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The Iranian Intellectual Who Inspired the Islamic Revolution and Admired Israel

Iran Week: Jalal Al-e Ahmad’s astonishing and paradoxical account of his 1963 travels in the Holyland, newly translated and reissued as ‘The Israeli Republic’

Scott Abramson
June 26, 2017
Photo: Undated postcard of Tel Aviv (probably early 1970s) via Flickr
Photo: Undated postcard of Tel Aviv (probably early 1970s) via Flickr
Photo: Undated postcard of Tel Aviv (probably early 1970s) via Flickr
Photo: Undated postcard of Tel Aviv (probably early 1970s) via Flickr

When Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran in 1979, ending his exile just as the Shah was beginning his, he came as the victor of a 16-year war between the turban and the crown. Khomeini himself had fired the war’s first shots on June 3, 1963, in an attack on the Shah for sins of every description, not least Iran’s cooperative relations with Israel. “Is the Shah an Israeli?” Khomeini asked, adding that the monarch was an “infidel Jew.” The royal response was not long in coming. Khomeini was promptly hauled off to prison, and on June 5 (the 15th of the Persian month of Khordad), following riots across Iran protesting Khomeini’s arrest, the Shah’s men scattered the crowds with gunfire. The suppression of the protests left the ayatollah to conclude, “Israel does not wish the Qur’an to exist in this country.” Iranian history would remember the “15th of Khordad Uprising” as setting in motion the wheel of revolution that would complete its circuit in 1979.

Before Khomeini was sent into 15 years of exile (from which he could agitate against the Shah under much less scrutiny), he was released from prison to a half-year of house arrest. Confined to his simple quarters in the holy city of Qom, he pressed on in his fight against the Shah while receiving many admiring visitors. Among those who came to pay tribute was Jalal Al-e Ahmad, Iran’s preeminent intellectual in the 1960s. Though a slack Muslim himself whose daily round was more likely to include vodka than prayer, Al-e Ahmad had launched the fateful search for Islamic authenticity in Iranian society in the 1960s with his 1962 pamphlet Gharbzadegi, or “Westoxification.” A “holy book for several generations of Iranian intellectuals” in one scholar’s appraisal, Gharbzadegi contends that Iranians who had embraced the West had become “strangers to themselves,” being at once unfaithful Iranians and sham Westerners. Worse yet, these Iranians were not just fraudulent but, as the title Westoxification indicates, they were diseased. All was not lost, though, because their disease had a cure: If the West was the toxin with which Iranians had poisoned themselves, Islam was the antidote.

Gharbzadegi found a vast audience in the Iran of the 1960s and ’70s, amid the country’s galloping modernization and among those who felt they had been left in its dust or, at least, dirtied by it. Its appeal spanned many different sectors of literate Iran, extending to clerics and seminarians, secular leftists, bourgeois traditionalists, and intellectuals disenchanted with liberalism. In this way, Gharbzadegi’s diverse readership predicted the diverse coalition of revolutionaries who, inspired by the pamphlet, would dethrone the Shah.

Al-e Ahmad would not himself live to see this conversion of inspiration into action in 1979, having died 10 years earlier at 46. Nevertheless, Gharbzadegi’s resonance with so many Iranians from so many different walks of life and its call for Islamic authenticity made him a posthumous patron of the Iranian Revolution. His legacy is duly honored in the Islamic Republic, where he is the namesake of a major literary prize, an expressway in Tehran, and a face on stamps issued by Iran’s postal administration.

The meeting at Khomeini’s home in Qom between these two gravediggers of the Shah’s monarchy was a meeting between two mutual admirers. Khomeini would later even praise Al-e Ahmad, which was exceptional in itself, considering any praise in the ayatollah’s discourse was a rare break in what was otherwise an infinity of denunciation. Khomeini’s praise was, in fact, singular: Al-e Ahmad would be the only contemporary writer—whether Iranian or foreign, lay or clerical—the ayatollah ever endorsed.

What was probably the sole encounter between Al-e Ahmad and Khomeini lasted only 15 minutes and was of little historical consequence. Yet, if seen against the backdrop of preceding events, the meeting takes on a rich contextual irony. For just a few months before the “declaration of war” against the Shah that had landed Khomeini in prison, Al-e Ahmad had visited the same Israel that the ayatollah was thundering against. What is more, he had not only visited the Jewish state as an official guest but Al-e Ahmad, arguably the Iranian Revolution’s most influential lay muse, admired Israel.

Al-e Ahmad’s admiration for the country he had “dreamed of seeing” found expression in a travelogue he wrote documenting his visit. Originally published in part in 1964 and in full in 1984, it was recently brought out in paperback by Restless Books under the titleThe Israeli Republic and deftly translated by Tablet contributor Samuel Thrope. The title itself, Thrope’s own artful creation, calls for a word of explanation. Apart from being an analogizing allusion to the “Islamic Republic,” Israeli Republic dramatizes Al-e Ahmad’s religious admiration for his subject: Al-e Ahmad goes so far as to call Israel a velayet, an Arabic-derived Persian word that in modern Shia theology designates not so much a state as a political trust, of which God is the trustor and the government the trustee. To give just one example, article five of the Iranian constitution says that, pending the reappearance of the Hidden Imam (Shiism’s messianic figure) and the establishment of his earthly rule, the velayet (the Islamic Republic, in this case) is to be under clerical custody. In his introduction to The Israeli Republic, Thrope explains Al-e Ahmad’s “provocative” application of the word to Israel thus: “In referring to Israel as a velayet, Al-e Ahmad … is envisioning Israel as a particularly Islamic kind of ideal polity in which divinely guided leaders—less than prophets but more than politicians—rule.”


Al-e Ahmad’s 13-day visit to Israel in February 1963 was the work of Zvi Rafiah, then a young Israeli diplomat in Tehran (and years later the congressional liaison officer at the Israeli embassy in Washington). A committed Persophile, Rafiah took up friendships with some of Iran’s most celebrated cultural personalities during his two-and-a-half-year stint there. Thanks to him, Israeli officialdom agreed to an initiative to bring the Iranians of his acquaintance to Israel at the state’s expense. It was under these auspices that Al-e Ahmad and his wife, the feminist litterateur Simin Daneshvar, came to Israel. Daneshvar, who was more advanced than her husband in years as well as literary ability, would later contribute the first novel by an Iranian woman to the modern Persian canon. She, too, entertained an interest in Israel, though not with her husband’s intensity.

Though the popular imagination today may strain to conceive of, say, regular air travel between Tehran and Tel Aviv, in the era of the Shah, this was hardly remarkable. El Al airliners had, in fact, regularly plied the skies between the two cities. It was true that the Shah’s sensitivity to domestic and Arab opinion kept Iran and Israel from ever establishing full ambassadorial relations, but Tehran and Jerusalem still enjoyed a friendly, if quiet, association. So if it was not remarkable that the Israeli flag was once a fixture of the Tehran cityscape (flying as it did over Israel’s de facto embassy, on what today is pointedly called “Palestine Street”), what was remarkable was that it was probably disciples of Jalal Al-e Ahmad who stormed the already-evacuated embassy in 1979, replaced the Israeli flag with the PLO’s, and turned over the keys of the building to Yasser Arafat.

Al-e Ahmad’s Israeli itinerary, which Rafiah plotted for him, took him and Daneshvar to the country’s main visitor haunts and cities. They watched a stage production of War and Peace in Tel Aviv, lodged for two days at kibbutz Ayelet HaShahar in the Galilee, and toured Yad Vashem. Two custom features of their trip are also of interest: Al-e Ahmad visited the Israeli Ministry of Education, which entertained him at a vinous lunch, and Daneshvar twice lectured at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Each stop on the itinerary seemed to find the excitable Al-e Ahmad seized by a different emotion. At Yad Vashem, this, not unexpectedly, was grief. His travelogue tells of his being moved to tears by the poignancy of the museum guide’s remarks. Yad Vashem, though, was not Al-e Ahmad’s introduction to the Holocaust. He had earlier made a study of the subject for his own enlightenment—reading the Nuremberg proceedings, for example—well before his visit to Israel was ever in prospect. Al-e Ahmad’s sorrow over “the 6 million Jews who were slaughtered in the crematoria of a Europe leprous with fascism” is all the more striking when contrasted with the denial, trivialization, and mockery of the Holocaust by his disciples in the Islamic Republic.

Al-e Ahmad had also been interested in kibbutzim long before opportunity offered for him to visit one. It was this “cornerstone of the House of Israel,” as he calls it in the travelogue, that had ignited his interest in Israel in the first place. After leaving Iran’s communist Tudeh party in the late ’40s, he and his fellow defectors discovered in the kibbutz a superior alternative to the Soviet kolkhoz, the repressive Russian version of an agricultural collective. This was in 1948, he says, from which point he and his circle were “regular consumers of Israeli newspapers and magazines and pamphlets.” His fascination with Israel that the kibbutz had inspired later broadened to an interest in Jews, an interest he nourished by reading the Hebrew Bible. Daneshvar, for her part, likewise saw the kibbutz as a model. Thus does Ayelet HaShahar’s guestbook preserve an entry she recorded (discovered by Israeli historian Lior Sternfeld) that says as much: “As I see it, the kibbutz is the answer to the problem of all the countries, including our own.”

Al-e Ahmad did not just see the kibbutz as a model for Iranian emulation; he saw Israel itself this way. In his view, Israel had mastered the formula of modernizing without Westernizing: Israelis, in their self-respect, had embraced the tools and technologies of the modern industrial West and made significant advances as a result. But they did this without, if the biblical allusion may be permitted, selling their Jewish birthright for a mess of Western pottage. This is what made Israel “the best of all exemplars of how to deal with the West.”

Another Israeli synthesis he thought Iran could learn from was Israeli society’s fusion of East and West. To him, as far as East and West were concerned, in Israel the twain not only met, they mingled in harmony. “They have poured East and West together in one narrow chalice.” Exactly what he meant by this—beyond Israel’s absorption of immigrants from the East and West—he does not specify. In any case, it seems that, to Al-e Ahmad, Israel’s equilibrium between Jewish culture and Western technology and between East and West more generally was part of a larger Israeli knack for integration—whether of immigrants from different cultures, of religion into society, of socialism and laissez-faire, or of democracy and the nation-state. Whatever Israel’s failures on each of these counts, Al-e Ahmad found more to commend than to criticize.

But criticize he does, albeit not without contradicting himself. If, in one place, Israel is described as “a miracle … whose leaders march onward in the name of something loftier than human rights,” in another it is called a “coarsely realized indemnity for the fascists’ sins.” This latter description is his own take on the familiar charge that Israel is Western compensation for the Holocaust drawn from the Palestinians’ bank account. In this telling, the Palestinians are “the victims of the victims,” as Edward Said would later put it. But if Al-e Ahmad believes that the Holocaust was “the West’s sin, and I, an Easterner, am paying the price,” this seems a price that, on balance, he was pleased to pay. “I, who suffered [this way] at the hands of these rootless Arabs,” he writes, “am happy with the presence of Israel in the East.” Here, then, he exchanges his empathy with the Palestinians as common victims of the West for empathy with the Jews as common victims of the Arabs.


Yet the travelogue’s fifth and final chapter, purportedly written in July 1967, four years after the rest of the work and a month after the Six-Day War, is less a contradiction than a thoroughgoing about-face. Whereas the first four chapters of the book are, for the most part, a tribute to Israel, the fifth chapter is a venomous coda that denounces Israel and, yes, Jews. In contrast to the preceding chapters, which are free of anti-Semitism, the last is a digest of pretty much every anti-Semitic conceit the modern imagination, in all its luridness, has devised: “The French press is in the hands of Jews”; “Jews manage all the television transmitters in New York (13 networks), and most of the publishing houses and newspapers”; Israel has “the support of Wall Street capitalists and the Rothschild Bank”; “Jewish people are frugal, of course. We know this from long ago”; “It is Zionism that is dangerous, for it is the other side of the coin of Nazism and fascism.”

Although it is true that after the Six-Day War some Iranian intellectuals who had sympathized with Israel soured on it, there is good reason to suspect that the travelogue’s bizarrely incongruous fifth chapter is either a fabrication or, at least, a distortion perpetrated by Shams Al-e Ahmad, Jalal’s brother. Shams, who had falsely claimed his brother had been murdered by the Shah’s secret police, was one of Jalal’s literary executors and one of Khomeini’s appointees to lead the postrevolutionary Committee of Cultural Revolution. In 1984, he had the travelogue published in full for the first time under a title he himself had conceived, Journey to the Land of the Angel of Death (a pun on “Israel” because in Islam—as well as in Judaism—Azrael is the Angel of Death).

Shams’ own zealotry, his devotion to Khomeini, and the fact that the complete travelogue first saw the light of publication in the Israel-phobic Islamic Republic are not the only circumstances that point to his possible authorship of more than just the title. Apart from the discrepancies of content and date, the fifth chapter further differs in its diction (which is more ornate) and in its form (which is epistolary).

But is it possible that Shams was not following the example of Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche, Frederich’s sister and literary executor, who interlarded the Nietzsche Archive with Nazi-inspired falsifications she then attributed to her late brother? Unlikely as it is, for all the last chapter’s anomalies, it is indeed possible that all five chapters were by the same hand. Perhaps the best evidence in favor of its authenticity is the erratic temper of Al-e Ahmad’s mind itself. As an intellectual, Al-e Ahmad was impulsive, inconsistent, and overwrought, so changing allegiances was not out of character for him. Even his famous advocacy of Islam was the last in a series of flirtations with several other doctrines. Daneshvar acknowledges this in Jalal’s Sunset, her elegiac memoir of her marriage, observing that “his partial return to religion” had come after he “had already tried Marxism, socialism, and to a certain extent, existentialism.”

Quite apart from this, Al-e Ahmad’s life was a profile in paradox. He was a detractor of the West who longed to live in Western Europe, a self-proclaimed feminist who badly mistreated his wife, a champion of Islam who led a decidedly un-Islamic lifestyle, an opponent of the Shah who worked in the monarchy’s service for a time, and a former critic of the mullahs who came to see them as the saviors of his country. Not for nothing, then, does Daneshvar wonder in Jalal’s Sunset, “Are all men a bundle of contradictions, or was it only Jalal?”

Whatever the authorship of the travelogue’s last chapter, it nevertheless remains that an Iranian writer who helped lay the foundation for a state consecrated to Israel’s destruction had visited and, at least at one time, admired the Jewish State. And if this is ironic or contradictory, then it fits smoothly into a history of relations between Iran and Israel and between Iran and Jews more generally that has been defined by irony and contradiction.

The history of the Jews of Iran is a case in point. Nowhere else in the Muslim world did Jews both suffer so grievously and flourish so thoroughly. Forced conversions, pogroms, blood libels, and discriminatory legislation embittered the lot of Iranian Jews for centuries only to give way to the era of the Shah and his father (1925-1979), during which Iranian Jews enjoyed full civil equality, seldom met with violence, and even thrived to the point that by the 1970s, as the Iranian-born Israeli scholar David Menashri speculates, “on per capita terms they may well have been the richest Jewish community in the world.” If the likes of Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad revel in denying the Holocaust, another of Iran’s sons saved many Jews from the Nazis’ death machine in the 1940s: While serving at the Iranian embassy in Paris, Abdol Hossein Sardari issued more than a thousand passports to Jews in France, thereby reducing the number of victims of a genocide the Islamic Republic insists did not happen. And if Iran’s government, more than any of its counterparts in the Middle East, is notorious for its anti-Semitic pronouncements and initiatives (e.g., the sponsorship of conferences that deny the Holocaust and of cartoon contests that ridicule it), a 2014 poll by the ADL found that Iran’s people are the least anti-Semitic in the world’s most anti-Semitic region. So, in light of all these paradoxes, maybe an Iranian intellectual who both admired Israel and inspired the Iranian Revolution is not so strange after all.


Read more about 40 years of the Iranian Revolution in Tablet’s special series this week.

Scott Abramson is a historian of the modern Middle East and the senior research officer at the Center for Israel Education.

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