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The First Jew I Met in Iran

Face to face with the challenges of living a double life under the Iranian theocracy

Majid Rafizadeh
January 17, 2019
Photo: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images
Abrishami Synagogue, TehranPhoto: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images
Abrishami Synagogue, TehranPhoto: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

This week, Tablet looks back on 40 years of the Iranian Revolution.


In my early 20s, I taught university in Iran under the rule of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. At the time, it was strictly forbidden, on pain of termination, to discuss human rights in class. However, I found it impossible not to bring up the topic in one of my classes. Young minds needed to know the truth, and I hoped that their reactions to the subject matter would generate new ideas and new hope in their generation. While I described to my students the terrible tragedy of the Holocaust, something grabbed my attention at the back of the class.

The class was segregated by gender, with boys sitting in the front rows of desks, and the girls seated in the back. One of my female students was crying. She cried so quietly that I might not have noticed, but for the subtle tremble of her shoulders. Small in size and wearing a gray scarf and mandatory Islamic dress, no one else noticed her crying. I was stunned by how emotional she was, and walked up to her with some tissues. I couldn’t help but wonder what had upset her to such a degree. At the time she didn’t offer me an explanation, so I returned to teaching the class.

Later, I learned that my student, Sara, had relatives on her grandfather’s side who died in the Holocaust. I was saddened and surprised. Many questions raced through my mind: Is she Jewish? The shock of that thought brought on another, important question. Why am I surprised to have met a Jew? Why did I suddenly begin feeling as if I had met a foreigner, someone from another country? Her relatives had actually lived longer than mine in Iran. Why was she hesitant to say that she was Jewish?

I soon came to understand the reason she felt the need to keep herself hidden. They were the same feelings that many other people commonly felt in the region when they were faced with the decision of whether to reveal that they were Jewish.

First, there are systematic and concerted efforts made from the top down by the theocratic regime and several other governments in the region to eliminate Jewish history. There is also a strong push to incite antagonism against the Jewish people.

The regime openly encourages debates that revolve around casting doubt on and questioning the authenticity of the Holocaust. They ratchet up anti-Israel slogans, and celebrate national anti-Israel holidays such as Quds Day. They promote and accept Holocaust deniers such as the former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the intricate teachings that may imply that Jews are impure (najis).

All of these actions, combined with many more forms of intimidation enacted by the regime, not only create a hostile environment for Jewish communities inside Iran, but also abroad.

Other examples of disrespect and fearmongering that the regime engages in include inviting people from around the world to participate in Holocaust cartoon competitions with a nearly $50,000 prize. This is sponsored by two organizations that are directly or indirectly linked to the Iranian government. The Owj Arts and Media Organization is funded by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the Sarcheshmeh Cultural Center is supported by the Islamic Development Organization (IDO), funded by the parliament.

To have the ruling leaders torment them in this way only further isolates the Jewish community and puts them at risk of being targeted by both extremists and regime loyalists.

These policies force many families and individuals to have two different lives in private and public, two different names, and maybe two different religions. This, in turn, breeds a deep mistrust toward the Jewish community, which only enhances the “them-versus-us” culture that has been building for decades. A deep division runs through the society, leaving interaction unstable at best, and potentially explosive at worst.

Despite generations of their families living on the same land, and the rich history and influence that they have had in the region, many Jews do not feel that they are safe or a welcome part of the society. One man I spoke to, who asked that his last name not be revealed, said he does not tell people about his life. This isolation is no longer just physical, but mental and emotional, a state of existence that could create long-lasting psychological trauma.

Second, the Iranian regime promotes its anti-Semitic and anti-Israel narrative through various means including the curriculum taught in schools, commentary on social media, news reports and entertainment on television, and nonstop political rhetoric. Its narrative does not stop at the borders of the Middle East. Lately, it has attracted an audience in the West as well.

From the perspective of these Islamist leaders, Jews, like other religious minorities, are regarded as a potential threat to the regime’s national security and national identity. They may be viewed as outsiders who disrupt the regime’s attempt to homogenize the population for easier control.

One reason behind these perceptions of Iran’s theocratic establishment is that the roots of Jews in Iran date back to a pre-Islamic era, an era that the Iranian government attempts to de-emphasize or erase from the memory of the society. Another reason is rooted in the notion that for the Iranian regime, Jews and Israel are mingled in one category; if you are Jewish, the thinking goes, then you are an Israeli. Since the Iranian regime is opposed to Israel’s existence, Iranian authorities view the Jewish people through prisms of suspicion. They are viewed as Israeli allies, conspirators, and loyalists to Israel and the United States, not the Iranian government.

Some Jews secretly confess that they are indeed living two separate lives. In their private life they practice their faith, but in public they are extremely cautious, avoiding saying anything about their lives. Out of fear or in order to survive economically, socially, and academically, some may convert to Islam on the surface but continue to practice Judaism at home. Some have two names, one Muslim, one Jewish.

Despite this solid bias against Jews, in order to enhance its global legitimacy in some circumstances and events, the Iranian regime has boasted about tolerance, and pointed to the fact that there are Jews in Iran, as a sign that the regime is cosmopolitan and civil. Depending on the circumstance the Jewish community may be paraded past foreign governments as an example of progress, or trampled down by the Iranian regime as a toxic presence in the country and region.

Not surprisingly, I was admonished for speaking about human rights and the Holocaust in my class. I never saw Sara after the last day of class. She took the time to give me a thank-you card. She was carrying an English book with a title suggesting religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence. I hoped in that moment that I’d reached her, and my decision to speak about human rights had aided in the liberation of her mind, and hopefully the minds of her classmates.

When I flipped the card open to read it, the words inside brought tears to my eyes. It read, “My Hebrew name is Yaffa.”


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

Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American political scientist, President of the International American Council, and the author ofPeaceful Reformation in Iran’s Islam. His Twitter feed is @Dr_Rafizadeh.