Antisemitism has compelled tens of thousands of Iranian Jews to leave their homes and move abroad over the past 42 years. Those who chose to remain in the Islamic Republic have had to endure continuous hatred, promoted and institutionalized by the state.
Since the foundation of the Islamic Republic, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, state-owned news agencies and government-affiliated media outlets have produced reams of antisemitic audio-visual content and online propaganda. Articles, films, TV series, and stories rooted in the historical antagonism between Islam and Judaism, anti-Israel sentiment and baseless conspiracy theories have harmed and isolated Jews in Iran. IranWire’s new investigative report, Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979, gives a detailed account of how this has content developed and was received over time.
According to the last relevant census, close to 65,000 Jews lived in Iran before the Islamic Revolution. They were not great in number, but played a prominent role in every aspect of Iranian public life, as government ministers and MPs, progressive school heads, artists, intellectuals, doctors and philanthropists.
But after the Shia clergy came to power, Iranian Jews began to dwindle in number. Four decades later, around 20,000 Jews still remain in Iran according to official surveys. Unofficial figures put the number lower still.
“When the constitution, which declared Twelver Shia Islam the main religion of Iran, was ratified,” Shirin Ebadi tells IranWire, “Jews were recognized as one of the country’s [three] ‘official’ religious minorities. But the ruling class’s religious despotism has proved this was a recognition on paper only. The same constitution does not consider non-Shia citizens – not even Sunni Muslims – worthy of representation in government. The restrictions imposed on religious minorities in Iran are innumerate. In my view, the ratification of the Sharia-based postrevolutionary constitution was when the purge of Jews from Iranian society began.”
Article 64 of the Islamic Republic’s constitution allows each “official” religious minority group just one MP in parliament. This has held even when the total number of seats in the legislature increased. “There are 270 members of the Islamic Consultative Assembly,” Ebadi notes. “Zoroastrians and Jews can each elect one representative, Assyrian and Chaldean Christians jointly elect one, and Armenian Christians in the north and south of the country can each elect one.”
These five token representatives, Ebadi says, are often held up by pro-regime media and politicians as “proof” the Iranian parliament recognizes religious minorities. This, she says, is a “deceit”: “While MPs number close to 300 there’s just one representative from the Jewish community. This person has in turn has gone through a thousand filtering processes to be qualified by the Guardian Council. How are they supposed to defend the rights of Iran’s Jewish citizens? Even if he were unafraid to voice criticism, he wouldn’t be able to get anything done.”
“Our Hands Are Tied”
Ebadi herself left Iran for a conference shortly before the 2009 presidential election and never returned after widespread arrest of her colleagues. “When I was in Iran,” she recalls, “sometimes, after something came up in the media or in society, representatives of Jewish or Zoroastrian communities would contact me and would ask me to respond as a lawyer and human rights activist. When I asked them why they themselves did not protest, they would answer: ‘Our hands are tied.’
“I’d then always ask them, ‘If this how it is, why do you wear the mantle of representatives of your people and your fellow believers?’. The fact was they’d lost any hope of justice prevailing and were afraid of taking legal action.”
For more than 40 years, Jews in Iran have been treated uniformly as accessories, allies and supporters of the state of Israel. The Holocaust-denying ruling clergy further views them as agents of Western Holocaust “propaganda” by “playing victims”. To counter these portrayals, Iranian Jews and even their representatives cannot do much more than to quote Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, who himself once said: “The Jews must not be confused with the Zionists.”
Tying all Jews to Israel, Ebadi says, is one of the justifications used by the Islamic Republic to violate the rights of a group of its citizens. “According Israeli law, any Jew anywhere in the world can ask for and receive Israeli citizenship. This fact is used by the Islamic Republic to claim that that Jewish community and Israel are one and the same. After countless violations of their civil rights, including the denial of a fair share of government roles or even permission to run a business, many Jews decided to leave Iran; since Israel already recognized their citizenship it’s logical Israel would become one of their main destinations. The Islamic Republic uses this to promote its antisemitic and foreign policies.”
Ebadi believes that fundamentally and all rhetoric aside, the conflict between Iran and Israel is entirely political and has nothing to do with religion. “Why am I bringing this up? During the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when Holocaust denial became entrenched in the discourse of the Islamic Republic, a group of anti-Zionist Jews who opposed the state of Israel met with him in New York. Leaders of this ultra-orthodox group also came to Iran as Ahmadinejad’s guests and formed a group called Anti-Zionist Jewish Union. If the Islamic Republic had issues with Judaism as a religion it would not have allied itself with them.”
Jews for Khamenei!
Ebadi recalls the existence of a fringe, extremist Jewish group called Lev Tahor (“Pure Heart”) often described as a cult, which made the news after swearing allegiance to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In September 2018, group leaders asked for asylum in Iran as they were facing allegations of kidnapping, sexual abuse and child abuse in New York, Israel, Canada, Mexico and Guatemala. The request was hailed by state-controlled media in Iran as a victory for the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy, without the criminal proceedings receiving a mention.
“Iranian media, both inside and outside the country, plays a very important role [in spreading or countering antisemitism],” Ebadi says. “Naturally, outlets inside Iran are forced by extreme censorship to only state what the government approves of, so they promote antisemitic policies, extensively or not. But Persian-language media outside the country is also to some degree at fault. Daily news and events related to Iran are so many that it leaves them no opportunity to talk about the issue of religious minorities being purged from Iranian society.
“On the other hand, those Jews who are still inside Iran cannot and do not talk about their problems. As a result, even media outlets outside Iran that do want to air their voices can’t defend the Jews and their civil rights in the way that they deserve.”