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Sunday, May 07, 2006

The precarious state of Iranian Jews

From the Scotsman:

FOR the dwindling Jewish community in Iran, a sacred ritual is observed at 6.30 every evening as shortwave radios are switched on to listen to the daily Farsi broadcast from Israel.

Since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power last June, life for Iran's 25,000 Jews has become even more precarious as the president defiantly pursues a nuclear policy while declaring Israel should be "wiped off the world map".

Israel has long identified Iran as its biggest threat, and these concerns have grown amid repeated calls by its hard-line president for Israel's destruction.

Last Thursday, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert issued a strongly worded warning that the Jewish state took seriously Iranian threats to wipe out Israel and would defend itself against a country the West suspects of seeking nuclear weapons.

His remarks also came as Western powers sought action by the United Nations to curb Iranian uranium enrichment and other key nuclear processes. "It is becoming a serious matter of concern for Iranian Jews should there be any military action between Iran and Israel," said Israeli broadcaster Menashe Amir.

"The Iranian regime says it does distinguish between Judaism and Zionism, but the local Jewish community knows that is a lie since it has been frequently written by extremists in religious circles that 'every Jew is a Zionist'."

While it is still the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside Israel, a vast number of the population have fled Iran.

The first major movement came in 1948 when the state of Israel was established and the number of Jews in Iran stood at about 150,000. The Islamic revolution in 1979 prompted another movement.

"Every Iranian Jew who had the financial possibility or courage has already left, but there's still a small but flourishing community," said Amir, who moved to Israel from Iran at the age of 20 in 1959. He has been broadcasting for 46 years in Farsi for Israeli state radio.

He is all too familiar with the precarious position of Iranian Jews who are called on by the government to declare their public support for the country's nuclear policy.

"Not to mention, every time Iran publicly condemns Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories, the Jewish community is expected to issue a statement of support," he said.

Even though the regime officially recognises Judaism as an official religious minority and the Jewish community is even allocated a seat in the Iranian parliament, the reality on the ground is different.

Jewish leaders are reluctant to draw attention to incidences of mistreatment of their community, due to fear of government reprisal, along with fear of being arrested or accused of being spies. In 1999, 13 Jews were arrested in the city of Shiraz and charged with spying for Israel. While eventually all were pardoned, it exposed the fragile position of the country's Jewish community.

"While there are Jewish schools, the principals and most of the teachers are Muslim, the Bible is taught in Farsi, not in Hebrew, and the schools are forced to open on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath," Amir said, as he played Hebrew music for his listeners.

"So while the regime declares that there is freedom of religion, it is all just for the sake of appearances."