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.
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."
The final episode of "Zero Degree Turn" shows Nazi Germany in favor of the Zionist enterprise as a way of moving Jews out of Europe. In the story, the Zionist uncle – who tries to keep the Iranian Muslim and his Jewish niece apart, sometimes at the point of a gun – is seen in a synagogue, expounding on the virtues of Zionism. "Any Jew who lives outside Palestine is not a Jew."
The series could not have come at a more relevant time for Iranians. The president hosted a Holocaust conference last December that featured Holocaust deniers. In a bid to reassure the Jewish community, Iran's foreign ministry in March facilitated a diplomatic tour of Jewish facilities in Tehran.
The magnified relevance of the series has been coincidence, says Mr. Fathi, a veteran director of historical fiction. "I decided to produce this series in 2002, and in those days the Holocaust was not an issue," he says.
"Even if one single Jew is killed in German camps, the world should be ashamed. By the same token, if a single Palestinian dies, the world should be ashamed," says Fathi. "I sympathize with the Jewish victims of World War II, to the same extent [I sympathize] with women and children victims of the war in Palestine."
The TV series is one of the most expensive and elaborate ever produced here, with period costumes on location in Paris, Budapest, and cities in Iran. Iranian viewers say the love story and its iconoclastic content kept them glued to their sets Monday nights. "This was the most professional TV series in Iranian history. Everybody watched it," says one regular viewer. "The first episodes were counter to what President Ahmadinejad was saying, and showed the Holocaust existed, so it was not clear what the signals were."
But it was not long before the differences between Judaism and Zionism were made clear, a point made by Ali Akbar Velayati, a foreign affairs adviser to Iran's supreme leader. His live commentary immediately after the final segment was advertised during the show by a ticker along the bottom of the screen.
"The European policies created Zionism more than the Jews [though] extremist Jews had a role. The Jews are victims, and Muslims were the same," asserted Mr. Velayati. "Europeans fighting Jews, the last time in Germany, has historic roots. And the correlation between Zionism and Nazis is known."
The political subtext was secondary to the story for many Iranians. Iranian character Habib Parsa's pursuit of his Jewish heartthrob, Sarah, lands him in prison three times. She also surmounts constant challenges and then is waiting in the falling snow when Habib — much older — is released from prison.
"It was a very tough night for me," says Fathi of the final episode. "But I was so happy Sarah and Habib got together. The days that God is very happy are the days that people from different cultures hug each other in brotherhood."