Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Growing up as a Jew in Iran

M is a Farsi-speaking intelligence officer in the IDF. His nail-biting escape from Iran was a bit like a scene from the film 'Argo' - but without the champagne. Riveting portrait in the Times of Israel by Mitch Ginsburg of what it is like to grow up as a Jew in the Ayatollahs' Iran.

School days started with communal chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.” All of the Jewish students, he recalled, would cheat in the “Death to Israel” chant, replacing the Persian pronunciation of Israel with a similar word, which means “angel of death.” Greeting the students, though, on their way into school, was the Ayatollah Khomeini quote that Ahmadinejad later used*.
In sixth grade, during Friday night services, M., disgusted by the statement, found a sharp metal object and scraped away the quote.

One Saturday — sometimes a school day and sometimes not, depending on the generosity of the Education Ministry — the principal lined up the student body for morning assembly. After the customary chanting and the cleanliness inspections by the teachers, the principal went to the front of the hall and told the student body that “an un-Islamic deed had been done… and I know who did it.”

M. was ordered to the front of the hall and beaten in front of everyone. Then he was sent to wait for the principal in his office, where he was beaten again. And then the situation got even worse: The principal told him that his act was not a prank. It was a Zionist act, a product of his education at home, and that it had to be passed on to the state authorities.

The school janitor, a Jew, who had witnessed the affair, saw M.’s mother nearby and called her urgently into the school. The principal charged her with inculcating the children with an anti-Islamic education and insisted that he would report the entire family to the authorities. Only after three or four hours of arguing and pleading, was his mother able to settle on a bribe, a payment to the school and a commitment to have the Khomeini quote restored, at their own expense, as soon as possible.

A Jewish Iranian woman praying at the tomb of Esther (via Shutterstock)

A Jewish Iranian woman praying at the tomb of Esther (Jewish Iranian woman image via Shutterstock)

Immediately afterwards, the family began planning their covert immigration to Israel.

M. remembered his departure vividly. He said that watching the 2012 movie “Argo,” and its tense airport scene, gave him goose bumps. His family, too, he said, told no one that they were leaving. Only on the morning of their departure, he said, did he tell his two best friends that he was going to Shiraz, a code word among the Jews that meant Israel. He arrived at the airport along with his mother and two sisters — his father had to stay behind, as an entire family was not allowed to leave the country together — and sat in a departure terminal that resembled the one in “Argo.” He clutched his schoolbooks to his chest, he said, so that, if asked, he could contend that he was merely going on vacation to Istanbul and would be doing homework while away.

Unlike the movie, in which the US nationals escape on a Swiss Air flight and sip champagne as soon as the plane lifts off, they flew on an Iranian airliner and were terrified until they reached Turkey. Once there, they called a telephone number of an embassy employee, who sent a car to the airport and, within days, arranged Israeli passports for the family. “In Israel,” he said, “I first met my older brother.”

M.’s father remained in Iran for another year. He obtained a fake passport and was nearly ready to leave when IRGC agents knocked on his office door. They found the passport in his drawer and arrested him. “If you are caught doing this sort of thing,” M. said, “you usually never get out alive.”

The leader of the Jewish community, Siamak Mor Sadegh, demonstrating in front a Tehran UN building with Jewish students in a staged show of support for the Iranian nuclear programme (Photo: AFP - with thanks: Michelle)

After paying “tons of money” and pulling every string he had, he was allowed out on bail. Having helped many other Jews escape Iran, M.’s father had good connections with the Balochs, the desert dwellers who live on the eastern plateau. For two weeks he traveled with them by camel and jeep convoy to the border region and finally, with their help, slipped across the border into Pakistan, where, M. said, the Jewish Agency had a representative who was able to get him a passport and fly him to Sweden and from there to Israel.

M. was drafted into the IDF in 1995. As a testament to the priorities of the intelligence establishment at the time, he was slated to become a Merkava tank mechanic. Only once he had started basic training did the Military Intelligence Directorate tap him on the shoulder.

His job at the outset, he said, keeping his description deliberately vague, “was translating the intelligence data of what, we’ll say, was attainable.”

In those days the Persian desk at Military Intelligence was both smaller than today and mostly staffed by what the IDF calls lahagistim – those that knew the lahag, or dialect, either as a mother tongue or from relatives around the house. M. was sent to officers’ school, after repeated requests, and was put in charge of a platoon of soldiers that translated raw intelligence.

Read article in full 

*'Wipe Israel off the map'


Anonymous said...

I am sorry, but too many details compromise the escape of those remaining Jews!

bataween said...

Sultana,these details are plastered all over the Times of israel, which has many more readers than this humble blog!

Anonymous said...


bataween said...

Aw, I am very touched :)