The entrance to the Hamadan Shrine of Esther and Mordechai, 1972. (Elias “Yassi” Gabbay; courtesy of Diarna)
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A Reply To ‘Reading Megillah in Tehran’

Asking whether Jews in Iran are really free to celebrate

Karmel Melamed
March 20, 2014
The entrance to the Hamadan Shrine of Esther and Mordechai, 1972. (Elias "Yassi" Gabbay; courtesy of Diarna)

Last week, Tablet ran an article by Shai Secunda on how Jews in Iran celebrate Purim. While I have no arguments against his biblical assessments of the Book of Esther, he wrongly portrayed the status of Jews in Iran today in a positive light. As an Iranian Jewish journalist who speaks Farsi fluently and has been regularly reporting on the Iranian Jewry worldwide for nearly 15 years, I have seen, heard and learned firsthand of the very tragic reality that plagues the lives of the Jews who live today under Iran’s totalitarian Islamic regime.

My primary problem with Secunda’s article is his claim that “many thousands of Jews continue to freely make their lives in the Islamic Republic.” But Jews in Iran do not truly have free lives in Iran to practice their faith. According to the Iranian Ministry of Education’s laws, religious minorities in Iran can teach religious education, but the ministry must first approve all textbooks and course work. For Jews the teaching of the Hebrew language is prohibited in religious schools. It is hard to believe how Secunda or any other person would believe that Jews are truly living free lives in Iran with the harsh and discriminatory laws they have to live under.

Iranian Jews have faced more executions, more imprisonments, more torture by the current Iranian regime since 1979 than during the reign of the late Shah. According to a 2004 report prepared by Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian Jewish activist who heads the Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, based in Los Angeles, the Jewish community in Iran lives in constant fear for its security amid threats from terrorist Islamic factions. The regime’s thugs keep a tight grip on the Jewish community in Iran; if the Jews step out of line in Iran their lives are at immediate risk. Such was the case in 2000, when 13 Jews from the city of Shiraz were arrested on trumped-up charges of being supposed spies for Israel and the U.S. The penalty for treason by any person, especially a non-Muslim, in Iran is death. Only intense pressure from the U.S. and Europe on Iran during the case of the Shiraz 13 ultimately convinced the regime not to execute the Jews.

Another major problem is the article’s depiction of “Jews publicly practicing their religion and living relatively full lives.” Again, nothing could be further from the truth. The Iranian regime’s laws permit religious minorities to pray inside their few houses of worship or their private homes. However, it is illegal for Christians to sound their bells or for Jews to sound their horns. Moreover, according to my interviews with Nikbakht and other Iranian Jewish leaders in the U.S., it is illegal for anyone other than a Muslim to pray aloud or in any way that Muslims can hear it. Likewise, I have interviewed countless Iranian Jewish leaders in Los Angeles and in Tehran who have informed me that the Iranian regime forces Jews to keep their Jewish day schools open on the Sabbath. Is this really freedom of religion? It sounds more like a totalitarian crackdown on Judaism. Secunda relies on the words of an unnamed Iranian rabbi who recently emigrated and who claims Jews practice their religion freely in Iran. Does Secunda expect us to believe an anonymous Iranian rabbi he interviewed? Or do we believe the thousands of Jews who have fled Iran in recent years, the scores of Iranian Jewish leaders in the U.S. who tell us otherwise?

What about looking at the Iranian regime’s laws themselves that clearly restrict the practice of Judaism in Iran? In February 2011 the Associated Press and even Iranian-state run television broadcasted violent demonstrations outside the Shrine of Esther’s tomb in the Iranian city of Hamadan. Hundreds of radical Islamic “Basiji” thugs with pickaxes and shovels in hand were ready to destroy Esther’s shrine in front of television cameras and called for the destruction of the site which symbolized the evil of “Jewish Zionism.” They ultimately removed the Star of David that appeared on the front gate of the shrine during that violent riot. According to Nikbakht, as well as Jews living in Hamadan today whom I have interviewed, the land which the shrine resides on and the nearby Jewish cemetery—which has been there for nearly 2,000 years—has been expropriated by the Iranian regime in recent years. Secunda blindly wants us to believe that these were “relatively minor disturbances,” but the regime is trying its hardest to erase whatever Jewish history and traces of Purim exist in Iran today.

Secunda tries to whitewash the serious dangers Jews in Iran face today by claiming they only face “occasional anti-Semitic flare-ups.” Again this statement is just plain wrong. In November 2012, I personally reported on the case of Toobah Nehdaran, a 57-year-old married Jewish woman, brutally murdered and her body mutilated by radical Islamic thugs in the Iranian city of Isfahan within the Jewish ghetto. Nehdaran’s family members called Iranian Jewish leaders in Los Angeles and described the brutality in which her hands and feet were bound and then cut up into pieces in a manner that is typical in ritual Islamic slaughter of non-Muslims. If Secunda really believes Nehdaran’s heinous murder by Islamic thugs is only an “anti-Semitic flare-up,” then he is living in a fairytale land of make-believe. If this incident was only a minor flare-up and the Jews of Iran live in freedom, then why have Nehdaran’s killers not been brought to justice yet by the Iranian authorities? Why has the Iranian regime swept this incident under the rug? This is just one example of the daily brutality and regular anti-Semitism Jews face in Iran. Secunda needs to come down from his ivory tower of academia to see and hear about the countless hateful and very real dangerous incidents committed against Jews in Iran every day.

Karmel Melamed is a Southern California-based journalist.