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In hit Iranian TV drama, Holocaust no 'myth'

An Iranian student helps save his love – a French Jew – from the Nazis in World War II.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 27, 2007

Tehran, Iran

For seven months, millions of Iranians have turned on their television sets Monday at 10 p.m. to watch a World War II drama that challenges stereotypes about Iran and Judaism.

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The story line could not be less likely in the Islamic Republic, whose president calls the Holocaust a "myth": An Iranian-Palestinian student in France helps save his love – a French Jew – and her family from the Nazis and from becoming victims of the Holocaust. This week the 30-part love story comes to a spectacular end with state-owned television broadcasting an encore presentation of the final episode, which includes a shootout amid the ancient ruins of Persepolis.

The message of the series, says director Hassan Fathi, is that "what is endangering peace is extremist thinking, and political hard-liners that separate people from each other. God created people to love each other, regardless of religion.... Unfortunately [when it comes to] religion the current of extremism is always on, creating misunderstanding between cultures." The Iranian hero and his Jewish love are finally united in the last scene at the foot of Iran's snow-covered Damavand mountain, ending a saga sympathetic to the fate of European Jews. The series is fiction, but inspired by Abdol Hussein Sardari, a real-life Iranian consul in Paris who issued Iranian passports to more than 1,000 European Jews during World War II so they could flee.

The tale surprised many Iranians with its apparent challenge to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's statements about the Holocaust.

But "Zero Degree Turn" highlights another message commonly lost amid fierce anti-Israel rhetoric: That Iran and many Iranians differentiate between Jews, who are meant to be accepted by Muslims as fellow monotheists and "people of the book;" and Zionism, which is officially vilified in Iran as the destructive ideology of Israel.

That difference is often highlighted by Iran's estimated 25,000 Jews, who form the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside Israel.

"Of course, nothing in cinema and television will be complete [but] overall, we think the whole story is a positive point for Jews in Iran," says Ciamak Moresadegh, chairman of the Tehran Jewish Committee, which wrote a letter of thanks to Iran's state-owned television. "The problems between the Zionist movement and Iran are not related to the Jewish population in Iran," says Mr. Moresadegh. The TV drama "helps make this clear."

A large number of Jews left Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and many were purged as untrustworthy from the military officer corps and other professions. The exodus has slowed considerably, but continues. Judaism is an officially sanctioned religion, and Jews are allotted one seat in Iran's parliament. But the Jewish community has sometimes come under pressure; several Jews arrested in 1999 were charged with spying for Israel.

Mr. Ahmadinejad says the six million killed in the Holocaust are a modern exaggeration used by the West to create Israel on occupied Muslim lands; and not a birthright of Jews who consider Israel a land promised them by God. He routinely decries Israel, saying the Jewish state will be "wiped from the face of time."