The Islamic Republic of Iran is the number one state sponsor of antisemitism and Holocaust denial today, according to Sharon Nazarian. "No other government, on its official channels, in its public statements, without any hesitation, uses classic antisemitism to vilify Jews, to vilify Israel and to deny the Holocaust," Nazarian said. "We've heard Iranian leaders talk about destroying and throwing the Jews out into the sea. We've seen the regime hold a Holocaust-denying cartoon contest on an annual basis ... you just don't see this in any other government around the world."
Nazarian, the Anti-Defamation League's (ADL) Vice-President of International Affairs, offered the stark analysis during IranWire's 12 January special online event, Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran, which is available on YouTube. IranWire's Maziar Bahari moderated the event. Joining Nazarian were two prominent Iranian Jewish activists, Hamid Sabi, a lawyer now based in London, and George Haroonian, in Los Angeles.
Nor does the Islamic Republic government contain its official antisemitism within its own borders, Nazarian said. "Iran pushes it through its proxies. Hezbollah and Hamas ... use that same language as do the Houthis in Yemen," Nazarian added, saying that the same propaganda was spread by Iranian authorities through Hispanic tv channels throughout Latin America and the Spanish-speaking world.
Antisemitism is, of course, not an Iranian invention; nor did it first appear in Iran with the 1979 Islamic Revolution. “Antisemitism has been with Jews since Jews started going [out] to the diaspora,” Hamid Sabi said. In Iran in the first part of the 20th century, during the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi (1925-1941), this took on contemporary tones through Iran's close relationship with Nazi-era Germany.
"Antisemitism and racist ideas became the dominant force in Iran ... The majority of the people in parliament in Iran were either German-educated, or pro-Hitler, or pro-Nazis," Sabi said. One Iranian political party, the National Socialist Workers Party of Iran, or SUMKA, a form of neo-Nazi party, would parade members wearing "brown shirts with daggers at their sides" who would then "attack Jews," he added.
"When we turn to the Revolution ... antisemitism became more a form of anti-Zionism," Sabi said. The rhetoric of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Revolution, often turned to denunciations of Zionism and the state of Israel. Attacks on minorities would include the claim that these minority groups were agents of Zionism working to subvert the Revolution and the new Islamic Republic.
Sabi was a young activist at the time of the Revolution. He remembers a meeting with Mehdi Bazargan, the Islamic Republic's first prime minister, which he and others attended as representatives of the Jewish community. "The discussion naturally went to Zionism," Sabi recalled, noting that the Jewish representatives urged the authorities to not confuse the Jewish belief of a return to Zion with the political movement of Zionism.
"Bazargan expressed complete and total surprise, and said he thought Zion was the name of the founder of Zionism," Sabi said. "The ignorance ... this is a man that fought for Palestinians all his life, but he still didn't know anything about Zionism!"
Attacking Zionism and conflating it with the beliefs of every Iranian Jew did not, however, stop the Islamic Republic from seeking help from Israel during the 1980-88 war with Iraq. "You could see that ... anybody who was connected to Israel, but only if they were Jews, would come under attack," Sabi said. Khomeini was “deeply, deeply antisemitic," but, along with the revolutionary leader Hashemi Rafsanjani, he "sat with Mossad and agreed to get arms from them, but that was not considered to be ... wrong." And yet when Habib Elghanian, an Iranian Jewish businessman and philanthropist, who was president of the Tehran Jewish Society, travelled to Israel, "that was a major crime and carried a capital punishment."
Sabi called Elghanian's story a "watershed moment" for the Iranian Jewish community. He was a "very popular personality," Sabi said, a leader of the community as well as a refuge for many needy Iranian Jewish and non-Jewish families. Elghanian was outside Iran at the start of the Revolution and Sabi himself "begged" him to not return. But he did, saying “'I don't want to live abroad, and if I'm here, the community feels more comfortable,’" Sabi remembered. "We all worried about him."
Elghanian was arrested on 16 March, 1979, just a few months into the Revolution. He was tried on 9 May, apparently for less than 20 minutes, convicted of corruption, plundering Iranian assets, maintaining contacts with Israel and Zionism and meeting with Israeli leaders. The next day, at dawn, he was executed by firing squad. Elghanian was the first Jewish citizen to be executed by the Islamic Republic.
Nazarian explained one of the antisemitic beliefs that led to Elghanian's execution: that Jews have dual loyalty, an age-old antisemitic trope. "'You are Jews, you are not Iranian,' ... this is an antisemitic trope where you are not accepted as a citizen of the country you were born in," said Nazarian.
Sabi added that Elghanian's death was the "main cause" for the migration of many Iranian Jews from their homeland in the early 1980s. LA-based George Haroonian, noting that the Jewish community in Iran numbered some 80,000 people before the Revolution, also said many Jews felt compelled to leave Iran both in the 1940s and 1950s and during the war with Iraq. Today there are only about 20,000 Jewish people in Iran.
When asked by Bahari about the impact of antisemitism, Nazarian called it a broader warning sign in all societies. A society "where Jews are persecuted, and Jews flee, is a clear sign that that society is unhealthy for all its citizens. Antisemitism is not a Jewish problem ... [it's] a reflection of a society that is slipping back, if it's a democracy, and we see that in Hungary and in other parts of the world." Once Jews are targeted, Nazarian added, "other minorities and the citizens of those countries are no longer safe. Antisemitism is a problem for all of us."
Persecuting Jews and losing Jewish communities is "not just an intellectual loss," Nazarian added, "but a cultural loss, a financial loss ... Iraq today, Syria, Lebanon, countries that had vibrant Jewish communities are now really without those contributions. And it's a message to the populations who remain, that a vibrant part of your community has left." George Haroonian also noted that in the 1950s there were reports that perhaps as many as ten percent of doctors were Jewish despite coming from a smaller portion of the overall population.
Haroonian believes that the 20,000 Jews who remain do so in part because of their attachment to their homeland. But staying means living with constant exposure to hate speech in official media and educational curricula. "Parents are very concerned about anti-Israeli propaganda in schools and for schoolchildren. They teach them hatred of Israel and so-called Zionists. ... Kids come home and say, 'Mom, today they said [this or that] about Israel, and isn't that where your cousin lives?'"
Nazarian added that school textbooks throughout the Middle East have been assessed by ADL experts. "Students in Iran are taught to chant 'Death to Israel' and that Jews have conspired against Islam from its earliest days," as well as claiming that American sanctions against Iran are part of a "satanic plan" perpetrated by Jews. The Jewish community in Iran is a "captured community," Nazarian added. "Every day they have to be concerned about whether they will be accused of espionage ... they have to come out on the streets and participate in demonstrations that are anti-Israel; they have to, if not, they will be accused." Nazarian also said that any minority in Iran, including Baha'is and other religious minorities, and that the "whole nation,” is captive in the hands of Iran's current ideology and government.
Haroonian, remembering one tv debate in which another Iranian told him that he was "not Iranian" and "affiliated with an enemy state [Israel]", said that Jews first arrived in Iran 2,700 years ago. The Persian and Hebrew languages had influenced each other, Haroonian said, and these two cultures had "mingled" for centuries. "The Iranian Jews who stayed in Iran, naturally, that's their home. But when this regime is over, I really think that Jews and Iranians will have a fantastic relationship again."