Earlier this week, the government of Iran unveiled a new monument in the capital of Tehran commemorating the Jewish soldiers who died fighting for the Islamic Republic in the grueling 1980 to 1988 Iran-Iraq War. This comes as a surprise to many, both for demographic reasons—of the conflict's million-plus casualties, only a handful were Jews—and because of Iran's international representation as a virulently anti-Semitic nation. But the monument points towards the little-known history of Iran's mild tolerance towards its sizable native Jewish community, and the minority's courtship by President Hassan Rouhani's year-old administration.
The monument's commemoration, attended by Iranian Jews and Muslim clerics alike, featured a banner with images of fallen Jewish soldiers, honoring them as martyrs. Amidst remembrances, such as laying wreaths at the foot of the memorial, the event featured an appearance by one high-ranking member of the national government: Vice Speaker of the Majlis (Parliament) Mohammad Hassan Aboutorabi-Fard. Standing at a dais flanked by an Iranian flag and a picture of a menorah, the bigwig delivered a speech praising Iran's Jews for standing by the country's Islamic regime, denouncing Israeli violence and Western demands for concessions in their nuclear program, and highlighting the common divine origins of Islam and Judaism.
These words of friendship seem at odds given the ruling regime's public track record. During the 1978 to 1979 Revolution, which brought the Islamic Republic to power, the leader of the Jewish community was executed and upwards of 60,000 of the country's 100,000 Jews fled bigoted persecution (many arriving in Israel, New York, and Los Angeles). Never a major force in the now-80-million-man, vastly Shi'a Muslim nation, since the Revolution only 9,000 to 30,000 remain, largely restricted to enclaves in Isfahan, Shiraz, and Tehran.
The Islamic Republic has subsequently arrested or harassed dozens of Jews, and allegedly executed over 20, on accusations of spying for national archenemy Israel. Over the course of his 2005 to 2013 presidency, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad famously denied the Holocaust, while his vice president, Mohammad Reza Rahimi, accused Jews of being drug dealers. This and other vitriolic (but sometimes mistranslated and misrepresented) statements led then-Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu to in 2007 directly compare Iran to Nazi Germany. The equation has not been helped by continued signs of clandestine operations, open rhetoric, and public sentiment violently condemning Israel—specifically its Jewish regime and majority.
Many Iranian Jews and observers, however, view their Revolution-era persecution as an anomaly in a long history of tolerance, dating back to at least the 8th century BC and reaching its peak just before 1978. They point out that, upon his return from exile in Paris, the nation's first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, declared the Jews a protected people and Iranian citizens, ending the era's reactionary violence against them. He allowed them to maintain their own communal organizations, such as their numerous synagogues, Hebrew schools, a Jewish Library with thousands of manuscripts, and more. One seat in the 290-member Majlis is reserved for a Jewish representative (alongside four other seats for Christian and Zoroastrian minorities). In 2006, Maurice Motamed, then the Jewish representative in the Majlis with a good track record of pushing for and attaining incremental legal equality for Jews, even publicly challenged Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial. And despite the two nations' hostilities, many Iranian Jews report they are able to travel freely to visit their relatives in Israel.
Popular sentiment towards Jews is also more positive than one might expect. Earlier this year, the anti-Semitism watchdog Anti-Defamation League released polling data showing that Iran was the least anti-Semitic nation in the Middle East. Although 56 percent expressed some negative view about Jews, this pales to 69 percent of Turks and 93 percent of Palestinians. (Or, for better comparison, note that only 18 percent of Iranians believed Jews should just stop talking about the Holocaust already, whereas 22 percent of Americans held this opinion.) Even during the worst anti-Jewish violence in 1978 and 1979, the nation never scourged its Jewish population as thoroughly as did Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, Syria, and Yemen, leaving Iran with the region's second-largest Jewish population after Israel. And for all his posturing about Israel, President Ahmadinejad's office still donated significant sums to Tehran's Jewish Hospital.
There is some evidence that Ahmadinejad himself was born Jewish or is of recent Jewish descent, and his bombastic rhetoric may be compensatory populist drivel.
Although most of the Jewish participants in the Iran-Iraq war were probably roped in via conscription, this relative tolerance, and the long history of cultural assimilation and Iranian self-identification amongst Jews may explain their shows of support for the Islamic Republic and reluctance to respond to incentive-based invitations to immigrate to Israel.
"We are not tenants in this country," summed up Camak Morsadegh, the Jewish Majlis representative since 2008, in a recent statement. "We are Iranians, and we have been for 30 centuries."
Some of this support and acceptance of the Islamic regime may be overstated. Observers note that many Jews still struggle with negative depictions in the media and the popular (if not official) conflation of Judaism with Israel. More alienated from their Muslim neighbors than in the past, often viewed as spies, and legally protected but far from equal to other Iranians, there's plenty for Iranian Jews to take issue with. Yet viewing the out-and-out persecution of the unprotected Baha'i faith, many may hold their tongues to maintain what rights they have.
Still, the recently unveiled monument goes beyond tenuous tolerance—and far beyond the low bar set by President Ahmadinejad. It seems to be part of a campaign by President Rouhai to woo and visibly demonstrate his respect for this minority. Last year, the Rouhani administration for the first time allowed Jewish schools to close on Shabbat. He also invited Morsadegh to accompany him as one of two Majlis representatives to New York for the annual United Nations Summit. And although it's unclear whether a tweet attributed to the President wishing all Jews a happy Rosh Hashanah in 2013 was authentic, his Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has vocally condemned Holocaust denial on social media and beyond in the face of hardline opposition. This year Rouhani also donated $400,000 to Tehran's Jewish Hospital.
"The [Rouhani] government has listened to our grievances and requests," said Tehran Jewish Association leader Homayoun Samiah recently. "That we are being consulted is an important step forward."
This monument and all that precedes it doesn't mean that Rouhani's about to play dreidel with Netanyahu this week, or break out a Haggadah in the Majlis come spring. It's certainly no reflection on state policy towards Israel. But it's a welcome gesture for Iranian Jews, and a giant I Am Not Ahmadinejad road sign to international readers that won't ruffle too many feathers amongst the hard liners. It's no Hanukkah miracle, but it's something nice to close the year on.
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