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.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP
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.

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

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.

Ahmadinejad's Holocaust rhetoric

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his government consistently refuse to refer to Israel by name, opting instead for “Zionist entity” or Palestine. He has called the Holocaust a “myth” whose scope has been greatly exaggerated to serve as an excuse for the establishment of Israel and support of its policies.

“The pretext for the creation of the Zionist regime is false,” said Mr. Ahmadinejad on Al Quds (Jerusalem) Day last year, an event designed to highlight Muslim solidarity with Palestinians. “It is a lie based on an unprovable and mythical claim. Confronting the Zionist regime is a national and religious duty.”

Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, often described as Ahmadinejad’s spiritual mentor, is believed to have helped inspire the president’s doubt about the scale of the Holocaust. In December 2006, Iranian authorities coordinated an international conference that featured many Holocaust deniers.

An Iranian-funded website recently published a cartoon slide show of Jews fabricating the Holocaust to justify the state of Israel, depicting Jews as worms, fat men with long noses, and butchers of Palestinians.

Pressure on converts

But Jews, whose population in Iran has dropped to 25,000 from 100,000 in the 1950s, aren’t the only struggling minority in Iran.

The US State Department estimates that 300,000 Christians live in Iran, with more than 70 registered churches and countless informal groups run from individuals’ homes. As many as 100,000 Christians in Iran are converts, according to local estimates.

“Theoretically in Islamic jurisprudence, death is the punishment for any Muslim who dares to convert,” says a Muslim journalist jailed during former President Mohammed Khatami’s 1997-2005 tenure for writing about the conversion of Muslims. “In practice in Iran, converts are arrested for a few months and then released, which helps their case in seeking asylum abroad.”

But state-run businesses refuse to hire Christian and Jewish converts, and those who practice minority religions are arrested if they proselytize, he says.

“The secret police come every week to the Jewish Association and ask if any Muslims have tried to convert to Judaism,” whispers Rachel, who asked to go by a pseudonym. “They will kill us if that happens. But more people are trying to convert to Judaism, a few come every week ... and ask. We always tell them to go away.”

'It was like this during the Revolution'

The government crackdown on dissidents in the wake of last year’s contested presidential election has extended to minorities as well, says a local Armenian in Esfahan.

“It was like this during the Revolution. So many Armenians are trying to leave, again,” says the man, who prays regularly at a 400-year-old church, Saint Joseph of Arimathea. “We know that the economy is bad and it is no longer safe for us here.”

“I want to leave. My family and friends have left. But my daughter is 17 years old and my wife and I want to see what to do after she finishes high school,” continues the father, who asked that his name not be used. “We would like to go to Cyprus but we know that 10 million toman [US$400] won’t get us far. I don’t want to leave one bad situation for another.”

But Rachel is more bold. Back in the Tehran synagogue, she leans in and whispers, “You know, I wish I could go to Israel. It is my dream to go there one day and see it.”

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