President Ahmadinejad and Prime Minister Netanyahu in the U.N., he answered, “I don’t know about that. I don’t read newspapers. I have no satellite television, I don’t watch the BBC, and my friends and I never talk about politics. When I go to synagogue and meet other Jews, we pray. We don’t talk about politics or discuss the situation. Whatever happens is between the governments, not between the nations themselves. The people don’t talk about the administration. They’re too busy to talk about the administration.”

The fear that the Jews live with is evident in conversations with their relatives who live in Israel. D., a Jewish woman in her 70s who lives in Tehran, does not call her family in Israel often anymore. Until five years ago, she used to come to Israel and even tried to live here. But they do not expect her anymore. The long, frequent telephone conversations have also become shorter, and her relatives are hard-pressed to know what exactly is going on in the country they remember from their childhood. Although the family moved to Israel or the U.S., D. remained behind in Tehran, taking care of her husband's grave, and preserving the culture and tradition to which she is accustomed.

"To telephone her, we have to dial about 15 digits through a telephone number abroad that makes the connection,” says A., a relative of hers from Raanana. “All the Jews there live in fear that their telephones are tapped. So when we speak with her, the conversation is just ‘How is everyone?’, making sure that everything is all right, and then that’s it. We hang up. We are originally from Isfahan and she is from Tehran, and every city has its own dialect that outsiders don’t understand. So she talks to us in the dialect of Isfahan and uses code words so that we’ll understand.”


Sultana Vidal said...

The Jews in iran are better off than those in Egypt, Our mysterious
correspondent goes to synagogue three times a day. Now when we want to
go to our synagogue (Shaar Hashamaim) in Cairo we have to ask
Maybe after all Ahmadinajab is not as bad as we thought. it's all a
question of degrees in negativity.I think i should stop swearing at
Sultana Vidal

Unknown said...

Phone tapping is really scary. I practise arabic on skype at and my teacher said not only phones but even skype conversations can be hacked.