The challenges facing Iran’s tiny Jewish minority drew increased U.S. media scrutiny this month, as the chief rabbi in the Islamic Republic ended a five-week tour of U.S. Jewish communities by making rare public remarks about the situation of his community.
Yehuda Gerami presented a mixed picture of Jewish life in Iran as he spoke to American Jews at a Fairfax, Virginia, synagogue on November 14, highlighting positive trends for the community as well as challenges. Those remarks, and similar ones that he made in a U.S. magazine article published days earlier, drew skepticism from some Iranian American Jewish media commentators who noted that Iran's Jews face tougher problems than what Gerami described.
Gerami’s Fairfax speaking event, organized by the Chabad Lubavitch Orthodox Jewish movement, was the only public dialogue during his appearances at multiple Jewish communities on the U.S. West and East coasts. After taking questions from attendees and responding in Hebrew, he departed the United States the next day to return to Tehran.
Iran’s Jews are among the smallest of its religious minorities. In his remarks, Gerami estimated the Jewish population at 20,000 and said its presence in Iran has lasted 2,700 years. But a U.S. State Department report published in May estimates only about 9,000 Jews in Iran, citing the Tehran Jewish Committee. They live in a country of 85 million people, 99% of whom are Muslims, according to a U.S. estimate.
Gerami said his community achieved some positive developments in recent years, like persuading Iranian authorities to let Jewish schools close on Saturdays for the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest, and renovating a Jewish ritual bath, or mikveh, in Tehran.
“Also, we now have about six kosher restaurants in Tehran, two in Shiraz and two in Isfahan, with a higher level of observance of Jewish dietary laws than before,” Gerami said. “And we opened a Jewish seminary in Tehran where dozens of young men learn to become rabbis and to conduct ritual animal slaughter. They then return to their cities to teach and spread holiness.”
But Gerami said his community also has been under financial pressures from Iran’s high inflation and weak economy that have affected Iranians as a whole.
'No interest in politics'
Asked how he feels about Iran’s Islamist rulers engaging in low-level conflict with the Jewish state of Israel, where he studied in his youth, Gerami responded cautiously.
“We always keep in mind that we have no interest in politics. We are Jews who only want to learn the torah, or bible, and perform good deeds as a religious duty. But there are many times in which it is not easy to be a Jewish leader in Iran,” he said.
Some Iranian-American Jewish commentators told VOA they believe Gerami is under pressure from Iran’s authoritarian leaders not to criticize them for fighting Israel or discriminating against Jews. They said Gerami appears to be trying to avoid provoking Iranian authorities to take retaliatory measures against him and his community members.
In one example of the pressure facing Gerami, he told his audience why he paid a condolence visit to the home of top Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani days after the U.S. assassinated Soleimani in a Baghdad drone strike on January 3, 2020. The United States and Israel had labeled Soleimani a terrorist responsible for years of attacks on U.S. and Israeli targets and accused him of plotting more.
“We felt sensitivity, not from the government but from [Iranian] people. People were talking about revenge ... and we felt that there could be, God forbid, a danger to the lives of Jews and the community [in Iran]. So for that reason, we had to go to [Soleimani’s] family and to be seen, and to say that we don’t agree with what [the Americans] did and that we weren’t satisfied,” he said.
Months later, one of Iran’s holiest Jewish sites, the Tomb of Esther and Mordechai in Hamedan, suffered an apparent antisemitic arson attack. There has been no word of any prosecution for the May 14, 2020, incident, which caused minor damage to the site.
Judaism is one of three minority religions that Iran’s Islamist constitution allows to be practiced in the country. The other two are Christianity and Zoroastrianism.
But Iran’s Jews and other recognized minorities are barred by law from serving in the judiciary and security services. They also cannot hold authority over Muslims in the armed forces.
When Jews and other recognized minorities seek “blood money” as restitution for various crimes, Iranian law reduces the value of that blood money to half of what a Muslim is entitled to.
Punishment for visiting Israel
The Iranian legal system also threatens Jews with prison for visiting Israel, a country that Iran’s rulers repeatedly have said should be destroyed.
Such calls were a factor in the U.S. declaring Iran to be the world’s top state sponsor of antisemitism last year, said former U.S. Deputy Special Envoy to Combat Anti-Semitism Ellie Cohanim.
"It’s not only about their genocidal desire to ‘eliminate’ Israel, to quote the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself, but also because they deny that the Holocaust ever took place. They go so far as to host Holocaust cartoon competitions, if one could imagine something so vile,” said Cohanim, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Security Policy who wrote about Gerami’s U.S. visit in Newsweek.
She said a third reason for labeling Iran as a top state sponsor of antisemitism was its ongoing funding and training of U.S.-designated terrorist groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, accused of carrying out attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets around the world in recent decades.
Iran had about 85,000 Jews at the time of its 1979 Islamic Revolution, according to Encyclopedia Iranica. Most fled the pressures of Islamist rule by emigrating in the decades that followed.
'Sense of tolerance'
But thousands of Jews have chosen to remain. Most of Iran’s Muslims treat them well, said Karmel Melamed, an Iranian American journalist who wrote an op-ed about Gerami last week for U.S. news outlet Jewish News Syndicate.
“Iranians really don't look at their countrymen as far as their religion [is concerned]. There's a sense of tolerance, there's a sense of respect of their neighbors, co-workers, friends,” he said.
Melamed said most Jews in Iran either feel financially secure enough to stay or are too poor and elderly to believe they would improve their lives by moving to another country.
But he said that choice comes with a price.
“Their thinking is: ‘This has been our home for years and years. We have familiar friends. We have familiar language. And we're willing to put up with this regime. We're willing to put up with the status of a third-class citizen,’” Melamed said.