According to the Islamic Republic’s official line—frequently repeated by credulous Western journalists—the country’s small Jewish community enjoys toleration and good treatment so long as its members renounce Zionism and denounce Israel. The reality is very different, as Majid Rafizadeh discovered when, teaching at a university in his native Iran, he delivered a lecture to his students about the Holocaust in violation of the ban on discussing the subject in the classroom. He discovered afterward that one of his students, the first Jew he had ever met, had relatives who were killed in the Shoah:
I soon came to understand the reason [this student] felt the need to keep [her identity] hidden. . . . First, there are systematic and concerted efforts made from the top down by the theocratic regime and several other governments in the region to eliminate Jewish history. There is also a strong push to incite antagonism against the Jewish people. The regime openly encourages debates that revolve around casting doubt on, and questioning the [historicity] of, the Holocaust. It ratchets up anti-Israel slogans and celebrates national anti-Israel holidays such as Quds Day. . . .
One reason behind [the anti-Semitic attitudes] of Iran’s theocratic establishment is that the roots of Jews in Iran date back to a pre-Islamic era, an era that the Iranian government attempts to de-emphasize or erase from the memory of the society. Another reason is rooted in the notion that for the Iranian regime, Jews and Israel are mingled in one category; if you are Jewish, the thinking goes, then you are an Israeli. Since the Iranian regime is opposed to Israel’s existence, Iranian authorities view the Jewish people through the prism of suspicion. They are viewed as Israeli allies, conspirators, and loyalists to Israel and the United States, not to the Iranian government.
Some Jews secretly confess that they are indeed living two separate lives. In their private life they practice their faith, but in public they are extremely cautious, avoiding saying anything [that might identify them as Jews]. Out of fear or in order to survive economically, socially, and academically, some may convert to Islam on the surface but continue to practice Judaism at home. Some have two names, one Muslim, one Jewish.
[Nonetheless], in order to enhance its global legitimacy, . . . the Iranian regime has boasted about [its supposed] tolerance, and pointed to the fact that there are Jews in Iran as a sign that the regime is cosmopolitan and civil. Depending on the circumstance, the Jewish community may be paraded past foreign governments as an example of progress, or trampled down by the Iranian regime as a toxic presence.