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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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