For all the Iranian regime’s efforts to show that its small Jewish community are safe and protected, Majid Rafisadeh argued that Iran’s anti-Israel campaign and Holocaust denial has created a hostile environment leading Jews to lead a double life. In the Tablet he tells the moving story of Sarah, a Jewish student he taught in Iran.
Later, I learned that my student, Sara, had relatives on her
grandfather’s side who died in the Holocaust. I was saddened and
surprised. Many questions raced through my mind: Is she Jewish? The
shock of that thought brought on another, important question. Why am I
surprised to have met a Jew? Why did I suddenly begin feeling as if I
had met a foreigner, someone from another country? Her relatives had
actually lived longer than mine in Iran. Why was she hesitant to say
that she was Jewish?
I soon came to understand the reason she felt the need to keep
herself hidden. They were the same feelings that many other people
commonly felt in the region when they were faced with the decision of
whether to reveal that they were Jewish.
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 authenticity of the Holocaust. They ratchet up anti-Israel slogans,
and celebrate national anti-Israel holidays such as Quds Day. They
promote and accept Holocaust deniers such as the former President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the intricate teachings that may imply that
Jews are impure (najis).
All of these actions, combined with many more forms of intimidation
enacted by the regime, not only create a hostile environment for Jewish
communities inside Iran, but also abroad.
Other examples of disrespect and fearmongering that the regime engages in include inviting people from around the world to participate
in Holocaust cartoon competitions with a nearly $50,000 prize. This is
sponsored by two organizations that are directly or indirectly linked to
the Iranian government. The Owj Arts and Media Organization is funded
by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the Sarcheshmeh
Cultural Center is supported by the Islamic Development Organization
(IDO), funded by the parliament.
To have the ruling leaders torment them in this way only further
isolates the Jewish community and puts them at risk of being targeted by
both extremists and regime loyalists.
These policies force many families and individuals to have two
different lives in private and public, two different names, and maybe
two different religions. This, in turn, breeds a deep mistrust toward
the Jewish community, which only enhances the “them-versus-us” culture
that has been building for decades. A deep division runs through the
society, leaving interaction unstable at best, and potentially explosive
Despite generations of their families living on the same land, and
the rich history and influence that they have had in the region, many
Jews do not feel that they are safe or a welcome part of the society.
One man I spoke to, who asked that his last name not be revealed, said
he does not tell people about his life. This isolation is no longer just
physical, but mental and emotional, a state of existence that could
create long-lasting psychological trauma.
Second, the Iranian regime promotes its anti-Semitic and anti-Israel
narrative through various means including the curriculum taught in
schools, commentary on social media, news reports and entertainment on
television, and nonstop political rhetoric. Its narrative does not stop
at the borders of the Middle East. Lately, it has attracted an audience
in the West as well.
Iranian Jews demonstrating in favour of the regime
From the perspective of these Islamist leaders, Jews, like other
religious minorities, are regarded as a potential threat to the regime’s
national security and national identity. They may be viewed as
outsiders who disrupt the regime’s attempt to homogenize the population
for easier control.
One reason behind these perceptions 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 prisms of
suspicion. They are viewed as Israeli allies, conspirators, and
loyalists to Israel and the United States, not 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 about their lives.
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.
Despite this solid bias against Jews, in order to enhance its global
legitimacy in some circumstances and events, the Iranian regime has
boasted about 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 in the country and region.
Not surprisingly, I was admonished for speaking about human rights
and the Holocaust in my class. I never saw Sara after the last day of
class. She took the time to give me a thank-you card. She was carrying
an English book with a title suggesting religious tolerance and peaceful
coexistence. I hoped in that moment that I’d reached her, and my
decision to speak about human rights had aided in the liberation of her
mind, and hopefully the minds of her classmates.
When I flipped the card open to read it, the words inside brought tears to my eyes. It read, “My Hebrew name is Yaffa.”