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t’s 4:00 AM, and the departure

hall in Istanbul is crowded and

humid, bustling with activity

despite the hour, and I’ve resigned

myself to sitting on the floor with

my cup of hot tea, bought mostly to

occupy my hands, which are shak-

ing with nervous excitement.

Three months prior to my mid-

night arrival at Ataturk Airport, I

made the decision to apply for a

journalist visa to go to Iran, without

ever thinking it would really come to

pass. I dreamed of visiting one of the

most elusive Jewish communities in

the world, of getting behind the veil

of this ancient culture, but through

all the arduous paperwork and

embassy interviews that pushed the

process forward, I kept the reality of

entering Iran far from my mind.

Persian Jewry dates back over

2,700 years, to the reign of the Per-

sian Empire in 539 BCE, when

Cyrus the Great conquered Baby-

lon. But despite their proud ances-

try, the Jews of Iran remain isolated

and largely unknown to and undis-

covered by the rest of the world.

At its height, just ahead of the

Islamic Revolution, the Jewish

community in Iran numbered ap-

proximately 80,000 individuals, and

they were thriving. Overwhelming-

ly middle- or upper-middle class,

the community boasted a wide array

of educational and cultural institu-

tions alongside at least 30 active

synagogues in Tehran alone. While

the ancient Jewish community had

been growing steadily under the

protection of the Shah, the Islamic

Revolution brought on mass emi-

gration, reducing the community to

a tenth of its original size.


he advantages the Jews experi-

enced under the rule of the

Shah—high socioeconomic status,

strong ties to Israel and the United

States—became liabilities in the

age of the ayatollahs. As in many

other dark eras in Jewish history,

the Jews were accused of stealing

the country’s treasures, and flyers

were circulated throughout Tehran

urging vengeance against them.

There was mass confiscation of

wealth along with rampant anti-

Semitism and violence against the

Jewish population, and as the

streets filled up with hordes of peo-

ple chanting “death to America”

and “death to Israel,” many Persian

Jews fled to those very countries,

bringing what they could with them

to start a new life far from the home

they once knew.

Some of the Jews who remained

in Iran decided to embrace the rev-

olution and the nation’s new rulers.

Some 5,000 of them even took part

in welcoming Ayatollah Khomeini,

the future Supreme Leader of the

country, when he returned from

exile in Paris on February 1, 1979.

The Jewish welcome committee led

by then-Chief Rabbi Yedidia Shofet

carried banners supporting of the

Ayatollah and chanted “Jews and

Muslims are brothers” as a sign of

allegiance and hope. The hope did-

n’t last long, however. Habib

Elghanian, the official head of the

Jewish community of Iran, was

publicly executed later that year,

accused of spying for Israel.

The flight is half-empty and I’m

fiddling with my black hijab, care-

fully folded up in my purse, my

headphones filled with the music of

Israeli singer Ehud Banai, as if I am

holding on to the comforts of home

until the very last minute. As the

plane descends there is a rush for

the bathrooms by women hurrying

to put on their head-coverings be-

fore reaching Imam Khomeini In-

ternational Airport and the regime’s

ever-watchful eye. I join them, fold-

ing and pinning the fabric as I’ve

practiced in front of the YouTube

tutorial, and when I meet my own

gaze I do a double take at the

woman in the bathroom mirror, im-

mediately more humbled by the

heavy cloth and the weight of the

meaning it holds.

As I am traveling to Iran as a

journalist, I am appointed a driver

and a translator, both employed by

the Ministry of Culture and Islamic

Guidance. It’s a mandatory service,

and these young men are to stay by

my side throughout the 20 days of

my stay. I am picked up at my hotel

each morning and dropped off at

my door at night, and at the end of

each day there is a debriefing at the

ministry where we are taken aside

and spoken to separately in order to

make sure our stories match.

I’m there to meet with the Jewish

community, and this involves a

costly and time-consuming process

to get a hold of the necessary per-

mits to do so. Tehran is the Jewish

center of the country, housing a

deeply traditional and religious

community with its own schools,

restaurants, and religious institu-

tions, as well as a Jewish parlia-

mentarian chosen to represent the

group’s interests in the Iranian par-

liament. The Jewish minority, now

consisting of approximately 15,000

individuals with organized commu-

nities in Tehran, Esfahan, and

Shiraz, is a protected group accord-

ing to the constitution of the

Islamic Republic of Iran, alongside

Christians and Zoroastrians. The

13th paragraph of the constitution

states that Jews, “within the limits

of the law, are free to perform their

religious rites and ceremonies, and

to act according to their own canon

in matters of personal affairs and

religious education.”

The “limits of the law” men-

tioned by the constitution is a larger

issue than the humble passage lets

on, as it applies to the Sharia law

that has ruled the country since

1979. In other words, despite being

a recognized minority, Iranian Jews

are still ruled by Islamic law, and if

broken the consequences of that law

are as permanent as they are dire.

One example is the oppressive in-

heritance law, which states that any

Jew who converts to Islam auto-

matically inherits the assets of their

extended family, potentially impov-

erishing many Jewish families.

During my meeting with the Jewish

MP, Dr. Moreh Sedegh, he told me

that the issue is being addressed in

talks between him and the regime.

But should it be solved, it does not

change the framework that holds

these Jews hostage or the regime

that is the arbiter of their fate.


’m taken to the Jewish communi-

ty center in Tehran, located on the

third floor of a modern stone build-

ing on an unassuming corner street

in north Tehran, which is home to

most of the city’s 7,000 Jews. I see

Hebrew writing on the walls, an old

man is making chai in a quiet kitch-

enette, and when I greet him with

shalom aleichem

he stares at me

blankly and then quickly turns his

back. My Muslim interpreter shrugs

and points to a room at the end of

the corridor, where a man in a bright

blue suit is talking on the phone in

smooth and rapid Farsi.

He is Yoram Haroonian, who

heads both the Jewish central com-

mittee and the Abrishami Syna-

gogue down the street. I hand him

my Swedish identity card and he

says, “Recite the Shema prayer.”

I silently curse myself for never

properly learning the


section. I stare straight at him as I

struggle through the lines with

increasing discomfort, my govern-

ment handler observing the ex-

change with a subtle mix of annoy-

ance and amusement.

“Should I call you Annika or

Channa?” Yoram asks as I finish,

smiling for the very first time, and I

exhale when I realize I have passed

the initial test.

Yoram’s office is beautifully

ornate. There is a large conference

table in the center of the room; at its

head are two Iranian flags and a

golden frame holding painted

images of Moses and the aging for-

mer ayatollah. It is a poignant sym-

bol of Jewish life in Iran and the

constant struggle between tradition

and the regime. As Haroonian tells

me, life in Persia is unlike any other

in the Jewish world:

“The Jews of Iran are loyal to the

regime, and we were actually the

first to volunteer for the war against


JEWISH WORLD • OCT. 28-NOV. 3, 2016

The Silent Scream of Iranian Jews

Officially tolerated, the community lives in a limbo of fear



An Iranian Jew in his shop, ruled by Islamic law, which, if broken, leads to

permanent and dire consequences.

An election poster of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Hosseini

Khamenei on the door of a synagogue reminding Iranian Jews of their precarious


Photo: Annika Hearth Rothstein

Yoram Haroonian,

Iranian Jewish

leader: ‘We are

Iranian Jews …

loyal first and

foremost to

this country

while remaining