The Jews Of Iran, Quietly Defying All That's Wrong In The Middle East

An Iranian Jew prays in a synagogue in Shiraz, Iran.
An Iranian Jew prays in a synagogue in Shiraz, Iran.
Claudio Gallo

TEHRAN — Every evening, Youseph walks by the mosque in Tehran’s Fatemi Square. Before heading towards his house, he looks up at the portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran’s current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that are on the walls of the building. Then he crosses the street and descends the hill to where he lives. At the end of a long day, before going to bed, he says a prayer that sounds a little bit different to those who come out of the mosque. "Shema Yisrael..." he begins, saying the first two words of the Torah that declare the Jewish faith in their one God.

Thanks to the deadly enmity that currently exists between Iran and Israel, it’s easy to forget that Jews have been in Iran for thousands of years. Of course, Jews and Israel are not necessarily united — there is even a small group of Jews opposed to a Jewish state — but for the majority, Israel is their idea of home.

Throughout history, Muslims have typically been better to Jews than Christians, but since Israel has taken over Palestinian land, it has led to a long period of conflict and hatred that rages on.

After the 1979 revolution, Iran committed itself to protecting Judaism, but now the Iranian state sees only the Palestinian conflict. Friday prayer sermons in Tehran often end with the chorus "Margh bar Israel" — meaning "death to Israel."

The Jewish state reciprocates, with many Israeli newspapers often devoting lengthy analysis guessing when their leaders will bomb Iranian nuclear power stations. Even some U.S. newspaper investigations have concluded that the director of Mossad was probably behind the death of some Iranian nuclear scientists.

In this exacerbated political climate, the happy life of Iranian Jews is, in fact, an image that is a little "too official." Everybody shares the same oversimplified vision that the world is divided into good and evil, with no room for mediation. The only recent positive sign is that President Hassan Rouhani seems to have extinguished the kind of Holocaust denial that former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad embraced in his speeches.

In the most popular part of south Tehran, not far from the bazaar, there is a famous Jewish institution: Sapir Hospital and Charity Center. It is an old building with white walls on Mostafa Khomeini Street, named after the late son of the imam, but everyone still calls it by the name it had before the revolution: Cyrus Street.

The hospital is named after a Jewish doctor who died in the 1930s fighting the typhus epidemic that decimated the city. Sapir is funded by the Jewish Association in the capital as well as the Islamic State, though both patients and staff are 97% Muslim. The medical director is Ciamak Morsadegh, a surgeon with the physique of a sumo wrestler who is also a member of the Iranian parliament representing the Jewish community.

Representing the minority

Just out of the operating theater, Morsadegh explains that there are about 30,000 Jews in Iran — the largest community in the Middle East after Israel — and half of them live in Tehran. "Every community has its own problems," he says, "But we live well here. There are more than 50 synagogues in the city, and a Jewish ghetto never existed here like it did in Europe. We are free to follow our religion as we please."

"We don’t need security outside synagogues," he adds, "Unlike in other parts of the world. There are a few limitations, however: A Jew can’t get to the higher ranks of the army or state bureaucracy. He will never be a minister or the president."

Military service is mandatory, as for everyone, but there are special permits during Jewish holidays. Among those killed in the Iran-Iraq war were 15 Jews. "Things that really worry us, worry the rest of Iran too: jobs, inflation, the cost of living," he says.

Because of a topographical irony, one of the two kosher restaurants in Tehran is on Palestine Street. The owner, David Shumer, stands at the register. "We’re fine here," he says. "We’re fully integrated in society."

What about visiting Israel? "It’s not difficult. I’ve been there once." It’s still not so easy, though, as permits (especially multiple ones for families) are almost impossible to obtain. The truth is that Islamic authorities fear Israeli spies, and it complicates the relationship irreparably.

On the opposite side of Cyrus Street from the hospital, there is a small synagogue called Molla Hanina. It even has its own Facebook page, though it’s not possible to use Facebook in Iran. "In a synagogue, unlike in a mosque, men and women can pray together," Marjan, 20, proudly explains. Everyone here assures me that they have no problems with the authorities.

Oddly, the tenuous thread that unites the countries seems to be pistachio nuts. Israel is one of the largest consumers, and Iran one of the biggest producers. A few years ago, the Israelis quarreled with the United States to be allowed to continue importing Iranian pistachios. Could nuts actually spark diplomacy someday? Whatever the long shot, it seems to be the only hope.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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