Jews in Iran Describe a Life of Freedom despite Anti-Israel Actions by Tehran Islam, Judaism under One Tent

By Michael Theodoulou, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 3, 1998 | Go to article overview

Jews in Iran Describe a Life of Freedom despite Anti-Israel Actions by Tehran Islam, Judaism under One Tent


Michael Theodoulou, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


One of the most striking of many murals in Iran's capital, Tehran, is a towering portrait of Fathi Shkaki, a leader of the militant Palestinian group, Islamic Jihad. He was assassinated by Israeli agents in 1995 after he masterminded a series of suicide bombings against Jewish civilians.

A slogan beneath his face hails him as a hero of the Islamic revolution in Palestine.

Yet, stroll a little farther along Palestine Street and you come to the Abrishami Synagogue, the biggest of 23 synagogues in Tehran. It is regularly attended by some 1,000 worshippers. It comes as a surprise to many visitors to discover that Iran, a country so hostile to Israel and with a reputation for intolerance, is home to a small but vibrant Jewish community that is an officially recognized religious minority under Iran's 1979 Islamic Constitution. "{Ayatollah Ruhollah} Khomeini didn't mix up our community with Israel and Zionism - he saw us as Iranians," says Haroun Yashyaei, a film producer and chairman of the Central Jewish Community in Iran. Like Iran's Armenian Christians, Jews are tolerated as "people of the book" and allowed to practice their religion freely, provided they do not proselytize. They elect their own deputy to the 270-seat Parliament and enjoy certain rights of self-administration. Jewish burial and divorce laws are accepted by Islamic courts. Jews are conscripted into the Army. "We are one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world," Mr. Yashyaei says. "When Muslims came to Iran, we had already been here for centuries." "Take it from me, the Jewish community here faces no difficulties. If some people left after the revolution, maybe it's because they were scared," says Farangis Hassidim, a forceful but good-humored woman who is charge of the only Jewish hospital in Iran. She adds: "Our position here is not as bad as people abroad may think. We practice our religion freely, we have all our festivals, we have our own schools and kindergartens." For her, the well-equipped hospital in central Tehran is a model of religious harmony. "We have about 200 staff, 30 percent of them Jewish," she says. "These days, I'd say about 5 percent of our patients are Jewish, the rest are Muslims." A sign outside the hospital reads in Hebrew: "Love thy neighbor as thyself." Nevertheless, many Jews emigrated after the 1979 Islamic revolution to the United States, the favored destination, and to Israel. In just under two decades, their numbers in Iran have dwindled from 100,000 to about 40,000, 25,000 of them in Tehran. The shah, overthrown in 1979, was on good terms with the Jewish state; opposition to it was a cornerstone of Khomeini's revolution. A tight-knit community Like other minorities, many Iranian Jews feared an uncertain future, although their religious rights were enshrined in the Constitution. …

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