Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Persian Paradox, Irans Jews

In a world where misunderstandings, ignorance and a lack of dialogue often contribute to conflict and war I wanted to do a piece about the Jews of Iran (pictured). Many people are stunned to hear that Iran has a Jewish community numbering approximately 35,000. It is by far the largest Jewish community (outside Israel) in the Middle East. Iran unlike most Muslim countries in the region did not expel its Jewish population after the foundation of the Israeli state in 1948. At the time the Iranian Jewish population numbered 150,000. Over the next 30 years, many Iranian Jews chose to follow the example of many world Jews and make Aliyah (migration to Israel). By the time of the Iranian revolution in 1979 the number of Jews in Iran had decreased to 80,000.

When the Shah fell in 1979 the future of the Jewish community was uncertain. So it came as a surprise to many when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa decreeing that the Jews were to be protected. Khomeini was a radical, but to his credit he did not appear to disregard elements of Islam that he found inconvenient as the Koran clearly states that Judaism and Christianity are part of the one monotheistic religion and must be respected. To this end the rights of Jews have been enshrined in the constitution of the Islamic Republic. In addition the Iranian Jewish community is entitled to representation in the Iranian Parliament. Every four years one Jew is elected to the Parliament to represent the Jewish constituents. However after the revolution Jewish migration to Israel continued. Between 1979 and 2000 approximately 40,000 Jews left Iran for either Israel or the United States. During this time there has been tension. In all 13 Jews have been executed for allegedly spying for Israel. However the 35,000 or so remaining appear willing to stay and adamantly claim that they are proud Iranians. Many of them have refused financial incentives from Israelis and wealthy American Jews to emigrate. Perhaps a true indication that the Iranian government and the Jewish community have begun to trust each other is the decision recently made to allow Iran's Jews to visit their relatives in Israel and return.

The reason I feel it is necessary to make an issue of this is because there are several prominent individuals in America who are making a career out of demonizing Iran. The last thing I want to do is appear like I am defending the Iranian regime because I am very much aware of how cruel they can be toward their own people. However I believe that academics like Michael Ledeen, TV show hosts like Glen Beck and evangelical Christians like John Hagee must be confronted when they make outlandish claims about the Iranian regime and its objectives that are simply not true. These men constantly argue in front of their very large audiences that the Iranian regime want to "kill every Jew out there", are "fanatically committed to the destruction of the Israeli state" and that Ahmadinejad is the "worlds most dangerous dictator". None of these descriptions are accurate and such deliberate misinformation about a country that America may go to war with amounts to nothing short of war propaganda. As I will elaborate in future posts, Iran is far from perfect but it is in fact one of the most misunderstood countries in the world.

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