Iran's Jewish Population Belies Claims Of Tehran's Genocidal Intent

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by Tyler Durden
Saturday, Mar 02, 2024 - 12:40 AM

By Brian McGlinchey via Stark Realities

For decades, Israeli government officials — chief among them, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — have accused Iran of plotting a new Holocaust against the millions of Jews who call Israel home. Netanyahu has said Iran is “planning another genocide against our people,” and wants to “destroy another six million plus Jews.”

Western journalists are quick to quote these claims, yet slow to publicize contradictory evidence — such as the fact that Iran is home to the Middle East’s second-largest population of Jews, who freely practice their faith, peacefully coexist within the Islamic republic and even have a seat in the legislature.

It’s said that “charity begins at home.” If we’re to believe Netanyahu and his confederates in America, wouldn’t an Iranian genocide against Jews begin there too?

Iranian Jews at a Tehran synagogue (Reuters/Raheb Homavandi/TIMA)

Having long been subjected to the genocidal-Iran narrative, the average American probably assumes there’s no such thing as an Iranian Jew. However, according to varying estimates, there are 9,000 to 20,000 of them in a land where the Jewish presence goes back nearly 3,000 years.

That’s well lower than the 100,000 or more Jews who lived in Iran in the years leading up to the 1979 revolution. The uncertainty of what life would be like in an Islamic republic — culturally, economically and in terms of personal safety — prompted tens of thousands to leave for Israel, the United States and other countries.

Many of them were alarmed when Habib Elghanian, a prominent Iranian Jewish industrialist with ties to the deposed Shah, was arrested just a few weeks after the revolution and charged with corruption and spying for Israel. Prosecutors also accused him of soliciting money for the Israeli Defense Forces, and thus being complicit “in murderous air raids against innocent Palestinians.” In May 1979, he was executed by firing squad.

Though Elghanian’s execution shook Iranian Jews, it also precipitated a critical development that has helped assuage their fears ever since.

The day after the execution, two rabbis and four younger intellectual Jews arranged a visit with the Ayatollah Khomeini. By conveying that Iran’s Jews considered themselves Iranian first and would support their fellow citizen’s choice of a new system of government, they hoped to elicit a guarantee against Jews being targeted.

To their surprise, Khomeini welcomed the Jews as VIPs. After a literal standoff that saw the Jewish delegation and the ayatollah both deferentially waiting for the other to take a seat first, they all sat on the floor in a circle.

Khomeini lauded Moses as one of three prophets sent by God to guide humanity. Then, to the great relief of his guests, he drew a sharp distinction between the Israeli government and Iran’s Jews, declaring:

“Moses would have nothing to do with these pharaoh-like Zionists who run Israel. And our Jews, the descendants of Moses, have nothing to do with them either. We recognize our Jews as separate from those godless, bloodsucking Zionists.”

Khomeini then issued a fatwa — an Islamic religious leader’s formal decree — asserting that Jews are a protected minority and forbidding violence against them.

Jews do not, however, hold a fully equal place in Iranian society. Most notably, they may not hold senior government posts or become judges. Jews serve in the Iranian military, but cannot do so as officers. They can’t inherit property from Muslims, but if a member of a Jewish family converts to Islam, that person inherits everything.

Iranian dignitaries at the dedication of a monument to Jewish soldiers who died for Iran in its 8-year war to repel a 1980 invasion by US-backed Iraq (IRNA)

To a great extent, however, Iran’s Jews live much like anyone else in the country, a reality sharply at odds with Western assumptions.

While promoting Zionism or the Israeli government is illegal for anyone, Jews openly display their identity and practice their faith. Iranian Jews wear yarmulkes and prayer shawls in public. Muslims pass by without giving a second glance — after all, Jews’ presence in Iran and Persia goes back nearly three millennia, and the country is home to many important Jewish religious sites.

There are 13 synagogues in Tehran alone. Tourists are surprised to find that, unlike in Europe and elsewhere, Iran's synagogue don’t have locked doors, metal detectors or security guards. Tehran also has a Jewish seminary and a mikveh ritual bath facility.

In 2015, President Hassan Rouhani officially recognized Saturday as the Jewish day of religious observance, freeing Jews to observe their Sabbath (the typical Iranian workweek and school week goes from Saturday to Wednesday with a half-day on Thursday).

An Iranian Jewish woman prays at the Abrishami Synagogue in Tehran (Behrouz Mehri/AFP)

Jews send their kids to Jewish schools, enjoy kosher restaurants and operate Tehran’s oldest charity hospital, where 96% of patients are Muslims. “When I am sick, I go across the street [to the Jewish-run hospital],” a Muslim seminary student told the New York Times. “They might have a different religion, but they are fellow Iranians.”

That sentiment is widely embraced in Iran. In fact, the Anti-Defamation League’s 2014 Global Index of antisemitism (its most recent) found Iranians to be the least antisemitic of any population in the Middle East.

By some indications, Iranian Jews are more accepted by Muslims in Iran than by Jews in Israel. As a third-generation Iranian-Israeli explained to Radio Free Europe, “In Israel, we have racism towards people that came from Islamic states. As a child, I suffered a lot because I’m Persian.”

When wealthy Jewish expatriates in 2007 offered cash rewards of $60,000 per family to entice Iranian Jews to emigrate to Israel, few signed up. The Society of Iranian Jews scoffed, saying “the identity of Iranian Jews is not tradable for any amount of money.”

Jews are guaranteed one of five seats in the Iranian parliament reserved for religious minorities; three more are reserved on behalf of Iran’s hundreds of thousands of Assyrian-Chaldean and Armenian Christians. The government has tolerated public rebukes issued by the Jewish representative and other Jews. For example, in 2006, Jewish MP Maurice Motamed and other Jewish leaders criticized President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for saying Jews “have created a myth in the name of Holocaust, and consider it to be above God, religion and the prophets.”

On the other hand, Iranian Jews’ political stances frequently align with the government’s. When anti-regime protests erupted in 2022, the Tehran Jewish Committee, an umbrella group of organizations, issued a statement condemning them, adding that its members have “always obeyed the position of the Supreme Leader, like our compatriots.”

In October, Jews in five cities participated in rallies against Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza. Some held a sign reading, “Do not commit crimes in the name of Judaism.”

Outsiders reasonably wonder if Jews feel compelled to take such stances to maintain their safe place in society. The Israeli and US governments go a step further, accusing Iran of actively coercing such speech, but they offer nothing to substantiate those allegations.

A New Political Order, Not A New Holocaust

While the existence of Iran’s unmolested Jewish population belies claims that their government is bent on eliminating Jews, any thorough evaluation of those claims must also confront Tehran’s sharply-worded statements against the State of Israel.

Iran doesn’t recognize Israel as a state and, ever since 1979, Iranian ayatollahs, presidents and generals have called for Israel to be “destroyed,” “wiped off the map” or “eliminated.”

While that language can sound like threats of physical destruction, scrutiny of the full quotes almost invariably confirms the speakers are referring to the elimination of the State of Israel as a political entity. Western news outlets, politicians and propagandists, however, often omit the context that makes this distinction clear — if not misquoting the speaker altogether.

Among those opposing Zionism are some ultra-orthodox Jews (Andy Solomon via Middle East Monitor)

Anti-Iran propagandists’ all-time favorite citation springs from a 2005 speech by then-president Ahmadinejad, who was said to have declared that “Israel must be wiped off the face of the map.” The quote became a staple of Iran-hawk rhetoric that’s still employed more than 18 years later — despite the fact that he actually said something quite different: “[Ayatollah Khomeini] said this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.”

In that same speech, titled “The World Without Zionism,” Ahmadinejad listed three other regimes that have ceased to exist — Iran’s own monarchy, the Soviet Union, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq government. As I wrote in 2012:

He wasn’t calling for the annihilation of a population, but for the dismantling of a governing entity. That’s highly antagonistic language, to be sure, but it’s not genocidal—any more than Ronald Reagan’s assertion that “freedom and democracy will leave Marxism and Leninism on the ash heap of history” was a pledge to incinerate the Soviet, Chinese or Cuban people.

Even when current-day news reports include accurate quotes about Iranian bluster, the headlines and leads frequently use shortened quotes that leave a false impression, as was the case with an Associated Press article titled, “Iran leader says Israel a ‘cancerous tumor’ to be destroyed.”

The great many who only scan the headline or first few paragraphs would reasonably think Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was threatening to blast the entire country to smithereens. Only those who dive deeper into the article would find Khamenei actually said, “The Zionist regime is a deadly, cancerous growth and a detriment to this region. It will undoubtedly be uprooted and destroyed.”

When the Iranian government has explicitly threatened a physical attack, look closely and you’re almost certain to find the threat was not to initiate war but to retaliate if Israel strikes first. For example, consider a 2022 Times of Israel article titled, “Iranian general threatens to ‘raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground’.”

You wouldn’t know it from the headline, but the commander of the Iranian ground forces, Kiumars Heydari, was warning against Israeli aggression. He said, “For any mistake made by the enemy, we will raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground by the order of the Supreme Leader.” The Times included that quote, but didn’t include another that reinforces the contingent nature of Heydari’s threat. Referring to the upgrading of Iran’s arsenal, he said, “All this equipment is to respond to the stupid aggressions of the enemies of the Islamic revolution.”

Heydari’s remarks came days after an Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps colonel was shot to death in his car outside his Tehran home. Israel told U.S. officials it had assassinated him, according to an intelligence source cited by the New York Times.

Eliminating Israel: Khamenei Gets Specific

In a 2014 Q&A posted to social media, Ayatollah Khamenei elaborated on his vision of the State of Israel’s elimination. Here are some key excerpts:

  • “The only means of bringing Israeli crimes to an end is the elimination of this regime. And of course the elimination of Israel does not mean the massacre of the Jewish people in this region.”

  • The proper way of eliminating Israel: The original people of Palestine including Muslims, Christians and Jews, wherever they are…take part in a public and organized referendum…Jewish immigrants who’ve been persuaded into emigration to Palestine do not have the right to take part.”

  • “The ensuing government…will decide whether non-Palestinian emigrants…can continue living in Palestine or should return to their home countries.”

  • Until the referendum, Khamenei calls for “resolute and armed resistance,” to be facilitated in part by arming the Israeli-occupied West Bank “like Gaza.”

  • “Unacceptable” solutions include “a classical war by the army of Muslim countries” or “throw[ing] migrated Jews [to the] sea.”

Khamenei’s agenda is undoubtedly hostile to Israel as a governing entity, includes a call for revolutionary violence, and raises the specter of a potential mass expulsion of Jews who migrated to Israel after some unspecified date. However, it isn’t remotely a blueprint for killing “another 6 million” Jews, as Netanyahu and others would have you believe.

It should be noted that many of the world’s Jews —who, like the Iranian government, say the creation of a Jewish ethno-state has victimized Palestinians — also call for an entirely new political order in the land currently controlled by the State of Israel.

Defenders of the status quo in Greater Israel say peaceful coexistence of Muslims and Jews would be impossible in a successor state to Israel. In addition to undermining claims that Iran is genocidal, the enduring, peaceful coexistence of Jews and Muslims in Iran is problematic for that narrative as well — which may help explain why wealthy Israelis tried bribing Iranian Jews into leaving the country behind.

“Death to Israel” and “Death to Traffic”

At Iranian demonstrations and even in parliament, it’s common to hear chants of “Death to Israel” and “Death to America,” the latter phrase originating during the 1979 revolution. These slogans are seized upon by anti-Iran hawks who say it would be foolish not to take Iranians at their word — meaning Iranians want all Israeli and American people to die.

However, when you’re crossing cultural lines, discerning meaning isn’t always so simple.

Travel guru Rick Steves learned this firsthand as he was being driven to the Tehran airport at the end of a 12-day stay. When his car encountered heavy traffic, his driver spontaneously exclaimed, “Death to traffic!”

A perplexed Steves said, “What? I thought it was ‘Death to America’.” His driver explained, “Here in Iran, when something frustrates us and is out of our control, we say ‘death’ to that.” Upon reflection, Steves likened it to an American saying “damn those teenagers,” without really wanting them to burn in eternal hellfire.

That explains the seeming paradox of Iranians chanting “Death to America” while holding a reputation for being extraordinarily welcoming and hospitable to American tourists, or “Death to Israel” while peacefully coexisting with Jews. “Once, a group of [Iranian] women embraced and kissed my American colleague on both cheeks, proudly announcing ‘we love American people,’ before turning around to chant ‘Death to America’,” writes Nazila Fathi.

“When we do use this phrase, it strictly refers to governments, not people,” explains Pontia at My Persian Corner. “Iranians are much better when it comes to differentiating between people and their governments…it’s very clear to us that when we say ‘death to America or ‘down with America’ (or anyplace else), we are solely talking about the government.”

Khamenei has offered his own clarification: “Obviously, by ‘death to America,' we don’t mean death to the American people…it means death to US policies and its arrogance.”

In Iran’s official English-language statements, “death to” is frequently translated as “down with.” However, the Iranian expression is the gift that keeps on giving to Iran hawks from Tel Aviv to Washington, DC.

Israel and US flags burn at an annual Quds Day protest in Iran held to demonstrate solidarity with Palestinians (AP)

None of this is to say that the Iranian government is virtuous, or that it isn’t a major adversary of Israel. Iran calls for the State of Israel’s violent overthrow. It supports Hamas and other organizations that advance that goal. It has praised violent attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians, from shootings in the West Bank to the Oct. 7 Hamas invasion.

However, claims of genocidal intent by the Iranian government are contradicted by the treatment of the country’s own Jews and by close scrutiny of Iran’s supposedly genocidal rhetoric.

As with other geopolitical myths — Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, Iraqi soldiers removing Kuwaiti infants from incubatorsGadhafi dispensing rape-drugs to soldiers — the myth of a genocidal Iranian government is purposefully cultivated: Americans who believe 6 million Israeli Jews are at risk of an Iranian-inflicted genocide are more likely to support the ongoing redistribution of billions of dollars of American wealth and weapons to Israel —despite that aid’s little-known illegality under US law.

Americans persuaded to believe the worst about Iran are also more likely to support hostile policies toward the country, including economic sanctions that, like terrorism, intentionally inflict suffering on innocents.

Those prone to accepting at face value the claims of the Israeli government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should consider that it was Netanyahu who, thirty-two years ago, first claimed Iran was “three to five years” from having a nuclear weapon.

It was Netanyahu who, testifying before the US Congress in 2002, emphatically declared “there is no question whatsoever that Saddam is…advancing towards the development of nuclear weapons — no question whatsoever.”

It was Netanyahu who “guaranteed” that same congressional audience that a regime-change invasion of Iraq would “have enormous, positive reverberations on the region.”

And it was Netanyahu who bragged to West Bank settlers that “America is a thing you can move very easily.”

Having helped “move” America to throw away the lives of more than 4,500 service members in an invasion of Iraq that destabilized the region and caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, Netanyahu, his government and Israel’s fellow travelers inside the United States have long sought to nudge America into a war with Iran too.

If we’re to avoid another catastrophe triggered on false pretenses, take care that your perception of the Iranian menace isn’t moved too easily.

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Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ZeroHedge.