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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
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Iran's Jews: Tolerance or veiled persecution?
Iranian leadership claims Jewish minority treated fairly, but experts, rabbis, offer contrasting views; 'There's basic fear,' says researcher; 'There's no need to go looking for trouble,' rabbi warns
A modern day Pharaoh or a tolerant anti-Zionist? The case for Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Islamic Republic's Jewish minority is far from obvious.

 

Experts say Iranian Jews are treated the same as other citizens, but their unique status, they all agree, is highly sensitive.

 

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"They have no problems, praise God," said Rabbi Yitzhak Ba'al Haness, who was Shiraz's rabbi for many years, until he emigrated to the United States in the 1990s.


"יש פחד מאוד בסיסי. אי אפשר לצייר את זה באופן כזה פנטסטי שהכל בסדר". יהודים אופים מצות  (צילום: הרב אברהם חיים)

Iranian Jews baking matzos (Photo: Avraham Chaim)

 

"Life is perfectly fine and there have never been any problems," he added, neglecting to mention the imprisonment of several of his students on charges of spying for Israel.

 

Whether a case of state persecution or score settling within the Jewish community, it was never made clear.

 

Regarding his own choice to leave Iran, the Rabbi said: "I sent my children to study in American yeshivot, and a few years later I followed them."


מטרנה כשרה לפסח מישראל, וברקע האייאטולות (צילום: הרב אברהם חיים)

Kosher Materna from Israel, in Iran (Photo: Avraham Chaim)

 

A succinct explanation, but some in Shiraz's Jewish community are of the opinion the rabbi's departure was more "fleeing" than "emigrating," and that Ba'al Haness was afraid he could be the target of regime's unwanted attention.

 

Religious freedoms

Iran is home to some 20,000 Jews, half of whom live in the capital Tehran, 6,000 in Isfahan and the rest scattered in various urban settlements.

 

Rabbi Ba'al Haness' statement is not baseless: Iran's Jews are able to enjoy Jewish life including mikvehs, synagogues and even governmental religious services.


"ראשי הקהילה והנציג בפרלמנט יתיישרו בדרך כלל עם הקו האנטי-ישראלי, ונשים ייצאו לרחוב רק בצ'אדור ובלבוש המסורתי". יהודים בסוכה  (צילום: הרב אברהם חיים)

Jews in a sukkah (Photo: Avaraham Chaim)

 

But Dr. Esther Webman, director of the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism, said the tolerance is a mere façade.

 

"There's still a very basic fear. You can't paint a fantastic picture showing everything is alright," she said.

 

Though she agreed with the rabbi that there is a distinction between the treatment of Jews as a religious minority under Islamic rule and the attitude toward Israel and Zionism, the situation is "far from ideal."

 

"Jews have to follow very clear and rigid rules," she said, adding that their situation is similar to that of non-Jewish citizens.


הסכנה לקהילה - מ"מרגלים פנימיים". שיעור תורה באיראן  (צילום: הרב אברהם חיים)

Torah lesson in Iran (Photo: Avraham Chaim)

 

"The community leaders and the Jewish Member of Parliament toe the anti-Israeli line, and women only go outside in a chador and traditional garb.

 

"Only if you follow the rules then 'everything is alright,'" she described cynically.

 

Blurred photographs, no persecution

Rabbi Avraham Chaim, an Istanbul rabbi and highly familiar with Iran's Jews, is adamant that there is no anti-Semitic persecution in Iran.

 

"They live there quite freely," he told Ynet. "I'm not sure they are loved over there, and I've no idea what goes on in Ahmadinejad's heart, but he doesn't give them a hard time."

 

Despite his optimism he insisted some of the faces of Iranian Jews in his photographs be blurred, fearing exposure might put their lives in danger.

 

Chaim is based in Turkey, but offers religious services to Jewish communities across the neighboring Muslim countries.

 

Over the last few days he delivered matzos to dozens of Jews in Damascus, Syria. "Hundreds of kilometers in makeshift roads, under fire," according to him.

 

But Iranian Jews have little need of his services. "No one asked me to deliver to Iran. They have their own bakery in Shiraz," he explained.

 

But is the Iranian regime's tolerance merely a strategic policy, meant to conceal underlying anti-Semitism and portray Iran's criticism of Israel as objective? "If the regime isn't making any trouble – you shouldn't

go looking for it," Chaim replied.

 

"Thankfully, there's a state appointed rabbi, a Jewish member of parliament and good relations with the community.

 

"Jews don't meddle in politics, don't get involved in the dispute with Israel, but just live their lives," he added.

 

But the Istanbul rabbi admitted that support of Zionism or any intentions of immigrating to Israel would have put the whole community in danger.

 

"Many would have wanted to take that step, but it's sensitive, so the Jewish Agency has given up on them," he explained.

 

 

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