Iran's proud but discreet Jews
By Frances Harrison for BBC News, Tehran
Although Iran and Israel are bitter enemies, few know that Iran is home to the largest number of Jews anywhere in the Middle East outside Israel.
About 25,000 Jews live in Iran and most are determined to remain no matter what the pressures - as proud of their Iranian culture as of their Jewish roots.
It is dawn in the Yusufabad synagogue in Tehran and Iranian Jews bring out the Torah and read the ancient text before making their way to work.
It is not a sight you would expect in a revolutionary Islamic state, but there are synagogues dotted all over Iran where Jews discreetly practise their religion.
"Because of our long history here we are tolerated," says Jewish community leader Unees Hammami, who organised the prayers.
He says the father of Iran's revolution, Imam Khomeini, recognised Jews as a religious minority that should be protected.
As a result Jews have one representative in the Iranian parliament.
"Imam Khomeini made a distinction between Jews and Zionists and he supported us," says Mr Hammami.
Synagoge in Esfahan, photo by G. Ross
In the Yusufabad synagogue the announcements are made in Persian - most Iranian Jews don't really speak Hebrew well.
Jews have lived in Persia for nearly 3,000 years - the descendants of slaves from Babylon saved by Cyrus the Great.
Over the centuries there have been sporadic purges, pogroms and forced conversions to Islam as well as periods of peaceful co-existence.
These days anti-Jewish feeling is periodically stirred by the media.
Whatever they say abroad is lies - we are comfortable in Iran - if you're not political and don't bother them then they won't bother you
Mr Hammami says state-run television confuses Zionism and Judaism so that "ordinary people may think that whatever the Israelis do is supported by all Jews".
During the fighting in Lebanon a hardline weekly newspaper, Yalesarat, published two photographs of synagogues on its front page full of people waving Israeli flags celebrating Israeli independence day.
The paper falsely said the synagogues were in Iran - even describing one as the Yusufabad synagogue in Tehran and locating another in Shiraz.
"This provoked a number of opportunists in Shiraz," explains Iran's Jewish MP, Maurice Mohtamed, "and there was an assault on two synagogues."
Mr Mohtamed says the incident was defused by the Iranian security forces, who explained to people that the news was not true.
And with the coming to power of an ultra-conservative like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there has been increased concern internationally about the fate of Iranian Jews.
Mr Ahmedinejad has repeatedly used rabid anti-Israeli rhetoric - slogans like "wipe Israel off the map" - and most controversially he has questioned the number killed in the Holocaust during World War II.
Mr Mohtamed has been outspoken in his condemnation of the president's views - in itself a sign that there is some space for Jews in Iran to express themselves.
"It's very regrettable to see a horrible tragedy so far reaching as the Holocaust being denied ... it was a very big insult to Jews all around the world," says Mr Mohtamed, who has also strongly condemned the exhibition of cartoons about the Holocaust organised by an Iranian newspaper owned by the Tehran municipality.
Despite the offence Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has caused to Jews around the world, his office recently donated money for Tehran's Jewish hospital.
It is one of only four Jewish charity hospitals worldwide and is funded with money from the Jewish diaspora - something remarkable in Iran where even local aid organisations have difficulty receiving funds from abroad for fear of being accused of being foreign agents.
Most of the patients and staff are Muslim these days, but director Ciamak Morsathegh is Jewish.
"Anti-Semitism is not an eastern phenomenon, it's not an Islamic or Iranian phenomenon - anti-Semitism is a European phenomenon," he says, arguing that Jews in Iran even in their worst days never suffered as much as they did in Europe.
Israeli family ties
But there are legal problems for Jews in Iran - if one member of a Jewish family converts to Islam he can inherit all the family's property.
Jews cannot become army officers and the headmasters of the Jewish schools in Tehran are all Muslim, though there is no law that says this should be so.
But their greatest vulnerability is their links to Israel - where many Jews have relatives.
Seven years ago a group of Jews in the southern city of Shiraz was accused of spying for Israel - eventually they were all released. But today many Iranian Jews travel to and from Iran's enemy Israel.
In one of Tehran's six remaining kosher butcher's shops, everyone has relatives in Israel.
In between chopping up meat, butcher Hersel Gabriel tells me how he expected problems when he came back from Israel, but in fact the immigration officer didn't say anything to him.
"Whatever they say abroad is lies - we are comfortable in Iran - if you're not political and don't bother them then they won't bother you," he explains.
His customer, middle-aged housewife Giti agrees, saying she can easily talk to her two sons in Tel Aviv on the telephone and visit them.
"It's not a problem coming and going; I went to Israel once through Turkey and once through Cyprus and it was not problem at all," she says.
Gone are the early days of the Iranian revolution when Jews - and many Muslims - found it hard to get passports to travel abroad.
"In the last five years the government has allowed Iranian Jews to go to Israel freely, meet their families and when they come back they face no problems," says Mr Mohtamed.
He says there is also a way for Iranian Jews who emigrated to Israel decades ago to return to Iran and see their families.
"They can now go to the Iranian consul general in Istanbul and get Iranian identity documents and freely come to Iran," he says.
The exodus of Jews from Iran seems to have slowed down - the first wave was in the 1950s and the second was in the wake of the Iranian Revolution.
Those Jews who remain in Iran seem to have made a conscious decision to stay put.
"We are Iranian and we have been living in Iran for more than 3,000 years," says the Jewish hospital director Ciamak Morsathegh.
"I am not going to leave - I will stay in Iran under any conditions," he declares.
Iran's Unlikely TV Hit
By Farnaz Fassihi for The Wall Street Journal, 25 September 2007
Show sympathetic to plight of Jews during the Holocaust draws millions each week
Every Monday night at 10 o'clock, Iranians by the millions tune into Channel One to watch the most expensive show ever aired on the Islamic republic's state-owned television. Its elaborate 1940s costumes and European locations are a far cry from the typical Iranian TV fare of scarf-clad women and gray-suited men.
But the most surprising thing about the wildly popular show is that it is a heart-wrenching tale of European Jews during World War II.
The hour-long drama, "Zero Degree Turn," centers on a love story between an Iranian-Palestinian Muslim man and a French Jewish woman. Over the course of the 22 episodes, the hero saves his love from Nazi detention camps, and Iranian diplomats in France forge passports for the woman and her family to sneak on to airplanes carrying Iranian Jews to their homeland.
On the surface, the message of the lavish, state-funded production appears sharply at odds with that sent out by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has repeatedly called the Holocaust a myth.
In fact, the government's spending on the show underscores the subtle and often sophisticated way in which the Iranian state uses its TV empire to send out political messages. The aim of the show, according to many inside and outside the country, is to draw a clear distinction between the government's views about Judaism -- which is accepted across Iranian society -- and its stance on Israel -- which the leadership denounces every chance it gets.
"Iranians have always differentiated between ordinary Jews and a minority of Zionists," says Hassan Fatthi, the show's writer and director. "The murder of innocent Jews during World War II is just as despicable, sad and shocking as the killing of innocent Palestinian women and children by racist Zionist soldiers," he says.
Mr. Fatthi, 48 years old, is a well-known director of historical fiction for television. In the past, his work has focused on Iranian history. But he also dabbles in comedy, winning international critical acclaim two years ago for a hit feature, "Marriage, Iranian Style."
He says he came up with the idea for "Zero Degree Turn" four years ago as he was reading books about World War II and stumbled across literature about charge d'affaires at the Iranian embassy in Paris. Abdol Hussein Sardari saved over a thousand European Jews by forging Iranian passports and claiming they belonged to an Iranian tribe.
Mr. Fatthi says he chose the title because the world at the time was in dire circumstances, offering few options for avoiding the terrors to come. Shot on location in Paris and Budapest, the show stars Iranian heartthrob Shahab Husseini and is so popular that its theme song -- an ode to getting lost in love -- is a hit, too.
"It's captivating. No matter where I am or what I'm doing, on Monday nights I find a television set and watch the show. So does every Jewish person I know here," says Morris Motamed, the lone Jew in parliament.
Mr. Fatthi enlisted the help of Iran's Jewish Association, an independent body that safeguards the community's culture and heritage. The association has criticized Mr. Ahmadinejad's comments about the Holocaust but has praised Mr. Fatthi's show.
Iran is home to some 25,000 Jews, the largest population in the Middle East outside of Israel. Iran's Jews -- along with Christians and Zorastrians -- are guaranteed equal rights in the country's constitution. Iran's Jews are guaranteed one member of parliament and are free to study Hebrew in school, pray in synagogues and shop at kosher supermarkets. Despite Mr. Ahmadinejad's statements, it isn't government policy to question the Holocaust, and the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, hasn't endorsed those views.
While Iran makes it no secret that it considers Israel an enemy, it has been extremely touchy about criticism of its treatment of Jewish citizens. The show is seen as an effort by the government to erase the image that it may be anti-Semitic -- both at home among Jews and non-Jews, and abroad.
"In this show, you notice that a new method of political dialogue is being promoted that is more in line with the modern world," says Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a reformist cleric and former Iranian vice president.
The message appears to be grabbing the public. Sara Khatibi, a 35-year-old mother and chemist in Tehran, says she and her husband never miss an episode. "All we ever hear about Jews is rants from the government about Israel," she says. "This is the first time we are seeing another side of the story and learning about their plight."
The show also pushes Iran's political line regarding the legitimacy of Israel: The Jewish state was conceived in modern times by Western powers rather than as part of a centuries-old desire of Jews for a return to their ancestral homeland. In one scene, a rabbi declares it a bad idea for Jews to resettle in Arab lands. In another, the French Jewish protagonist refuses a marriage offer by a cousin, who is advocating the creation of Israel.
Iran has long used TV to shape public opinion, where newspapers and the Internet are seen as media for the elite. The state's control over radio and television is enshrined in the constitution. Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader, is not only head of the armed forces and the judiciary, but also the national broadcast authority.
"The regime appreciates the fact that to appeal to the masses, both in Iran and the Muslim world, television is the most important outlet," says Karim Sadjadpour, an expert on Iran at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
On any given day, the country's seven state-run channels broadcast a mostly drab offering of news, sports, cooking shows, soap operas and religious sermons. Political propaganda is constantly fed into the mix. Dissidents such as students or reformers are routinely paraded before cameras to read confessions after stints of solitary imprisonment.
A slick documentary-style program recently aired long interviews with two Iranian-Americans who were detained on allegations of working to overthrow the regime. The interviews -- in which the pair blandly admitted to meeting with Iranian scholars and dissidents, but not to attempting to topple the government -- were intercut with provocative scenes of demonstrations in Ukraine, where the U.S. encouraged groups that eventually staged the successful Orange Revolution in late 2004.
In July, Iran launched a 24-hour English-language satellite news channel called Press TV, joining the ranks of the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera. Its Arabic news channel, Al Alam, has been broadcasting news with an Iranian slant in the Arab world for several years.
Episodes of "Zero Degree Turn," broadcast in Farsi, can be seen outside of Iran on the Internet, either streaming live or downloaded at tv1.irib.ir/barnameha/sharhefilm.asp?code=00111090361062. It is also broadcast with English subtitles on the state-controlled Jameh Jam satellite channel, which is available on Europe's Hot Bird satellite network. Mr. Fatthi also says Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting has been contacted about selling the show to networks in other countries, but he doesn't know which ones.