Sunday, May 21, 2006

Iran's Jews Struggle in the Shadow of Holocaust Denials

Angus McDowall, Independent:
When Ciamak Morsathegh chose to take up a position as the medical boss of Sapir hospital, he did not regret the "big opportunities" he was giving up in an already high-flying career. "This hospital is part of our identity as Jews," he says. "It is the practical point of interaction between us and non-Jews in Iran. We help anybody. We don't ask them their religion."

The pictures on opposite walls in Dr Morsathegh's office tell their own story. The stern features of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, father figure of Iran's Islamic revolution, glower down from above the desk, as they do in almost every office in the country. Facing the desk is a painting of Moses, Aaron, and a tablet bearing the Ten Commandments.

At more than 20,000, Iran remains home to the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside Israel, despite post-revolutionary emigration that saw tens of thousands leave. Those who remain say emigration has slowed and those who have stayed are unlikely to change their minds.

Sapir Hospital is a venerable institution of Iranian Jewish life. Founded 60 years ago as a charitable body, it provides free and heavily subsidised care for people in its working class neighbourhood. In some ways, it continues a medical tradition in which Jewish physicians have been celebrated in Iran for centuries. Only a few staff are Jews - most Jewish doctors in Tehran run their own practices - but it is funded by Jewish donations.

Now, Iranian Jews are worried and angered by their President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust. Haroun Yashayaie, head of Tehran's Jewish Committee, wrote to him in February, saying his comments caused "fear" in his community. READ MORE

"It worried us, it was disrespectful," said a woman who did not want to be named. "Everyone knows six million Jews were killed and burnt but the President denies this. How does he know if something happened or not?"

The fact that she did not want to be named shows the tightrope on which minorities walk in Iran. Jews, Zoroastrians and Christians have rights and limitations enshrined in the constitution. They each elect their own member of parliament and are entitled to worship freely but not to proselytise. They are not bound by Muslim dietary proscriptions and can make, but not sell, alcohol. Iranian Jews talk of repeating patterns of discrimination - the difficulty of securing a government job and anti-Semitism in state media - but say they do not face active hostility.

"Everyone thinks the Islamic republic is killing us, but this is wrong," Dr Morsathegh insists. "As a minority we have some problems, but they are not as bad as people outside the country think. We can live here, study here, work here."

It is early morning in Yusuf Abad, an old middle-class neighbourhood home to many of Tehran's Jewish families, and as the city stirs itself awake a low chanting pervades the mulberry-lined street. It is a weekday and the synagogue has attracted few worshippers. About 40 men, all in skull caps and the traditional tallit shawl, read from the Torah as the rabbi gently intones from a dais. These, or similar, words have been recited every morning in Iran since about 700BC.

Since the revolution, synagogue attendances have soared. Jews say this is in part because of the more religious atmosphere propagated by the Islamic republic and partly because minorities have drawn in upon themselves. "Before the revolution people were less religious and mixed more between faiths," a customer in a kosher butcher said. "Friendships with Muslims happen but they are more difficult. Things aren't how they used to be."

In 1998, 10 Jews from Shiraz, home to the second largest Jewish community in Iran, were imprisoned for spying for Israel. Analysts said the arrests were intended to sabotage the growing rapprochement between a then-reformist government and the West. The last were freed in 2003, but the trial demonstrated the vulnerability of Jews and lingering Muslim suspicions that they represent a fifth column for foreign powers.

"This President has shown his extremism in all respects," the man in the butcher's said. "Some people think it doesn't apply to them because he's talking about Jews outside Iran. But a Jew is always a Jew."

Iranian Jews have learnt the hard way that they must publicly renounce any connection to Israel or Zionism. In the first days after the revolution, several Jews were executed on charges of Zionism and relations with Israel. Since then, spokesmen for the community have protested their antipathy to Israel.

Most of those spoken to professed their fundamentally Iranian nature, something they say would make it difficult for them to live as émigrés abroad. "Iranian Jews have been good Iranians for 2,700 years," Dr Morsatheghi says. "I can speak in English, but I only think in Persian. This is my language and my native culture. I'm not going to leave."