Friday, June 30, 2006

Spelling Zionism in Tehran

Reza Bayegan, American Jewish Committee:
Complete content of 'Antisemitism "Made in Iran" The International Dimensions of Al Quds Day', in which Reza Bayegan's article appeared: in PDF format

In the late 1990s, walking one day in a poor district of southern Tehran, I noticed a slogan on a tumbledown wall in Persian script: "Marg bar Zionism” or "Death to Zionism." There is of course nothing unusual in seeing such a slogan on the wall of the capital of the Islamic Republic. What attracted my attention however was that the word Zionism was misspelled. The inescapable irony here is that anti-Israeli sentiments in Iran go hand in hand with poor education and underdevelopment.

The animosity of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic revolution, towards Israel was part and parcel of his hatred of what the Pahlavi dynasty stood for, that is modernization and advancement. Initially he did not oppose the democratic shortcomings of the political system under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, but did attack the Shah's plans of equal opportunity for women, land reform and also Iran's close relationship with Israel, a country he used to refer to as "a cancerous tumor." By declaring the last Friday of Ramadan as "Al Quds Day," he also aimed to stifle unique Iranian nationalistic values and bring Iranians—who had no common aspirations with Arabs—under the broad umbrella of the Islamic "Omah" or nation. Proud of their rich culture and language, for the past 1,400 years Iranians have vigorously resisted assimilation into the larger Arab-Islamic community. READ MORE

Located in a turbulent region and threatened by the encroachment of hostile cultures, both Iran and Israel have many areas of common interest. For historical, geographic and political reasons, Iran's most natural ally in the whole Middle East is the state of Israel. Beyond Israel, Iran holds the world's oldest Jewish community. Even after the mass migration of Jews from Iran after the Islamic Revolution, Iran is still home to the largest Jewish population in any Islamic country. Iranian Jews who have migrated to Israel have prospered and hold key positions in the government. Moshe Katsav, the President of Israel, was born in the Iranian city of Yazd, and Shaul Mofaz, Israel's Minister of Defense, was born in Tehran. One proof of the irrepressible strength and deep roots of the Jews within Iranian society is that the chairman of Iran's Jewish Council, Haroun Yashayaei—albeit under extreme political pressure—feels confident enough to take to task president Mahmud Ahmadinejad for saying the Holocaust was a myth, and calls him ignorant and politically prejudiced.16

Yet in spite of all these strong ties and affinities between the two nations, the Israeli government and Iranian opposition so far have not been able to form a fruitful alliance. One important factor contributing to this failure is a lingering hostility towards Israel harbored by some backward forces within the Iranian opposition.

Many members of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq Organization (MKO), who conducted a violent fight against the Shah in the years leading to the Islamic Revolution and now are bitterly opposed to the rulers of the Islamic Republic, were trained in Libya and Lebanon and were brothers in arms with the PLO and other anti-Israel terrorist organizations. Their ideology, an amalgamation of fanatical Islam and Marxism—regardless of tactical shifts and strategic alliances that they are capable of making from time to time—is inimical to Israel and the democratic values of modern Western civilization.17 The Mujahideen's classmates in terrorist training camps of the PLO and PFLP were the Marxist members of Iranian People's Fedayeen Guerrillas. Up to this day they pride themselves in having had the opportunity to fight the "Zionist enemy"alongside their Palestinian brothers.18

An opposition to the monopoly of the hardliners has emerged in the past decade from within the Iranian ruling establishment in the form of the reform movement. The spiritual leader of this movement is Mohammad Khatami, the former president. This political force that at one point seemed quite promising turned out to be a flash in the pan. In the June 2005 pseudo-democratic presidential election, people voted for Ahmadinejad not because they knew him or trusted him, but because they were totally disgusted with the hypocrisy and incompetence of Khatami and his political descendents. The attitude of the reformers towards Israel is not very different from that of the hardliners.

In a recent interview reprinted by Kayhan London (23 February), Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, Iran's most prominent dissident cleric and a darling to many reformers, sharply criticized the Islamic Republic and Mahmud Ahmadinejad on the regime's human rights record and suppression of freedom of speech, but went on to say that he agrees with Ahmadinejad's stance on the Holocaust. "I have expressed these viewpoints myself many years ago. Even if we assume that the Nazis slaughtered the Jews, why should Palestinians pay the price? The state of Israel was created by brute force and is illegitimate." Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the so-called moderate former president, has expressed similar views. What is obvious is that the future of Iranian politics does notbbelong to the so-called reformist movement. Reformists lack the credibility to galvanize public opinion for major democratic change or offer any cogent plan for a modern pluralistic society.

Conversely, many enlightened members of the Iranian opposition, whose attitude represents the aspirations of the modern, forward-looking portion of the Iranian population, show no hesitation in categorically condemning the clerical regime's antisemitic stance. Fighting to reclaim their homeland as a country capable of meeting the challenges of the 21st century, they are well aware of the great potential for future cooperation with Israel as the most progressive and democratic country in the region.

In preparation to this article, I managed to ask Dariush Homayoun—the veteran journalist and politician who plays a key role in the most influential Iranian party in exile, The Constitutional Party of Iran19 about Ahmadinejad's wild declarations on wiping out the state of Israel. He responded by saying:
Once another mad demagogue declared his ‚final solution' and got on with most of his plan. This shows that the world should not shrug off IRI's president as just propaganda for receptive Arab masses. He and his regime would wipe out Israel if they could. It also should make the world more determined to prevent the Islamic Regime from acquiring atomic weapons. Ahmadinejad, by denying the Holocaust, is preparing the ground for something of his own. The Iranian people, as the longest standing friends of Israel, are outraged by such criminal statements.
In an article called "Revealing Errors,"20 Abbas Milani, the Iranian scholar and director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University, provides ample evidence to support his argument that throughout history Iranians spared no efforts to protect the Jews and particularly assisted them in fleeing from Nazi persecution. Strongly condemning antisemitic statements made by Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Mr. Milani concludes his article by saying that although the nation has been taken hostage by a cruel dictatorship, Iranians should not be made responsible for the conduct of their hostage takers.

In an article published in Kayhan London (23 February 2006), Abdolkarim Lahidji, an Iranian human rights lawyer who runs the Paris-based Iranian League for Human Rights,21 refers to the Islamic regime's antisemitism as part of the hate campaign of the clerical regime against everyone and everything that does not fit within its narrow-minded ideology and world view.

One of the strong voices amongst the Iranian opposition speaking for modernity, democracy and universal values of human rights is that of Reza Pahlavi, the son of the late Shah of Iran.22 He advocates a total separation of religion and government and a political system that considers no one as a second-class citizen. In an interview with Fox News in January 2006, Reza Pahlavi referred to Ahmadinejad's comments as "disgraceful" and "abhorrent" to the vast majority of the Iranian people. It is quite significant that in the same interview Reza Pahlavi goes on to say that "what Iranians desire is nothing less than modernity, freedom and economic opportunity."23

An Iran that is economically prosperous and politically democratic would no longer be a natural breeding ground for fascism and fanaticism. Through a campaign of hate-mongering and xenophobia, the regime intends to deflect attention from its own decadence and incompetence. The majority of Iranians however are intelligent enough not to swallow what the state–controlled media is telling them, and in spite of many restrictions, turn to the Internet and to the Farsi service of Radio Israel and other international media for reliable information.

Like the rest of the world, Iran is not immune to the disease of antisemitism. But today antisemitism as well as anti-Americanism, are state policy on the part of the clerical government. Falsification, fear and fanaticism are essential to the survival of the Islamic Republic. To bring freedom to Iran, one needs to make a greater effort to reach the ears and intellect of its citizens and prepare them for the final moment when they can cast aside the manacles of backwardness and tyranny. On that day of enlightenment, Zionism will not be a misspelled ugly word on a tumbledown wall in a depressed district in Tehran, but understood in all its dimensions by a prosperous nation that begrudges a prosperous homeland for no other nation and generously embraces a pluralistic and peaceful world.

16 BBC News, Feb. 11, 2006, Iran Jews express Holocaust shock:
17 The MEK - also known as People´s Modjaheddin -
rightfully is on the US and EU list of terrorist organizations.
18 and