By: Dr. Rafael Medoff
Are 25,000 Jews living happily and securely under the most repressive and anti-Semitic regime in the world? Apparently the answer is yes, if one is to believe New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, who in a February 23 op-ed reports that what he saw recently in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran demonstrated “Iranian civility toward Jews.”
Cohen was especially impressed by the fact that “there are more than a dozen synagogues in Teheran,” as well as several more in Esfahan. He attended a prayer service and described it in rather picturesque terms.
Cohen is hardly the first American to be misled by the existence of synagogues in totalitarian countries. Assessing the status of Jews in Nazi Germany in October 1936, president Franklin D. Roosevelt likewise put too much stock in the scenes at the synagogues. “I have just seen two people who have toured through Germany,” FDR told American Jewish Congress leader Stephen Wise. “They tell me that they saw that the synagogues were crowded and apparently there is nothing very wrong in the situation [of Germany’s Jews] at present.”
Interestingly, the Jews whom Cohen met in Iran had only positive things to say about their anti-Semitic government. Soleiman Sedighpoor, who led the prayer service in Esfahan, said he has “never had a problem” as a Jew in Iran. Morris Motamed, former occupant of the lone “Jewish seat” in parliament, said the Ahmadinejad regime exhibits “deep tolerance here toward Jews.”
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of New York City’s Kehilath Jeshurun, who visited the Soviet Union in the 1970s to teach Judaism and assist would-be emigrants, points to an incident at the Moscow synagogue which demonstrated the perilous reality of Jewish life in the USSR. It was Simhat Torah, and the service was crowded, no doubt as crowded as those synagogues in Germany in 1936 or in Iran in our own time.
“As we danced with the Torahs,” he recalls, “the Jews exchanged the traditional greeting, ‘Let’s meet again, God willing, next year.’ One man leaned over and whispered in my ear, ‘Let’s meet again, God willing, next year – but not here in the Soviet Union.’ He was so terrified of what might happen if he was overheard, that he could only whisper those words.”
Cohen’s encounter with the Jewish former member of Iran’s parliament reminds Lookstein of his own encounter with Rabbi Yakov Fishman, chief rabbi of the Moscow Synagogue, in 1972. “Rabbi Fishman sat down next to me, to show me a publication from a British group critical of the Soviet government’s treatment of the Jews,” Lookstein recalls. “He was afraid that such criticism would ‘make things worse’ for the Jews in Russia. That’s why you can never take at face value what a Jew in a totalitarian state says to a foreigner. They are captives of the regime, and whatever they say is carefully calibrated not to get themselves into trouble.”
The State Department’s most recent annual report on international religious freedom paints a picture of Jewish life in Iran that is at odds with Cohen’s description. The report says Iran’s Jews live in “a threatening atmosphere” and suffer “officially sanctioned discrimination, particularly in the areas of employment, education and housing.” The government “limits the distribution of Hebrew texts, in practice making it difficult to teach the language.” Government pressure resulted in the shutdown of the Jewish community’s newspaper, Ofogh-e-Bina. And “officially sanctioned anti-Semitic propaganda” permeates “official statements, media outlets, publications and books.”
Three-quarters of Iran’s Jews have emigrated in the 30 years since the Khomeini revolution, and the State Department notes that some Iranian Jews are continuing to emigrate, “in part due to continued anti-Semitism on the part of the government and within society.”
Obviously others choose not to emigrate. 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. In fact, in 1937 – fully four years after Hitler’s rise to power – Germany was still home to more Jews than any other Western European country. That was not because they enjoyed Hitler’s rule.
The situation of Iranian Jewry must not be turned into a political football. The dangers and discrimination that Iran’s Jews face should not be minimized to advance a particular policy agenda. Cohen urges the West to adopt an approach of “compromise” and “engagement” with Teheran, and it is possible the Obama administration will follow his advice. But if it does, one hopes that decision will not be influenced by misleading reports which see “civility” in Iran’s uncivil treatment of its Jewish citizens.
(Published in the Jerusalem Post – February 26, 2009)