Iran’s Jewish community reflects a complicated relationship with Israel


TEHRAN, Iran — In his address this week to the United Nations General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Iran threatens his country’s existence, accused the Islamic Republic of institutionalized anti-Semitism and called its new president, Hassan Rouhani, a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

But one group that rejects such claims is Iran’s large community of Jews, a lasting reminder to the long relationship between Persian and Jewish culture that complicates the tense relationship between the two countries over Iran’s nuclear program.

Today there are fewer than 30,000 Jews living in Iran, down from more than 100,000 in the 1970s, but besides a mass exodus following Iran’s 1979 revolution and the founding of the Islamic Republic, their numbers have remained consistent, and they constitute the largest population of Jews in the Middle East outside Israel.

A recent State Department report on religious freedoms around the world said of Iran that anti-Semitic rhetoric by some government officials has resulted in a “hostile environment for the Jewish community,” but barring “some exceptions, there was little government restriction of, or interference with, Jewish religious practice. However, the Jewish community experienced official discrimination.”

Those incidents have mostly involved difficulties securing government jobs or gaining entry to state-run universities, but Jews here insist they practice their religion openly and are free to leave, and those who remain do so because they want to.

Some Jews who have left, emigrating mostly to the United States or Israel, report being pressured to convert to Islam or otherwise harassed, and many who remain complain about their inability to see relatives, especially those who live in Israel.

Several Jewish activists were executed in the early days of the revolution. And there have been instances of Iranian Jews arrested on charges of spying for Israel, but such cases have become increasingly rare.

With allegations by Israeli officials of a foiled Iranian terror plot in Tel Aviv and its ongoing accusations that Iran is building a nuclear weapon to use against Israel, members of Iran’s Jewish community say such claims distort the Islamic Republic’s relationship with Judaism and its own Jewish population.

Netanyahu’s warnings, coupled with ongoing questions about whether or not the Islamic Republic officially recognizes the Holocaust, cast a negative light on Iran just days after a historic phone call between Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, and President Barack Obama signaled the start of a new era in relations between Tehran and Washington.

In an interview, the chairman of Iran’s Jewish Association, Homayun Sameyah, said that the Rosh Hashanah greetings that Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, posted on Facebook and Twitter last month reflected a friendlier approach to Jews everywhere on the part of Iran’s leaders. He drew a contrast between the new president and his far more confrontational predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“During the Ahmadinejad years, because of his Holocaust denial, some Jewish activists had problems here, but now that we see that Rouhani has a different opinion, we’re hopeful that such difficulties are behind us,” Sameyah said.

Community leaders say that Jews here have become more religious since Iran’s revolution. With sixty active synagogues spread across Iran, and a dozen in Tehran alone, sermons and religious courses are perpetually filled.

But that gravitation toward deeper faith has not included an embrace of Zionism or any upsurge in emigration to Israel, the leaders say.

“There is a distinction between us as Jews and Israel,” said Haroon Saketi, who owns a clothing boutique in Esfahan. “We consider ourselves Iranian Jews and it has nothing to do with Israel whatsoever. This is the country we love.”