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As Hanukkah closes, menorahs have flickered in surprising place: Iran

Iranian Jews, who have been celebrating Hanukkah this week along with Jews around the world, are eking out a tenuous existence amid escalating Iran-Israel rhetoric.

By Becky Lee KatzContributor / December 9, 2010

An Ultra Orthodox Jewish boy walks past a menorah at the entrance to his house, after candles were lit on the last night of Hanukkah, in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Dec. 8.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP

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Tehran, Iran

As Jews around the world celebrate Hanukkah this week, menorahs are burning in a surprising corner of the world: Iran.

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Home to Jews – including the biblical Esther – for 3,000 years, the land today is sprinkled with synagogues that serve the Middle East’s largest community of Jews after Israel.

At recent services in the Joybar synagogue in Tehran, one of 20 in the capital city, Iranian Jews streamed in until the hall, decorated with gold, wooden, and velvet relics. More than 200 attendees read from prayer books printed in both Hebrew and Farsi.

Inside, the men wear the kippa, a Jewish religious head covering. The women cover their hair with their hijab, adhering to the Orthodox Jewish custom of covering their hair while also abiding by the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

“It is safe for us in Iran, for Jews. But we always have to be careful. We know that we should stay with our community. We should not become close to Muslims. If we do, it will only be trouble,” says Rachel, a young woman who attended services recently with her toddler son.

There is official acceptance of the Jewish presence in Iran – Jews, along with Christians and Zoroastrians, are allowed a representative in parliament and provided with special family law courts. But as Israel heightens its rhetoric against Iran – WikiLeaks cables this week revealed an Israeli plan for regime change and support for a military strike this year – Iranian Jews find themselves in a tight spot.

Siamak Marreh-Sedq, the sole Jewish representative to the Iranian parliament, argued recently that Israel would never attack Iran.

“No idiot may imagine attacking Iran because the Iranian nation has already proved that it obeys the words and order of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution,” proclaimed Mr. Marreh-Sedq on Aug. 2, according to the Fars News Agency, indicating that as a Jewish Iranian MP, he stood behind Iran and not Israel.

Iran’s Jews, such as Marreh-Sedq, have sometimes been criticized for siding too closely with the Islamic Republic to avoid possible government retaliation because of the stand-off between arch-enemies Iran and Israel. The tensions illustrate a decades-long struggle to distinguish Judaism from support for Israel’s Zionist policies.

Judaism vs. Zionism

At the beginning of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the regime severed diplomatic relations with Israel and ushered in a new Constitution that marginalizes minorities.

Early in the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared that Jews would be distinguished from Zionists. But in 1979, the head of Tehran’s Jewish community, millionaire businessman Habibollah Elghanian, was executed after being convicted by a revolutionary court for spying for Israel – a sign to many that Jews could be targeted no matter how wealthy or prominent they might be.

In a closed trial in 2000, an appeals court upheld the imprisonment of 10 of 13 Iranian Jews, including a minor, arrested the year before on charges of spying for Israel and the US. They were released before finishing their prison terms, due to international pressure.

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