Iran’s Jews: Hoping for a Break

By Gil Melili, July 2016
PressTV image: inside a Synagogue in Iran, YouTube screenshot

Since the rise of the Islamic Republic after the 1979 Revolution, Jews and other minority populations have co-existed precariously under the revolutionary Shi’ite Persian majority culture, despite having some rights as minorities. One source of insecurity for the Jewish population has been the conflation among the Iranian public of Judaism and Zionism. Moreover, the fact that Shi’a Muslims have perceived themselves as victims of Sunni majoritarianism within the broader Islamic world has at times bred paranoia rather than sympathy towards other groups. This ingrained paranoia coupled with public confusion regarding the political aims of Iran’s Jewish population tends to foster widespread discrimination from state institutions as well as the society at large, despite recent reports suggesting that Jews feel more at home in Iran.
According to Dr. Lior Sternfeld at Penn State University, the Jews of Iran have always fared relatively well compared to the Jews of other Muslim countries given their status as a recognized religious minority and the different rights that come with that.  However, according to Meir Javedanfar at IDC Herzliya (of Iranian-Jewish origins), the situation for Jews as well as other minorities in Iran is nevertheless dismal and should never be overlooked given the institutional limitations placed on them.  Though these experts disagree on how bad the general situation of Iranian Jews is today, they definitely agree that there is room for improvement.
Iran’s Jews, for instance, have been accused many times of espionage and conspiracy over the last couple of decades.  One of the most notable reported examples of this occurred during the Khatami presidency in which 13 Iranian Jews were arrested in Shiraz for committing espionage for Israel in 1999.  During this ordeal, those accused served 17 months in prison before even facing trial while the judge for their case also served as investigator and prosecutor.  Furthermore, the Jewish defendants were initially denied the right to chose their own legal representation despite the fact that they were entitled to it as part of a recognized religious minority.  Though most of the accused supposedly admitted to the charge of espionage, all of them have been released as of 2003.  This case not only served to further blur the line between Jews and Zionists in the public eye but also serves as an example for one of the worst human rights abuses towards Jews by Iranian government institutions.
Rather than coming solely from these institutions, negative sentiments towards the Jewish minority have popular footholds as well.  In 2010, a group of Basij students attempted to vandalise the sacred Jewish sites attributed to both Esther and Mordechai in response to destructive acts they believed Israel was doing at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque at that time.  Clearly, tension between Israel and the Muslim world can often worsen sentiments among Muslim Iranians towards local Jews.  That said it still is not clear today, whether Iranian Jews may beare subject to harm when Israel is perceived as being more pro-Sunni or anti-Shi’a, as could be the case with an increasing number of reports on improved Israeli relationships with a number of Sunni-majority countries, such as Turkey. Typically, anti-Jewish actions in Iran usually correspond with either local paranoia that Jews are conspiring with Zionists, or in reaction to reports that Israel is possibly harming generally revered Islamic symbols.
With that said, there have nevertheless been sustained efforts by heads of government ranging as far back as even the Khatami presidency in showing at least some acceptance towards the Jewish minority.  One recent example of this was shown in a Tweet by President Rouhani in September 2015 wishing the Jewish people a happy new year and even referring to the historical connection between Islam and Judaism.  Though these English-language statements may have been aimed to garner support from a skittish Jewish population as well as the international community in the face of tense relations with Israel, it nevertheless indicates the extension of an olive branch from the state to its Jewish population.  Indeed, many Iranian Jews hope for better relations with the state following international progress towards a nuclear deal with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, figuring that less outside pressure on Iran may lead to reduced pressure on them from the state.
    Even though positive steps have been made, Iran is still quite far from being a haven for the Jewish people and this can be understood given a couple of crucial indicators.  According to official estimates, the actual number of Jews living in Iran has rapidly declined from around 14,000 in 1996 to under 9,000 in 2011, though other sources estimate different rates of decline.  Also, as a recognized religious minority under Iran’s revolutionary government, the Jewish people have always been limited in terms of the civil and political rights granted to them, which according to researchers like Meir Javedanfar, serves as one the most pressing issue facing them since 1979. Even though there is much discrepancy between different reports on the current situation of Jews in Iran, it is still possible to contemplate the nature of this situation.  With that in mind, maybe the Jews of Iran are trying to remain in their society’s status quo as to not attract to themselves any unwanted attention during these heated times with Israel.  Or rather, they are gradually making their way out of Iran given the limited rights granted to them as evident from Iran’s minority laws as well as their decline in numbers over the last decade.


Diwaniyya Contributor