Flourishing Under Confinement: A Visit to Jewish Iran

I’d heard horror stories about what to expect. What I actually witnessed was something far more interesting, more complicated, and more unsettling.

The tomb of Esther and Mordecai in Hamadan, Iran. Annika Hernroth-Rothstein.

The tomb of Esther and Mordecai in Hamadan, Iran. Annika Hernroth-Rothstein.

Observation
March 14 2016
About the author

Annika Hernroth-Rothstein is a syndicated columnist for Israel Hayom and a frequent contributor to the Washington Examiner. 

 


It all began at a dinner in Jerusalem where the host was telling stories about family members left behind in Tehran, and how little he knew about the life they were leading there. For years, I’ve been writing about the plight of Jews in my native Sweden, where violent attacks and casual harassment have become the norm. What was it like, I couldn’t help wondering, for Jews in a place where anti-Semitism was out in the open, and European ideas of human rights held no sway at all? Then and there, I decided to go see.

In leaving for Iran I was of course well aware of the anti-Semitic (excuse me, “anti-Zionist”) rhetoric that regularly emanates from high-ranking government officials, and of the non-rhetorical rockets with which Iran has equipped Hamas and Hizballah for the purpose of killing Jews around the world, regardless of their citizenship or place of residence. And I had heard horror stories from Persian Jews I’d met in Israel and Europe. I was told that my Jewishness would have to be hidden, that I would see only Soviet-like despair, and that as a woman traveling alone I would have to watch my every step.

None of this was the case. What I actually witnessed was something far more complicated, and more unsettling.

 

Arriving in Tehran on a journalist’s visa, I’m immediately assigned a team of two men, a driver and a translator, who will handle, as they put it, my travel and my safety. Indeed, they will be with me at all times, including at my and their daily prayers. Nima and Hamid become my windows into Iran; after a while, we reach a curious understanding, even engaging in long theological debates during rides in Nima’s worn-out Peugeot. Though they are there to keep tabs on me, I soon become acutely aware that someone is also keeping tabs on them, and that my actions can have consequences for them as well as for anyone else with whom I speak.

That’s the brilliance of totalitarian regimes, and the Achilles’ heel of my profession. Gaining access—that most prized of journalistic commodities—comes with strings attached to those who will stay behind after I’ve made my exit.

Such thoughts are already beginning to swirl in my head as I sit in the office of Siamak More Sedegh at the Sapir Jewish hospital in Tehran, of which he is the director. In addition to practicing medicine, Sedegh is the token Jewish member of the Iranian parliament.

A man of significant stature, Sedegh emphasizes his words by leaning forward, pushing the edge of his desk ever so slightly toward me with each sentence. During his thirteen years as MP he has gained a reputation for strong opinions, especially on matters concerning Israel, and the day I sit down with him is no exception—as he proceeds to instruct me:

The radical Zionism that Netanyahu stands for is just as bad as Nazism, and he needs Hamas to stay in power just as they need him. I want Iran to be allied with Israel but that cannot happen until there is a Palestinian state, and I don’t see that happening until there is a change in the Knesset and in the Israeli leadership.

Watching the pillar of ash on Sedegh’s cigarette magically stay put as he gestures, I fumble for a diplomatic response; his amused smile signals that he understands my predicament. His disdain for Netanyahu seems real, as real as anything gets in a system largely based on playacting, but from the way he blurts out each line it’s obvious that he speaks from a well-rehearsed script and from intimate knowledge of his place.

I ask him to explain how the regime’s—and specifically former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s—denial of the Holocaust affects the Jews of Iran. He shrugs:

All the politicians do it. Ahmadinejad, Bibi—all of them. They may come out and give speeches to the hardliners among their constituency but in reality they govern with much more moderation, and we Jews live within a protected framework. I spoke to Ahmadinejad after his speech at the UN and I said, bluntly, that denying the Holocaust is denying the sun. And there is no denying the sun.

The “protected framework” to which Sedegh refers is that of the Iranian constitution, specifically article 13, which states that “Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only recognized religious minorities, who, within the limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education.” The central phrase here is “within the limits of the law,” the law in question being sharia.

When I ask what the biggest challenges are for Jews within the Islamic Republic, Sedegh begins by stating, “We are Iranian first,” and then adds that the approximately 10,000 Jews of Iran are flourishing, despite some “legal issues” that still require “solving”—such as the law dictating that any member of a non-Muslim family who converts to Islam inherits all of his parents’ assets, which has impoverished a fair number of Jewish families.

 

From what I’m able to tell, in many ways Sedegh is right about the “flourishing” part. The Jewish community in Iran is full of life to a degree I can’t imagine ever beholding in my part of Europe. In Tehran there are several kosher restaurants, many Jewish schools, a high level of cohesion and a minuscule level of assimilation (not so surprising in a country where intermarriage is punishable by death), and strong traditional observance, with synagogues packed to the rafters every Sabbath. For a visitor like me, having one’s choice of kosher eateries (Sweden, with almost twice as many Jews, lacks even one), being able to enter a synagogue without armed guards asking for ID, and seeing kippah-clad children walking through the streets without a care—this is not what I expected to find.

It’s an experience at once foreign and familiar. Entering Yousef Abad Synagogue on Friday night, I’m comforted by the familiar liturgy and the equally familiar whispers and murmurs that attend the arrival of any stranger. But then come the surprises. One by one, the children come up to me after the service, kissing me three times and wishing me Shabbat Shalom. The women follow, many pointing to my obsessively tied hijab, my white skin and black hair, and asking me if I’m Syrian. An oddity, I’m also a welcome one, and within fifteen minutes, communicating with the women in Hebrew as if hiding from my handlers in plain sight, I have a dinner invitation.

Of course, Nima and Hamid accompany me to dinner. I was concerned their presence would discomfit my hosts, but to them the state’s watchful eye seems so routine as to be natural. The two men are treated as friends and offered soda in lieu of wine, leaving me to feel like the only one struggling to grasp the rules.

Over dinner I’m assured it’s quite common for Muslim neighbors and colleagues to pay shiva calls: one of many examples I’m given of the prevailing interreligious harmony. Another is that, in the run-up to Passover, Jews plant legumes whose consumption is forbidden during the holiday in imitation of their neighbors’ traditional preparations for the springtime festival of Nowruz, the Persian new year. All of this inevitably puts me in mind of Sedegh’s “framework,” whose adaptations seem to go very much one way: the Jews work within the system; the system works them.

 

It was not always thus. In 1978, on the eve of the Islamic Revolution, Iran’s Jewish population consisted of approximately 80,000 individuals, most of them in Tehran. It was an ancient community, going back millennia, and also a thriving one, overwhelmingly middle- or upper-middle-class and boasting a wide array of institutions: schools, cultural centers, and synagogues—at least 30 in Tehran alone.

With the coming of the revolution, all of these advantages—high socioeconomic status, identification with the shah, strong ties to Israel and the United States—would suddenly become liabilities. Anti-Semitism intensified. Rumors circulated that Iranian Jews had been stealing the country’s treasures, and flyers appeared in Tehran urging vengeance. The slogans “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” were joined by “Death to the Jews” graffiti scrawled on the walls of Jewish institutions.

As the revolution turned to the massive confiscation of private wealth, tens of thousands of Jews fled to Israel and the United States, never to return. Whatever hopes were cherished by those remaining, some of whom had even taken part in welcoming Ayatollah Khomeini, were quashed with the execution of Habib Elghanian, the formal head of the Jewish community, for the crime of “Zionist espionage.”

Ever since then, the community has learned to live with the low-grade fear that comes from knowing your freedom might give way at any moment to repression. Granted, the situation isn’t one of persecution. But there are no rights—only privileges of an easily revocable kind. The very indeterminacy of the situation encourages resignation and quiescence.

What I find most disturbing are Jews’ outbursts of loyalty toward the regime, their constant assurances about their own wellbeing, and their repeated insistence on the difference between Jewishness (tolerated) and Zionism (emphatically not). As at my Sabbath-eve dinner, all speak highly of their special bond with Muslim neighbors. I’m quite familiar with this type of forced alienation, complete with routine denunciations of and dissociations from the state of Israel: after all, I’m a Jew from Sweden. But what I encounter here seems closer to Stockholm syndrome in its pure form.

As for the population at large, whenever I tell a Muslim I’m Jewish he assures me his issue is with Israel, not me. Wherever I go, people stop and thank me for visiting their country, ask me about the world outside, and pose for pictures as they excitedly practice their English. There is a curiosity and warmth in Iranians of a kind I don’t think I’ve experienced anywhere else; it’s hard not to fall a bit in love with these people. It’s harder, though, not to notice the ubiquitous walls covered in anti-American slogans and imagery, urging resistance to the evils of cultural imperialism. In one such mural, two arms, one painted in the colors of the American flag, the other in Iran’s red, green, and white, extend in a handshake. Protruding from the American sleeve is a sharp knife, signaling treachery and betrayal. So much for the vaunted benefits of the nuclear deal.

 

As Sabbath ends and I’m about to leave the synagogue for the last time, an elderly man grabs me by the arm and pulls me to the side. “Pray for us,” he says in English with a slight American accent, “please pray for our safety and our lives.” Stunned by his words, I fall silent. Clearing his throat at my handler’s approach, he adds quickly: “If they are telling you everything is ok, they are lying.” He exits the building as I stand there, still speechless.

Walking back to my hotel with my handler that night, I’m surprised and unnerved by how easily I seem to have fallen for the party line. For the entire week I’ve struggled with a sense of anxiety and fatigue from being constantly watched and controlled, yet somehow I also fear returning to Europe and losing the powerful sense of belonging that comes with being on the inside, the feeling of us against them. Are the Jews here just as tired as I am, worn down by endless pretending?

Suddenly I see a mural depicting Barack Obama side by side with Aži Dahāka, a notoriously evil emperor in ancient Persian mythology. Next to it is a brightly lit Samsung ad. The juxtaposition perfectly sums up the strength and peril of Jewish life within this closed-off state. If this homogeneous and conservative community ever gains its freedom, it will join those of us fighting to preserve our religion, our tradition, and our Jewish state in a world that increasingly deems such things to be obsolete if not indefensible. But when the alternative is to be “flourishing” in perpetual imprisonment, our burden seems more like a gift.

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