Month: April 2007

Iranians take foreigners on Jewish community tour

This article in the Christian Science Monitor – no friend of Israel – tries to steer a neutral course between whitewash and critique in its portrayal of Iran’s treatment of its Jews. But it is downright wrong to claim that the Jews were among the first to join in the 1979 revolution. (Such statements of fierce loyalty are being made by the community’s leaders for reasons of self-preservation). Likewise, the CSM is wrong to claim that ‘strong anti-Zionist undercurrents developed in Iran – and across the Middle East – since Israel’s creation in 1948. Those views came to a boil in Tehran after the 1967 war, when Israel crushed Arab foes and occupied the West Bank, Gaza, and Sinai. That war marked a turning point in Iranians’ attitudes toward the Jewish state, and sometimes toward Iranian Jews.’ In fact there were cordial diplomatic and trade relations between the Shah’s Iran and Israel from 1948 onwards. The real turning point was the 1979 advent of the rabidly anti-Zionist Ayatollahs.

“The Iranian Foreign Ministry recently facilitated a day-long visit to significant Jewish sites in Tehran for the diplomatic corps. Privately, Iranian officials said the event was designed to reassure Iranian Jews, after unease over the December (Holocaust denial) conference.

“Jewish leaders portrayed themselves as ordinary Iranians, facing the same problems and with the same aspirations for their nation.

“The Jewish community was probably one of the first [minority groups] to join in with the revolution, and in this way gave many martyrs,” Maurice Motamed, holder of the one seat set aside for Jews in Iran’s 290-seat parliament, told the diplomats. “And after that, during the eight years of the imposed [Iran-Iraq] war, there were many martyrs and disabled given to Iranian society.”

“Every revolution is followed by some issues, problems, and restrictions [on minorities],” said Mr. Motamed. “Fortunately, all these effects have been completely removed in the last ten years.”

The diplomatic tour – with a number of Foreign Affairs Ministry officials – visited a Jewish school, a home for the elderly, a community center, and one of 100 synagogues left in Iran, during Friday Sabbath prayers.

“We have obviously had migration out of Iran,” says Afshin Seleh, a teacher of Jewish heritage with a white yarmulke skullcap, who says he loses two to three students per year in classes of up to 30. Upon the walls of the Jewish school are portraits of revolution leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and Iran’s current supreme religious leader.

“There have been different voices [coming] from the government, so people felt unsafe,” says Mr. Seleh. “But our existence here has always been separate from politics in Iran, and we always had peaceful coexistence with the Muslim community.”

“Part of that coexistence has been gratitude for the Dr. Sapir Hospital, a Jewish charity hospital that would have closed years ago, but for subsidies from Jews inside and outside Iran, doctors say.

“During the 1979 revolution, the hospital refused to hand over those wounded in clashes with the security forces of the pro-West Shah Reza Pahlavi. Ayatollah Khomeini later sent a personal representative to express his thanks. Ahmadinejad, too, has made a $27,000 donation.

“Still, the Iran-Israel standoff has spilled over into many avenues of life here, with varied results for Iranian Jews.

“Strong anti-Zionist undercurrents developed in Iran – and across the Middle East – since Israel’s creation in 1948. Those views came to a boil in Tehran after the 1967 war, when Israel crushed Arab foes and occupied the West Bank, Gaza, and Sinai. That war marked a turning point in Iranians’ attitudes toward the Jewish state, and sometimes toward Iranian Jews.”

Read article in full

Non-Ashkenazim appointed on merit nowadays

As prime minister of Israel, Menahem Begin started a revolution: Sephardim/Mizrahim first began to be appointed to important government posts. Today nobody is appointed because of their ethnic background, and nobody votes on ethnic lines anymore. Amos Asa’El writes in the Jerusalem Post:

“The Begin revolution was first of all social, as it embraced all those Labor had marginalized, from the haredim, who became pivotal coalition partners, to the non-Ashkenazi masses, whose representatives increasingly populated all corridors of power, from municipalities, consulates and religious councils to ministries, utilities and state-company boards, not to mention the Knesset.

“It took Labor leaders time to understand the power of this revolution, if not for any other reason than simply because it was news to them that they had hurt anyone, let alone entire populations. Now they too tried to join the trend, searching for attractive, “authentic” non-Ashkenazim of their own.

“That is how in 1988 Shimon Peres turned Amir Peretz, Sderot’s little-known mayor, into a lawmaker. It was part of a zeitgeist dominated by an unofficial affirmative action, part of the same trend that inserted a Lilliputian diplomat like David Levy into Abba Eban’s shoes, and installed a vulgarian like Yoram Marciano as Labor whip.

“Fortunately, such poor choices were rare. Others, from Meir Sheetrit at the Treasury and Shlomo Ben-Ami at the Foreign Ministry to Yitzhak Navon at the presidency and Moshe Nissim at the Justice Ministry reached senior office on their merit. Whether or not it was deliberate, the fact is that prior to the Begin revolution Israel was run pretty much exclusively by Ashkenazim. Now ethnicity is no longer relevant.

“With self-made non-Ashkenazim like Yitzhak Tshuva and Haim Saban dominating the energy and telecom industries, and with the IDF having had, since the Begin revolution, four non-Ashkenazi chiefs of General Staff, there is no longer a sizable swing-vote fueled by ethnic considerations. Today no one even notices that, say, Yossi Bachar, the Treasury director-general who executed the Netanyahu reforms, is Sephardi; he was hired due to his abilities, and judged regardless of his origins.”

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An Egyptian Muslim meets Murad the musician

The author of this post is a 33-year old Belgian-Egyptian journalist travelling in Israel at the moment. He’s on the left, pro-Palestinian, with ‘progressive’ Israeli friends. Meeting an Iraqi Jew in Jerusalem may not shatter his preconceived ideas – but they might just make him reflect that the Palestinians are not the only victims of this conflict.

“Yesterday evening, I walked into a shawarma joint, and an accidental ‘Aywa‘ (‘Yes’ in Egyptian) led the owner to ask me if I spoke Arabic. When I answered in the affirmative, he and his friend sitting by the counter welcomed me warmly. At first, I could not figure out whether these guys were Palestinians or not, until I realised the friend was wearing a kippa or yarmulka.

“Murad (Mordechai is his Hebraised name) is an Iraqi Jew who speaks fluent Arabic with an Iraqi accent and does passable impersonations of the Egyptian and Palestinian dialects. He was born in Baghdad and fled there in 1951 with his parents just before a law was passed to stop others from leaving. He recalls his childhood there with nostalgia.

“Baghdad is my birth place. It has a special place in my heart,” he told me theatrically, his hands gesticulating musically. “I miss our house there. I wish I could go back and visit it, if it is still standing.”

“And it is not just the current occupation and anarchy – which sadden Murad and which he opposes – that are holding him back. He and the Iraqi Jews he hangs out with are also casualties of the conflict as they were not allowed to re-enter the country. But he is determined to visit his beloved Baghdad at the first possible opportunity.

“Murad is a musician who plays the Arabic oud and sings old Arabic classics at weddings, birthdays and bar mitzvahs. I was surprised that there was a demand for Arabic songs among Jews, but he reassured me there was. Showing his age, he told me that he had no desire to listen to modern singers whose songs had become too shallow and too short, in his opinion. He longed for the days when an Umm Kalthoum concert would last an entire evening and she’d only get through one song!

“He recalled with nostalgia the old greats of Arabic music like Umm Kalthoum, Farid el-Atrash, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, Abdel-Halim Hafez and Egypt’s most famous Jewish singing giant, Leila Murad.

“Murad has been to Egypt several times and he recounted several long tales of adventure in Cairo and Alexandria. “I love the Egyptian people,” he told me. “They’re so friendly and funny. When they find out I’m an Israeli, they called me ibn ‘ami [cousin] and khawaga [slang for foreigner who speaks broken Arabic].”

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Ask Congress to support Jewish refugee resolutions

Regular readers of this website will know that two resolutions have been introduced into the US Congress at the beginning of this year. They are now before the House and Senate foreign relations committees.

Now a new site designed by the JCRC, Boston, makes it easy for you to send a message asking your Congressperson to co-sponsor the legislation and to seek other co-sponsors.

The resolutions instruct the US President that, when the issue of Middle East refugees is discussed in all international fora, explicit reference to Palestinian refugees is matched by an explicit reference to Jewish and other refugees, as a matter of law and equity.

Jews still consider Iran a land of milk and honey

The 2005 documentary, “Jews of Iran,” directed by Ramin Farahani, was shown last week at the University of Pennsylvania, USA as part of a program sponsored by the Middle East Center. The Jewish Exponent reports:

“Daniel Tsadik, Ph.D., a fellow at the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies who studies Jews in pre-modern Iran, and Orly Rahimiyan, a Ph.D. candidate in the Middle Eastern Department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel and a Fulbright scholar at Penn, led the discussion after the film.

“The Jewish settlement in Iran dates back to the Babylonian exile, more than 2,700 years ago, explained Rahimiyan, and now numbers about 25,000 — a drastic drop, according to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, from the 1948 Jewish population in Iran of between 100,000 and 125,000.

“The Jews of Iran have been segregated, socially and religiously. They were pushed to the fringes of society, noted Rahimiyan, kept in isolated neighborhoods and subject to a poll tax.

Yet despite these divisions and difficulties, much of the Jewish population strongly identifies with Iranian culture and heritage. “These people — some of them at least — really love Iran,” said Tsadik. They speak Persian, and they identify themselves as Iranian.

“Tsadik knows these strong cultural ties of Iranian Jews firsthand — from his own family. “For my father,” he noted, “Iran is his country of milk and honey.” He added that even those who’ve left still teach their children to speak the language and appreciate the culture.

“On one hand, the Jews love Iran, but certain circumstances force them out,” he added. With the rise of the Islamic Republic in 1979, two-thirds of Jews fled the country. While many Iranian Jews had prospered economically through the years, the nation after the Shah — where Islamic fanaticism took over — caused fear and concern among those who stayed. The others wound up settling in American metropolitan centers like New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. They also managed to immigrate — in fits and starts — to Israel, where an active Persian community remains.”

Read article in full

The Jews of Iran’ will be shown in London on 19 June.


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