Prof. Rabkin’s article is an interesting and informative read. However, some of the conclusions drawn by the author are not well-supported. He mentions the positive image of Jews among the Iranians he came across as evidence that the European stereotypes of the “cheap”, “dishonest” and “rapacious” Jew are not the norm in Iran. These very stereotypes, and worse, do exist in Iran and are actually promulgated by certain government sectors every once in a while, even though it’s quite possible that they are not shared by a large part, even a majority, of Iranians. An example of state-sponsored antisemtism would be Iran’s broadcast media, entirely state-controlled, under the supervision of hardliners, which for years have broadcast Protocols-of-the-Elders-of-Zion type of stories as historical facts. In various state-funded historical films on Iranian TV, Jewish villains are depicted as the main characters behind British colonialism and Western imperialism (long before the creation of Israel) bent on subverting Islam in Iran. These Jewish characters are, in fact, often fictitious or, at best, of marginal, if any, historical relevance. The motivation for these Jewish conspiracies is often portrayed as fulfilling commandments from the Talmud and Kabalah, and sometimes even the Torah.
Jewish representatives, on various occasions throughout the years, have objected to such vulgar and naked official antisemitism in the IRI. As an example, you can find this open letter from then-Jewish parliament rep Maurice Motamed to Ahmadinejad in 2005, currently posted at Tehran’s Jewish Committee website:
Excerpt: “I … on multiple occasions in … [parliament] speeches and in writings and direct visits to responsible authorities of the country have expressed my and the Jewish community’s objections to publishing books and articles and producing programs or TV series, which under the guise of opposing Zionism, display their own antisemitic thoughts, and attempt to insult Jewish religious and moral precepts, thereby, in addition to dismaying Jewish Iranians …, they have also provoked that group of individuals whose opinions and anxieties are inflamed by reading such articles, viewing antisemitic series, and who may unwittingly take actions which undoubtedly are not desired by the system [regime]. [In case the wording is obtuse, he means the propaganda may provoke antisemitic attacks.] In particular, recently in TV programming relating to the [holy] month of Ramadan we witness a TV series whose vitriol and attack are directed solely against the Jews.” Motamed goes on to request that more respect towards Jewish rights and sensibilities be afforded in state-sanctioned/sponsored publications and broadcasts, so as to preempt propaganda against Iran in the foreign media. So far as I could tell, Motamed’s protestations did not affect production of antisemitic propaganda during Ahmadinejad’s presidency. Some years earlier, during reformist Khatami’s administration, Motamed had even claimed that much of the emigration of Iran’s Jewish population (currently between 10 to 20 thousand) from around 60,000 at the time of the revolution, may have been due to fears induced by IRI’s antisemitic propaganda. While Islamic Republic’s official line distinguishes Zionim from Judaism and claims that the latter is honored as a divine religion, a rule of thumb should inform us that often there can be a wide gap between propaganda and practice by any state.
The roots of modern antisemitism in Iran are mainly attributed to 2 periods. One is the ascendancy of Shia fundamentalism in Iran in the 16th century, highlighting the ritual uncleanliness of non-Muslims with an emphasis on the Jews. The other is importation of Western antisemitic and Aryan supremacist notions during the modernization period from around mid 19th to mid 20th centuries.
Former head of the Tehran Jewish Committee, Haroun Yeshayai, mentioned in the professor’s article (and featured in the last photo, sitting between his daughter and the author) wrote an open letter to Ahmadinejad in 2006 criticizing his Holocaust denial:
Excerpt from his letter: “Programming and daily emphasis of Islamic Republic’s Radio & TV and some other mass media on the fictitiousness of the massacre of the Jews at the hand of Hitler’s Nazi regime (the Holocaust) and challenging one of the most evident and saddest human incidents in the 20th century, has perplexed the world and caused apprehension and fear among Iran’s small Jewish community.” He added that the denial does nothing for the Palestinians and the oppressed Muslims, but “only alleviates psychological complexes of the racists.” This provided the Ahmadinejad administration the excuse to force him out, as mentioned in the article.
Another point of contention with the author’s conclusions is his inference of the anti-Zionism of Iran’s Jewry, which is mostly contrived and not deeply rooted. In fact, there’s no history of significant, if any, anti-Zionism among Iran’s Jewry prior to the Islamic revolution. On the contrary, as the Encyclopaedia Iranica indicates, “Iran’s first Zionist committee was formed in Hamadan in 1912, probably in reaction to the Bahais’ overwhelming success in converting Jews there … Zionism and later the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 instilled a new sense of self-confidence in Iran’s Jewish community and provided them with a vital psychological boost. Many Persian Jews now saw the successes of their coreligionists in the Promised Land as a fulfillment of their messianic aspirations and an end to their misery as an impoverished and disadvantaged minority. Iran’s Jewish community gradually adopted a more Westernized version of Judaism, less preoccupied with issues of messianic expectation and more engaged with Zionism.” Even during the reign of Reza Shah, founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, when Zionist activity was illegal and head of the Iranian Zionist organization, who encouraged emigration to Palestine, which was obstructed by the gov’t, was executed, emigration did not cease. During the reign of the last Shah, when relations w/ Israel became close and emigration was allowed, about half of Iran’s 80,000-strong Jewish community emigrated to Israel in the 60’s & 70’s, though a small number returned to Iran. In contrast to many Arab states, Iranian Jews emigrated to Israel voluntarily and not under gov’t duress. Right before the revolution Iran’s 60,000-strong Jewish community was the largest in the world. Now, Israel has around 250,000, the US around 65,000 and Iran under 20,000 Persian Jews. The author mentions a Skype conversation with a Persian Jew in Israel who pretended to be in the US. This is b/c they were worried that if the Iranian authorities were to detect contact w/ Israel, which is illegal, the Jewish host in Iran may have faced consequences. Jews from Iran occasionally travel to Israel to visit family or seek medical treatment by arranging with the Israeli embassy in Turkey to not stamp their Iranian passports.
Iranian-American Jewish political organizations, such as “30 Years After,” are basically an extension of AIPAC and the Israeli consulates. They actively lobby for strong sanctions and hawkish and neocon policies on Iran and unwavering US support for Israeli policies. There is a flow of Iran’s Jews, mostly young, emigrating to the US and there’s no discernible anti-Zionism among them. Almost all of them end up supporting the “Israel advocacy” of the existing Iranian-American Jewry or, at best, are not particularly engaged with the issue. All Persian synagogues in LA & NY are ultra-Zionist strongholds, and Netanyahu is quite popular among the Iranian-American Jewry.
The anti-Zionism among Iran’s Jewry is mostly contrived in order to be politically correct and acceptable as a Jewish minority w/in the ideological constraints of the Islamic Republic.
Moreover, since the incessant anti-Israel and anti-Zionist propaganda of the Islamic Republic is tainted with vulgar antisemitism, as described above, it’s not that surprising that Iran’s Jews may counter that by identifying Zionism w/ their Jewishness. Iranian authorities are more than likely aware of these distortions, but status quo and pretenses are mostly maintained. Iran’s Jewish leadership, presumably the 4 or 5 the author mentions as asking most of the questions during his talk, are mostly the ones fashioning an anti-Zionist narrative adapted from Western Jewry, such as Prof. Rabkin, b/c there is no indigenous version they can identify with. They may not be as zealously pro-Israel as their fellow AIPAC-dominated Persian Jews in America, but neither are Iran’s Jews as ideologically anti-Zionist as their leadership professes. This is not an admirable circumstance as the author believes. It is much healthier and will have a more lasting effect to have an open exchange of conflicting ideas.
The author also admires the ancient and native Jewish identity of his hosts. But there is some social engineering in that, as well. Essentially, Muslim-non-Muslim marriages are outlawed in Iran, which is over 99% Muslim, and the theocratically-motivated gov’t encourages religiosity among the recognized religious minorities, as well as among Muslims. So traditional identities are less fluid than would be in more open societies. This also motivates young Jews of Iran to be continuously emigrating to the US for better marriage (and lifestyle) opportunities, thinning the native community even more. For more on modern history of Iran’s Jewry:
As a side note, censorship through deletion or modification, is not unheard of in official Iranian translations of political works. Unless an independent reader versed in both languages can verify it, suspicion of modification exists. (And as a minor point, the current [since 2008] Jewish MP’s last name is Moreh Sedgh; Siamak is his first name.)