This week, Tablet looks back on 40 years of the Iranian Revolution.
Among the world’s endangered minorities, Iranian Jews are an anomaly. Like their counterparts, their conditions categorically refute all the efforts their nation makes at seeming civilized and egalitarian—and so they embody, often without wanting to, all that is ugly and unjust about their native land.
But Iran’s Jewish community does something more. It also embodies the nation’s hope, the narrative of its resistance and struggle for a better future—one that has been on the brink of arriving ever since the revolution in 1979. To understand why Jews continue to remain in Iran is to understand the tortured tale of Iran. Nowhere else can the stubborn continuity of a minority stand as a metaphor in the elegy of a nation’s downfall.
The metaphor is apt because it is born out of a paradox. And contemporary Iran is nothing if not an enigmatic paradox. The world’s only Shiite theocracy—the archenemy of Israel—led by Holocaust deniers, is still home to some 10,000 Jews. Time and again, leading journalists have used this fact to make a partisan point. They have gone into synagogues, sat across from one of the few savvy representatives of the community, and asked the same tired questions: Are you afraid? Are you mistreated? Do you like Israel? Only to return to broadcast the same tired answers: We are not afraid. We are treated very well. We only pray to Jerusalem, but belong to Iran.
These were never mere statements. They have been used as evidence by those advocating against a war with Iran to counter hawkish arguments. In the end, what has gone unexplained is the truth about the lives of the very people these reporters had set out to discover. A truth that is at once far more complex but also revealing, not only about the Jews, but most importantly, about Iran itself.
To begin with, what makes grasping the knotty matter of Jewish life deeply complicated is that, like so much else in Iran, the policies are undefined, the absolutes only relative, and often shifty. No rules are etched in the proverbial stone. In the aftermath of 1979, the new leadership made up its attitude toward and treatment of the Jews as it went along. The most renowned Jewish philanthropist and industrialist, the nation’s founding father of plastic, Habib Elghanian, was executed within weeks after the victory of the revolution on the charges of “sowing corruption on Earth.” For a while, all Jews thought his destiny would soon be theirs. But shortly thereafter, in a meeting with several Jewish leaders, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, said that Jews were the authentic citizens of Iran and ought not to be confused with the “bloodsucking Zionists” in Israel. Such was his way of implying that the community was safe. This sentence, the most-quoted in the past 40 years, remains the closest the regime ever came to articulating an official position about Iranian Jews.
But that is about all. The real details have never been clear. What rights they had and how they could exactly practice all remained slippery. In those early post-revolutionary days, a new question was added to passport forms, asking applicants to declare their religion. Most who entered “Jewish” had their passports confiscated. But when they asked if they were, indeed, banned from leaving, they were told to return in six months. When the six months passed, they were told to return in another six months, and on, and on. They were not ostensibly hostages, but for a time, leaving the country legally became impossible. Other spheres of Jewish life were similarly affected. Jewish day schools were still running, but for a while they could only do so without the use of Hebrew texts, under a Muslim administration, and had to adhere to the Muslim calendar by starting their week on Saturday, as opposed to Sunday.
Each year, Iran’s delegation to the United Nations’ General Assembly includes the Jewish representative to the Majles. His presence amid the delegates is meant to give the impression that he is an equal member of the group. But take him out of the U.N. and put him on the stand at a criminal trial in Tehran, and instantly he is reduced to only half—which is the legal value of his eyewitness account against that of a Shiite. All the devils everywhere are in the details, which tyrannies, especially Iran, know how to make invisible to western observers.
A few years ago, a false story in the Canadian press alleged that Iranian Jews had been required to wear yellow stars on their outer garments. That was untrue. But it went unreported that, in fact, non-Muslim businesses, especially restaurants and food distributors, had to display signs in their windows indicating that non-Muslims (“the unclean”) were operating those establishments. So much is written about Iran every day, and yet some of the most important stories go untold because of the regime’s craftiness at manipulating journalists, and the inherent biases and inadequacies of reporters in covering an anti-American and authoritarian regime.
But even the most astute observers would hardly know what to watch for where a transparent and consistent order is not in place. Besides, many of the rights the community lost in the early years of the revolution were, gradually if not completely, restored. This may seem that their removal in the first place had been merely accidental, except that this vague and unpredictable way of conducting business is how the regime has managed other key issues. Political opaqueness leaves some hope for the possibility of a good outcome, and keeps popular anger in check. If there is anything quintessentially Persian about today’s leadership, it is the way they conduct politics with the same enigmatic touch that poets have historically used to circumvent their censors. The ultimate idea or message is never stated in black or white terms, leaving room for a sunny interpretation. Experts are still arguing—some blaming poor translation—as to what Mahmoud Ahmadinejad really meant when he said that Israel should be “wiped off the map.” His defenders believe he was only symbolically referring to removing an unjust government from power. In truth, manufacturing ambiguity has been Iran’s best approach to thorny subjects. It is why 20 years since the advent of the “reform movement,” Washington think-tankers continue to debate whether the reformists will subdue the hardliners.
It is in this twilight socio-political space where, not systematically harassed like the Bahai, but not equal citizens either, Iranian Jews have dwelt for the past 40 years. Named a “people of the book” in the constitution, Jews have been allowed to practice, but within the fickle terms of their rulers. In an ironic turn of events, however, as the Jewish community has shrunk in numbers, many of the restrictions that had been imposed years ago were lifted or reversed. The further the regime moved from its heady early days, and the smaller grew the community, the more aware the regime became of the value of having Jewish citizens for its international stature. Tehran saw that the presence of Jews was vital to its efforts at claiming to be an “Islamic democracy.” And therein lies the anomaly of this particular minority whose oppressors, becoming less zealous and more pragmatic with time, suddenly realized that they needed them. Iran’s best proof for being the most pluralistic regional alternative, more so than its rival Saudi Arabia, is the Jewish community.
In the diaspora, Iranian Jews, who distance themselves from the clerics by identifying as “Persians,” remain devoted to their heritage so unapologetically that they frequently draw the ire of American Jews. They insist on praying in their own synagogues, for they wish to speak Persian and conduct services as they had in the past. On social media, they have created numerous communities, where they share recipes and other memorabilia to ease the pangs of nostalgia. For the first decade after the revolution, when the number of Iranians in the United States had yet to swell to its current figures, Iranian pop survived, thanks to the Jewish celebrations which kept the exiled music stars employed. What is regrettable, however, is the diminishing relations between non-Jewish Iranians and their Jewish counterparts who, caught in the Iran-Israel standoff, have steered clear of the joint venues where they used to come together.
Forty years since the 1979 revolution nothing has changed, and yet everything has. The supreme leader is still in power, but the nation has turned away from him. Iran is still an Islamic republic, yet Iranians increasingly identify themselves, like many American Jews, as a secular people. Iran is the regional theocracy, and yet it is the only country where political Islam is no longer a utopian aspiration. Nowhere else is the clergy, once so venerated, now so suspect, if not dangerously despised. Nowhere else in the Muslim world can women, daily defying the rules of Islamic dress code, rightfully claim to have inherited the mantle of the suffragists. Nowhere else do protesters march on the streets, chanting slogans that are ideologically anathema to their leaders, among them: “Not for Gaza, not for Lebanon; I give my life only for Iran.”
There are many reasons that still keep Jews in Iran. But the widespread acts of resistance against the regime play a key part in strengthening the community’s ties to its ancient homeland. Unlike what the flawed reports have us believe, it is not their “good life” that keeps the Jews in Iran. Rather, with every expression of dissent, Jews experience themselves not against their fellow Iranians, but alongside them. It is true that misery loves company. But shared cross-religious misery also mitigates bigotry. While the regime’s anti-Zionist rhetoric remains as rabid as ever, ordinary people are far less sympathetic to such propaganda, and increasingly embrace the minorities against whom the regime discriminates. In turn, rather than feeling persecuted by their compatriots, Jews have bonded with them in their rejection of the status quo. The Jewish existence in Iran goes on because hope—the one for the revolution that was to deliver Iran to freedom and democracy—goes on, too.
Roya Hakakian is the author of two books of poetry in Persian. Her memoir of growing up Jewish in post-revolutionary Iran, Journey from the Land of No, received, among others, Elle Magazine Readers’ Choice Award.