‘The Jews in Iran live in fear of phone tapping’

“There are religious and
political freedoms, but not social freedom,” says one Iranian Jew in his
fifties.

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Photo credit: AP

 The blessing of the Cohanim in an Iranian synagogue (Photo: AP)


The pious are nominally free to practise their religion and the wealthy are to an extent shielded from the effect of sanctions on Iran, but all Jews are fearful of being spied on. Long feature in Israel Hayom by Bat-Hen Epstein Elias:

M., a Jewish man in his fifties from Tehran,
celebrated the festival of Simhat Torah this week. He did not build a
sukkah in his yard or invite his Muslim friends and neighbors in, but he
attended the special Simhat Torah service. As an observant Jew, he goes
to the nearby synagogue three times a day for morning, afternoon and
evening prayers.

“It’s a small synagogue in downtown Tehran,”
he tells us from Iran over Skype. “In the middle of the week, about 15
Jews who live in the area worship there. This week, like on any other
holiday, there were more people than usual. The members of Tehran’s
Jewish community attend the synagogue, pray in Hebrew and celebrate the
festivals — but other than that, we’re just like all the Iranians.”

M. speaks with us in English. “I don’t speak
Hebrew because I went to public school, where we studied with Muslims.
But you can learn Hebrew in Jewish private schools. There is a large
Jewish community in Iran. Tehran has a large synagogue that serves the
community, but I go to a small synagogue that’s close to my home. I eat
kosher food, which can be bought at the synagogue. There are also people
who help me buy medications and take care of me.”

I ask him whether he is not afraid to say that
he is a Jew. He says no. “All the Jews in Iran live like the Muslims.
Everybody — Muslims, Jews, everyone — shares the economic problems
here.” But when I ask him about the situation, he answers, “If people
don’t have a lot of money, how is it that they go shopping every evening
and eat out? Some things are expensive. Not everything.”

The conversation with M. takes place during
extreme tension between Israel and the Islamic republic, and against the
backdrop of news about the economic crisis that is affecting Iran.
Still, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statement, in a CNN interview
when he was in the United States, was surprising: “There are many Jews
living in Iran with whom we are very close.”

Despite the statements that the Iranians have
closed off access to the Internet, it seems Iranians are quite active on
Facebook. The Jewish community’s representative in the Iranian
parliament, Ciamak Moresadegh, has an Internet-based newspaper that is
also translated into Hebrew, but its articles do not have exact dates,
so it is hard to say when they were last updated. We tried
unsuccessfully to contact him. In an AP interview last March, Moresadegh
was quoted as saying, “No matter who dares to attack our country, we
will stand against the threats like other Iranian people. The Iranian
Jewish community will stand by their compatriots under any circumstance,
forever.”

It is not easy to make contact with Jews from
Iran who will agree to talk about their situation. Many of them do not
respond at all. Some of them give brief answers, but note that they
prefer not to talk about political subjects because they trust nobody.
From talking with them, it’s obvious that the economic situation in Iran
has deteriorated, but the Jews’ situation is actually fairly good.

D., a man in his forties, married with a
child, lives in Tehran, where he has a devout Jewish family. Like M., he
writes that he is experiencing the difficult situation in Iran as an
Iranian, not as a Jew, and afterward, our connection is broken. Only
several hours later does he send me a message: “I apologize, but I do
not know you and cannot trust you. I will not be able to talk about the
situation.”

Y., who lives in Tehran, in his fifties, says
that the Jewish community is suffering, like everyone. “There are
religious and political freedoms, but not social freedom,” he writes in
Farsi. While he does not describe himself as a religious man, he holds
“religious family festivals.” One of his three children is still in
school. The two others graduated from the University of Tehran and are
now working. “The economic situation here is very bad,” he says.
“Everybody thinks of their own family. But my situation is actually not
bad. There’s nothing to worry about.”


In the past, M. owned a men’s clothing store
in Tehran. He was considered well off. Several years ago, he was
diagnosed with a serious illness, and since then has stopped working. He
lives alone. His father, brother and sister are dead. They are buried
in Iran, which is one of the reasons that he has remained there. Two
other sisters, aged about 70, went to live in the U.S. about 20 years
ago.

“I never felt like I was being attacked
because I was Jewish, or that my religious freedom was harmed,” he says.
“I have a good friend, a Muslim, who takes care of me. He takes me to
the doctor, and even to the movies and the park, and invites me for
meals. Everyone is very good to me and helps me. Before I got sick, I
had a lot of money. Medications in Iran are good, a little expensive,
but they can be obtained with private insurance and government
insurance.”

Like others, he is careful when it comes to
talking about the political situation, the nuclear program or the fear
of an attack. When I asked him how the Jews felt about the speeches of
President Ahmadinejad and Prime Minister Netanyahu in the U.N., he
answered, “I don’t know about that. I don’t read newspapers. I have no
satellite television, I don’t watch the BBC, and my friends and I never
talk about politics. When I go to synagogue and meet other Jews, we
pray. We don’t talk about politics or discuss the situation. Whatever
happens is between the governments, not between the nations themselves.
The people don’t talk about the administration. They’re too busy to talk
about the administration.”

The fear that the Jews live with is evident in
conversations with their relatives who live in Israel. D., a Jewish
woman in her 70s who lives in Tehran, does not call her family in Israel
often anymore. Until five years ago, she used to come to Israel and
even tried to live here. But they do not expect her anymore. The long,
frequent telephone conversations have also become shorter, and her
relatives are hard-pressed to know what exactly is going on in the
country they remember from their childhood. Although the family moved to
Israel or the U.S., D. remained behind in Tehran, taking care of her
husband’s grave, and preserving the culture and tradition to which she
is accustomed.

“To telephone her, we have to dial about 15
digits through a telephone number abroad that makes the connection,”
says A., a relative of hers from Raanana. “All the Jews there live in
fear that their telephones are tapped. So when we speak with her, the
conversation is just ‘How is everyone?’, making sure that everything is
all right, and then that’s it. We hang up. We are originally from
Isfahan and she is from Tehran, and every city has its own dialect that
outsiders don’t understand. So she talks to us in the dialect of Isfahan
and uses code words so that we’ll understand.”

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2 Comments

  • The Jews in iran are better off than those in Egypt, Our mysterious
    correspondent goes to synagogue three times a day. Now when we want to
    go to our synagogue (Shaar Hashamaim) in Cairo we have to ask
    permission.
    Maybe after all Ahmadinajab is not as bad as we thought. it's all a
    question of degrees in negativity.I think i should stop swearing at
    him!
    Sultana Vidal

    Reply

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