Iran’s Jewish community was delivered a blow this week when vandals attacked two synagogues in Shiraz and destroyed sacred scrolls.
On Monday, December 25, worshippers arrived at the city’s Hadash Synagogue to find that prayer books had been thrown into toilets and scrolls from the Torah had been torn up — drawing immediate condemnation from the international Jewish community, which appealed to Iranian authorities to protect Jews living in the Islamic Republic.
One day before, unknown perpetrators attacked the Kashi Synagogue, one of the oldest synagogues in the ancient city.
“Hadash Synagogue was just recently renovated and so it did not have a good security and alarm system,” Pooya Dayanim, President of the Iranian Jewish Public Affairs Committee (IJPAC), told IranWire. “In the past few days two or three attempts were made to enter the synagogue by breaking down the door. They succeeded on the night of December 24. They tore up two Torah scrolls. They also damaged three other scrolls and threw a number of siddurs [a set order of daily prayers] into toilets.” Dayanim said the damage done at Hadash was “far greater,” but expressed that both attacks were shocking and extremely troubling.
This is not the first time that Shiraz synagogues have been attacked by unknown vandals, but it is the first time that Torah scrolls — considered to be holy by Muslims and Jews alike, have been desecrated. “A few years ago another synagogue in Shiraz was attacked and Torah scrolls were stolen,” said Dayanim. “Around a year later the Revolutionary Guards said that they had found the scrolls and had returned them to the temple. But never have the holy books and the Torah been desecrated or damaged like this.”
Afraid to Talk
For security reasons, on the whole Iran’s Jewish community prefer to remain silent and not speak up against discrimination or violations of their places of worship. IranWire attempted to talk to Shirazi Jews who had witnessed the recent damage at the two synagogues, but no one agreed to speak on the record.
“After the events in Shiraz in 1999,” said Dayanim from IJPAC, “the Jewish community in Shiraz is very afraid of government officials and they prefer to remain silent.” In 1999, Iranian security agencies arrested 13 people who they claimed had formed an Israeli espionage network. Those arrested included five merchants, a rabbi, two university professors, three teachers for private Hebrew schools, a kosher butcher and a 16-year-old boy. An international outcry followed the arrests and eventually the group was released. But the incident had its impact, making the Jewish community in Shiraz much more cautious.
It took IJPAC two days to verify the facts about the attacks in Shiraz. “After we heard the news,” said Dayanim, “we contacted the Tehran Jewish Committee and official representatives of Shiraz's Jewish community. They confirmed the reports.” He added that the community was once again responding with extreme caution. “The same individuals who used to talk to us every month about very ordinary news were afraid to answer their phones.”
When worshippers arrived at Hadash Synagogue and discovered the destruction on Monday, December 25, they immediately called police in Shiraz and security agents from the Interior Ministry. “Since the police and the agents arrived, nobody else has been allowed into the synagogue,” Dayanim said, adding that the authorities had deemed it a crime scene. They also prohibited anyone from photographing or filming at the scene and, as a result, no photographs or videos of the damage have appeared on social networks.
According to Dayanim, security agencies have been trying to downplay the attacks and this is the main reason they have prevented photographs from appearing on social networks in particular. “They have told the Jews in Shiraz that if people from the media or Jewish organizations outside Iran contact them they should say that it was a robbery and if they are asked for pictures or videos they should tell them that it is a crime scene and the police will not allow anybody in.”
Hate Crime, Not a Robbery
Has anything of value been stolen from the synagogues, I asked Dayanim? “A few silver candleholders and some other items of value were stolen, but it is not clear whether it was to cover their tracks...or...” His sentence trailed off. “When somebody enters a place of worship and tears up a sacred book, he is hostile to that [religious] minority. It shows that it was a hate crime. This is not the same as a robbery.”
At the same time, Dayanim has no idea who could have ordered the attack or why. “Since Rouhani became president and the former Intelligence Minister Mr. [Ali] Younesi was appointed Special Assistant to the President for Ethnic and Religious Minorities' Affairs, they have claimed that they are taking steps to ease restrictions on minorities,” he said. “They told the Tehran Jewish Committee that they wanted to attract tourists to Jewish sites and that this would benefit ‘both the activities of the government and you yourselves to renovate your sites to make them pretty and secure.’ But, like everything else, it is two steps forward and one step back.”
In a joint statement, the Iranian-American Jewish Federations in Los Angeles and New York expressed shock and concern for the safety of Jews living in Iran. “In light of these clearly anti-Semitic incidents we call upon the authorities in the Islamic Republic of Iran to ensure the protection of all places of worship as well as all members of our community, and to bring the perpetrators of these criminal acts to justice,” the statement read.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Simon Wiesenthal Center also issued statements condemning the vandalism at the Shiraz synagogues. “The Iranian regime daily expresses its genocidal hatred for the Jewish State, promotes Holocaust denial and funds terrorist organizations targeting Israel,” stated Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, in a released statement. “Its hateful rhetoric and policies fuel anti-Semitism at home and around the world. Still, the Jewish community will have no choice but to rely on authorities to investigate this ominous hate crime”.
Since the incident, the Islamic Republic has not released a statement or reported on the vandalism. Iranian state-run media have not reported on the incident either.
“As Iranian Jews living abroad we have a duty to publish the news and tell the international community about it,” said Pouya Dayanim. But “Jews inside Iran have no choice but to ask the government, the Intelligence Ministry and the police for help.”