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Are Jews in Iran Safe? Don’t Ask a Rabbi in Tehran

To expect someone who could face arrest back home (and put the safety of his community at risk) to speak truthfully about such issues is fantastically naive.
[additional-authors]
October 20, 2021
Mohsen Rezaee Photo courtesy MEHR News Agency

Last week, I was informed that Rabbi Yehuda Gerami, who has been called the chief rabbi of Tehran (yes, Tehran, the capital city of the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism) was visiting Los Angeles. Naturally, my knee-jerk reaction was to immediately secure an interview with Gerami. But soon enough, I talked myself out of it. Let me tell you why.

I’m not an American or European-born writer; I’m not Roger Cohen of The New York Times, who, over a decade ago, visited Iran and quoted Jewish residents who claimed they lived safely and happily (and lambasted Israel). I’m also not a travel blogger who acquiesces to wearing the mandatory headscarf (hijab) so she can visit the country and take selfies in a stunning mosque.  

I’m an Iranian Jew; I was born in the 1980s, after the Islamic Revolution that turned Iran into a fanatic theocracy, unrecognizable to its own citizens (and the greater Middle East). As much as I’m invested in whether the Jews of Iran are safe today, I don’t need to ask others about Jewish life in Iran. I was Jewish life in Iran. 

My mother handed me a mandatory headscarf and told me to do whatever my teachers instructed. So I did. I screamed “Death to Israel!” and “Death to America!” in school. And my passport had the word “Jew” written on it. 

When I contemplated interviewing Rabbi Gerami, I felt ambivalent. Here was a sphinx; a Jewish leader who lives in Tehran and is returning there soon. I had so many questions for him. The only problem? I knew that I couldn’t ask any of them.

You don’t ask a rabbi who is returning to Iran and to the regime to speak on-the-record about Iran and the regime. You don’t ask him about Israel.

You don’t ask a rabbi who is returning to Iran and to the regime to speak on-the-record about Iran and the regime. You don’t ask him about Israel. You don’t even ask him if the Jews of Iran are safe. That is, you don’t ask any of these questions if you want to know the whole truth.

To expect someone who could face arrest back home (and put the safety of his community at risk) to speak truthfully about such issues is fantastically naive. That’s why I’m always surprised when, every few months, another Western journalist visits Iran and writes about Jewish life there, citing Jews who swear they’re safe and content.  

Gerami’s visit also exposed a separation in our local community: some Iranian Jews invited him to speak at their synagogues and homes, affording him the respect he deserves as a holy, learned man and as a fellow Jew. Others were concerned by some of Gerami’s actions, such as paying a mourner’s visit to the home of Qasem Soleimani, the notorious head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), who was killed by a targeted American airstrike in Iraq in 2020. That same year, on Quds Day, Gerami appeared on Iranian television and slammed Israel, claiming, “Know that you Zionists do not represent Judaism and do not represent the Jewish people.” 

Don’t be surprised by such harsh words. For the past four decades, Jewish leaders in Iran have felt compelled to say such falsehoods (and worse) to maintain their safety. In the end, we don’t know the full story behind any of Gerami’s actions (and to what degree the regime forced him to do such things) and I, for one, don’t judge him for them. 

Clearly, the circumstances under which Gerami finds himself are messy and complicated. Are the Jews of Iran actually safe? Yes, and no. There haven’t been pogroms (thank God), such as those we saw in other Muslim countries like Iraq, Libya and elsewhere in the twentieth century. Jews are considered religious minorities in Iran; they’re free to attend synagogue; they have Jewish schools and cemeteries. Does that make them safe? It depends whom you ask.

For years, I believed that the regime wouldn’t dare harm its Jewish community.

For years, I believed that the regime wouldn’t dare harm its Jewish community. In fact, the only way Iran seemed to evade international condemnation for its genocidal hatred was to repeat that it was (and remains) enemies with Israel, rather than with Jews. And then, in 1999, over a dozen Jews from the southeastern city of Shiraz were arrested and accused of spying for Israel. The case of the “Shiraz 13” drew outrage worldwide and they were eventually released (in small groups). If you’re a Jew in Iran, God help you if you’re accused of being a Zionist. The first Jew to be executed after the revolution was a prominent businessman and community leader, Habib Elghanian, who was charged with “friendship with the enemies of God” (Israel) and shot by firing squad in May 1979. 

The case of the “Shiraz 13” was over 20 years ago, but last week, something deeply telling occurred: On October 12, an Iranian opposition group posted on its Telegram channel that a senior Iranian official had warned that if Israel “makes a mistake” (military action against Iran), the regime would take action against “the 10,000 Jews living in Iran.” 

Now this was unprecedented. That official, incidentally, was Mohsen Rezaee, Vice President for Economic Affairs, who previously commanded the powerful IRGC from 1980-1997. In a speech for like-minded fanatics of an ideological organization called Tharollah Tehran, Rezaee warned, “The Israeli government knows very well that if it makes a mistake, the regime will treat the 10,000 Jews living in Iran differently.” Some say it was a slip of the tongue. I’m just glad the truth finally came out. 

But here’s the most devastating part of the story: Immediately after Rezaee’s warning went public, the sole Jewish member of parliament (Majlis), Houmayoun Sameyah Najafabadi, took to Telegram to defend Rezaee, claiming the accusations were false. 

“The great founder of the revolution [Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini] and likewise the Supreme Leader [Ali Khamenei] have always emphasized that the religion of the Prophet Moses and the Jewish community are distinct from Zionism. The publication of such false news is only in order to create division and tension among the Iranians,” the Jewish leader wrote. 

Now that tells you everything you need to know about Jewish life in Iran today.


Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer, speaker, and civic action activist. Follow her on Twitter @RefaelTabby

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