The Fascinating History and Political Lives of Jews in Iran

As American Jews and non-Jews we should be outraged at how the Trump administration is endangering Iranian civil society and making their efforts for change much harder.

(Note: this was published on December 24, 2019.  It’s a side of the threat raised by the assassination of a prominent Iranian general under orders from Donald Trump that will not be covered by the mainstream media – the threat it poses to Christian and Jewish minorities).

codepink_1On December 14, 2019, a white male entered the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills, vandalizing the sanctuary. He unrolled Torah scrolls, strew them across the floor, and tore prayer books. Four days later, police arrested 24-year-old Nathaniel Anton of Millersville, Pennsylvania and charged him with vandalism of religious property, commercial burglary, and committing a hate crime. As I heard about this latest antisemitic attack, this time on a Persian synagogue, I thought back to my recent visit to the country of Iran this past October.

The first association that comes to mind when invoking Iran is not usually one of synagogues. Most would be surprised to know that after Israel, the Islamic Republic is home to the largest population of Jews in the Middle East. The Jewish populations numbers somewhere between 9,000 (according to the 2012 Iranian census) and 15,000 (according to an August 2018 interview with the Iranian Jewish Community published in USA Today). As I prepared to lead a CODEPINK peace delegation to Iran, one of my goals was to explore Iran’s Jewish community.

Given that the Iranian state’s imposition of Islamic law on its entire population, the crippling sanctions imposed by the US, the President Trump’s travel ban preventing Iranians from visiting their relatives in the US, and Israel’s open invitation to help Iranian Jews immigrate, I was anxious to discover why in the world Iran’s population of Jews choose to remain.

On the first morning after our arrival, our group of 12, one-third of whom were Jewish, boarded our tour bus to visit Iran’s largest synagogue, the Yusef Abad synagogue in Tehran. The first thing we noticed was the lack of security. Walk by any synagogue in Manhattan and you will find at least one security guard, usually more. Last year walking by the Københavns synagogue in Copenhagen, Denmark, I was struck by how the religious sanctuary was like an unwelcoming fortress. The entire building was surrounded by an iron gate and the entrance had an armed guard and far more defenses than you find in most airports. Iran’s Yusef Abad synagogue, however, had no security guard, or even a local congregant posted at the front door. The door was unlocked and we walked right in. The lack of security, we learned, was because synagogues in Iran are safe places.

Our visit took place on the last day of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot and we were able to witness the ceremony of shaking the lulav, while the worshipers circled around an ancient Torah in prayer style of Sephardic Jews (Jews from Spain, Portugal, and other places).




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