What it’s like to be an Iranian Jew


Time was, you could claim to be a patriotic Iranian, a supporter of Israel and a lover of the United States all at once and be believed by most Iranians. You could say you were all three things without pretense or contradiction, or the need to rank your loyalties in order of intensity, or to distinguish between your support for Israel as a nation, as opposed to any one of its governments. That’s what we thought anyway, we Jewish Iranians whose ancestors had lived in Iran for 3,000 years. 

The mullahs had always said differently — that Jews were not “real” Iranians; that our existence was a threat to the rest of the nation; that we had lain in wait for a millennium and a half for the Arabs to come and convert most Iranians to Islam, only so we could use the blood of Muslim children in the baking of matzahs. 

The mullahs said this, and the large majority of Muslim Iranians believed them. Then, somewhere between the late 1920s, when Reza Shah’s government began to protect us against the mullahs and their troops of believers, and late in 1978, when his son, Mohammad Reza Shah, was forced out of the country, Jewish Iranians were allowed to be both things at once, in equal degrees, and to be patriotic Iranians as well as supporters of Israel. 

Then the mullahs returned, and unless we actively denounced Israel and claimed support for the Palestinian cause, we all became Zionist spies, a fifth column in Iran whose only goal was to enslave and humiliate God-fearing Muslim Arabs. You could be a Jew who despised Israel, or you could be an enemy of God, Islam and Iran. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini said this, and the large majority of Muslim Iranians believed him. Never mind the age-old enmity between Iranians and Arabs, Shia and Sunni; the collective Iranian memory of conquering Arab armies laying waste to any signs of civilization; the stereotype of the “insect-eating Arab” as primitive and intellectually challenged. When it came to the matter of a bunch of Jews getting the best of a sea of Muslims, just about every Iranian mullah became a human rights lawyer.

Khomeini said a lot of things that a lot of Muslim Iranians believed. So did — do — his political heirs. Many of those original believers have greatly benefited from the mullahs’ regime over the years and continue to support it today. Others have come to realize that they were duped. Whether still in Iran or living abroad, they distrust just about every claim made by the mullahs. Except, I’m afraid, what has to do with Israel and Zionism. 

My Muslim Iranian friends will take offense at this narrative or reject its veracity outright. They’ll tell you that Persian culture is among the most tolerant, accepting and enlightened in history. They’ll be right. That to be moved by the plight of the Palestinian people or outraged by the acts of the Israeli government is not the same as being anti-Semitic. That loving Iran and its people does not mean condoning the policies and practices of its current regime. That prejudice and fanaticism are not the sole domain of Muslims. They’ll be right. 

But try, as I have, to explain to these same highly educated, vastly tolerant, otherwise broad-minded Muslim Iranians that the same truths apply to Jewish Iranians, their loyalties and priorities and, these days, their reasons for mainly disapproving of the Iran deal. Try to do that, and what you’ll get is the same old “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” diatribe that George W. Bush and former-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were both so fond of. 

Not that it’s of any consequence anywhere, but I happen to think that the Iran deal is a very bad idea whose time has come. By this I mean that I believe it will strengthen the Iranian regime and enable it to continue to oppress the Iranian nation and terrorize everyone else in the region and around the globe; that I do not believe, for a second, that the mullahs will stop pursuing the bomb for the next 10 years or ever; that until Islam goes through a reformation as did Christianity, there is no such thing — really — as a “moderate” mullah, or a “tolerant” regime based on any religion, or a government of the mullahs that will not use Jews and Israel as a rallying cry for its armies of believers. 

But the United States needs Iran to fight ISIS; the multinational companies and their allies within Western government are champing at the bit to tap the billions of dollars worth of trade they will be able to conduct with Iran after the sanctions are lifted; that Europe, Russia and China will most likely abandon the United States should it decide to push for a better deal; and that President Barack Obama, whose foreign policy has been nonexistent, has left himself and his government no choice but to move ahead with this deal. 

I don’t like it, but I don’t see how it can be avoided. Fortunately for me and the rest of the planet, I don’t have to vote yes or no on this one. I just get to say how I feel, which, as my friends like to say, is likely to alienate both sides of the argument.

Most Muslim Iranians I know vehemently support the deal. They say they do so because they love Iran and the Iranian people, that the only alternative to this deal is war, which they don’t want, and that it’s also a good deal for the United States. I believe they’re honest in their reasoning and their intentions. I don’t think their support of the deal makes them in any way anti-Semitic. I don’t think it factors into the equation either Israel’s interests or, alas, the harm Israel may suffer as a result of the deal. In this one case, I believe they’re pro-Iran and Israel-neutral. 

Most Jewish Iranians, on the other hand, vehemently oppose it. The reasons they offer are very similar to mine: It’s bad for Americans, for Israelis, for Jews anywhere within reach of the Iranian regime, and for Iranians anywhere who would like a real alternative to what the mullahs have had to offer. 

The fact that my Muslim friends disagree with me doesn’t bother me. I happen to think they’re indulging in some heavy doses of wishful thinking, just as so many of them did when they helped overthrow the shah and invite in the mullahs. Then again, they may be right about this one. And they’re certainly entitled to being wrong.

What is painful for me and, I dare say, many other Jewish Iranians, is the Muslims’ seemingly visceral, absolute, and unquestioning certainty that we oppose the deal because we’re any less Iranian. 

In this iteration, Jewish Iranians have always placed the interests of Israel above those of Iran and the Iranian nation. Most Jews left Iran after the revolution, they say, because they weren’t really Iranian in the first place; didn’t have much of an attachment to the place anyway; their love and loyalty is to Israel and only Israel, not even to the United States, where most of them now live; they’d easily trade the lives of millions of Americans and Iranians in a war, even a nuclear one, if it were good for Israel. 

Well, my Muslim friends, I’m here to say that on the question of Iranian Jews, you’ve been wrong in the past and are wrong now. My ancestors were loyal, ardent and productive subjects of the Persian Empire and lovers of the Persian culture long before Islam came to destroy the one and try to erase the other. They were not — as the mullahs claimed after they threw anchor in Iran — spies, guests or simply “not real Iranians.” They maintained their love for the country even as they were humiliated, oppressed, beaten and even killed by some Muslim Iranians. In 1978 and thereafter, they left Iran for the very same reasons that Muslim Iranians left — because they were afraid for their lives or loathe to be subjects of the mullahs. Their departure doesn’t prove that they didn’t, or don’t now, love the country and its people. Their being given safe harbor in America, Israel or Europe does mean that their allegiance is now first and foremost to their adopted country, its flag and its constitution. That doesn’t make them anti-Iran. Or pro-Benjamin Netanyahu. Or war mongers. It makes them good citizens of the nation that gave them safe harbor when their own people were calling for their heads. 

As for the Iran deal, the only thing Jewish Iranians’ dislike of it proves is that they have a better sense of history than most American legislators, and that they may engage in less wishful thinking than most Muslim Iranians. 

Then again, this is not simply an argument about one policy or another. For Jews still in Iran, Muslim Iranians’ opinion of how “real” the Jews are can be a matter of life and death. For the rest of us Jews — as for the Iranians who escaped persecution, the Iraqis, Egyptians, Syrians and other Arabs who were driven out by force — it’s an open wound that bleeds every time we have to “prove” that we belonged.

Gina Nahai’s new novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”

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