Distorting the Persecution of Iran’s Jews

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

In recent months, debate has raged over whether the United States and its allies should take military action against Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities. But in a new twist, some pundits are now injecting the treatment of Iranian Jewry into this debate.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, in a recent article, presented various military and strategic arguments against bombing Iran’s nuclear sites. In the middle of the article, Kristof suddenly raised the question of Iranian Jewry. Kristof reported that former Pentagon official Dov Zakheim “notes that Iran doesn’t treat its 20,000 Jews as wretchedly as its rhetoric would suggest.” Kristof then added: “Iran continues to be home to more Jews than any Middle Eastern country save Israel.”

Is it fair to relativize persecution in this way? A regime’s human rights record should be judged according to objective standards, not whether its behavior matches its rhetoric. If Iran persecutes its Jews, then it should be recognized as a persecutor, regardless of Teheran’s level of anti-Jewish rhetoric.

History offers more than a few examples of regimes whose treatment of minorities at first seemed to be not as bad as their rhetoric, but soon became much worse. Hitler’s treatment of German Jews during the 1930s –prior to the Holocaust– may not have been as wretched as Nazi rhetoric threatened, but that certainly was not evidence of Nazi moderation.

Or, to cite a cause that Kristof has eloquently championed: the enslavement of Sudanese blacks by Arab militias in years past was not as wretched as the mass murder they have more recently experienced in Darfur, but that would be no reason to understate the severity of that earlier persecution.

As for the actual situation of the Jews in Iran today, one should be careful not to ascribe too much significance to the fact that, as Kristof puts it, “Iran continues to be home to more Jews than any Middle Eastern country save Israel.”

The community’s size is only one issue. Sometimes factors such as family ties, poverty, or hope for a change in government are sufficient to persuade people to stay in a country where they are mistreated. Recall that in 1937–fully four years after Hitler’s rise to power–Germany was still home to more Jews than any other West European country. That wasn’t because they were well treated.

In the case of Iran, one must also consider the extent to which emigration is possible. A recent U.S. government report found that Jews “often are denied the multiple-exit permits normally issued to other citizens. With the exception of certain business travelers, the authorities require Jews to obtain clearance and pay additional fees before each trip abroad. The Government appears concerned about the emigration of Jewish citizens and permission generally is not granted for all members of a Jewish family to travel outside the country at the same time.”

Contrast Zakheim’s description of Iranian Jewry with that of Iranian-born Menashe Amir, the host of a Persian-language radio show that Israel beams to Iran. In a recent interview, Amir said “every Iranian Jew who had the financial possibility or courage has already left,” and those who remain behind live in fear. “While there are Jewish schools, the principals and most of the teachers are Muslim, the Bible is taught in Farsi [Persian], not in Hebrew, and the schools are forced to open on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. So while the regime declares that there is freedom of religion, it is all just for the sake of appearances.”

The interviewer added: “Jewish leaders are reluctant to draw attention to incidences of mistreatment of their community, due to fear of government reprisal, along with fear of being arrested or accused of being spies.” Amir pointed out that local Jews are often compelled by the regime to issue statements supporting Iran’s nuclear policy or denouncing Israeli actions. In many ways, then, Iranian Jewry is a captive community.

In her book Beyond Belief, Prof. Deborah Lipstadt describes how in the 1930s, the U.S. public’s ability to recognize the evil nature of the Hitler regime was impeded by reports from wishful thinkers who insisted that the treatment of Germany’s Jews was not as bad as people assumed. In a similar vein, during the 1970s, efforts to free Jews from the Soviet Union were undermined when individuals of prominence returned from visits to the USSR and claimed that the situation of Soviet Jewry was not really so terrible. The Rev. Billy Graham’s 1982 assertion that he witnessed “religious freedom” in the USSR “made it more difficult to convince the public that Jews were being persecuted there,” notes Glenn Richter, longtime leader of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry.

It would be a tragedy if today’s pundits repeat those mistakes, by minimizing the suffering of Iran’s beleaguered community in the pursuit of some other agenda.

September 2006