Throughout the life of the Islamic Republic of Iran, state-owned and affiliated institutions have been pressed into service promoting unprecedented quantities of antisemitic propaganda. From the Holocaust Cartoon Competition to conspiracy theories, pseudo-academic articles to the false equation of all Jews with the state of Israel, few countries are matched in their efforts to marginalize the Jewish community than modern-day Iran. The breadth of this shocking campaign was recently detailed in a special report for IranWire, Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979.
We spoke with Mehran Barati, a lawyer and international relations expert, about this research and his impression of the Islamic Republic's antisemitic campaign.
The Iranian writer Gholamhossein Saeedi was one of thousands of intellectuals and creatives to flee the country shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Long before he settled in Paris for good, he had crossed the border into Pakistan with nothing but a toothbrush, a pair of pants and a bag of medication. In a letter he wrote at the time, he wrote that the only grief he felt was that of his homeland.
Mehran Barati is compelled by the letter. He said he didn’t think he was travelling, but rather ‘I thought – I swear – Iran is moving away from me. I’m not a traveller, it [the country] is a traveller. This was also the most correct articulation of [what was felt by] our Jewish compatriots when they were forced to leave Iran. It has to be acknowledged that they didn’t move away from Iran; Iran has moved away from them."
According to Mehran Barati, Iranian Jews living in Israel by and large still consider themselves Iranians, rather than Israelis. "Sometimes I listen to our Jewish compatriots. Can you believe, some of them feel homesick in Israel and miss Iran? We must be thankful to those 20,000 who have remained in Iran despite all the difficulties. We hope that one day it will be possible for everyone to return to a land and a home called Iran."
The Jewish presence in Iran is as old as the scriptures themselves. “Let me tell you a story,” Barati says. “Legend has it that Serach, the granddaughter of Jacob, grazed her father's sheep in the pastures of Judah. One of the lambs went into a cave, and Search followed. It was long, but she went to the very end and came out the other side, which exited onto present-day Isfahan. Search had miraculously reached Iran from the land of Israel.
“Two kilometers beyond this cave is a cemetery in Lenjan where deceased Jewish residents of Isfahan are still buried today. Years later, Iranian Jews still visit the cave and stare into its 25-meter well, trying to see the land of Israel. Serach is the first Jew in Persian mythology. The presence of Esther's children in Iran is older than the country’s known history; so is the ‘enmity’ the rulers of Iran today use to oppress Jewish citizens."
From the seminaries to universities, digital media outlets to film producers, almost every public-facing aspect of the Islamic Republic has played a role in spreading antisemitism since 1979. Part of this comes from religious rivalry in a Twelver Shiite theocracy. But what does the Islamic Republic stand to gain from denying the Holocaust and persisting in its stated enmity to Israel?
“The term ‘Holocaust’ is derived from the Greek-Latin word holocaustum [also holokaustos], which dates back about 2,500 years,” Barati says. “In ancient times, it meant to burn animals as a sacrifice to the gods. Why does Iran seek to deny the [modern] concept or invest in justifying Holocaust denial today? Because the genocidal method, which is rooted in religion and ideology, has found its way into human life in modern times. In the Bosnian War, for example, Christian Serbs and Orthodox Serbs killed thousands of Muslims in one day and dumped them in a mass grave.
“Such things are still happening in Iran today: in the case of Baha'is, in the case of homosexuals, or of political opponents of the existing regime. In November 2019, according to credible evidence, more than 1,000 people were massacred for opposing the ideology and politics of the Islamic Republic: another tale of genocide on a smaller scale.”
The current policy governing Iranian media, Barati believes, is perfectly comparable to the one that shaped German media output before the genocide of European Jews by the Nazis. "In order to gain the support of the ignorant, Hitler's government used the same pretexts as the Iranian regime does today to attack the Jews: claims like Jews having the entire monetary system in their hands, or penetrating the country’s culture to the point of destroying identity, or taking over science, research and industry, and the ‘genuine’ race is disappearing due to their presence. We have to pay attention to the Holocaust. The Islamic Republic is doing its best to justify it.”