Israel has made its first public comment on Iran’s apparent coercion of its Jewish minority into staging unprecedented anti-Israel rallies a month ago, telling VOA that it believes the Iranian Jews who participated in them had "no choice."
"We understand perfectly [their] circumstances," said Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry Deputy Director General for Public Diplomacy Emmanuel Nahshon in a Nov. 14 VOA Persian TV interview in Jerusalem.
"We understand that when you live in a dictatorship, sometimes you have no choice. This is part of what they [Jews in Iran] have been living through since 1979. So we understand the difficulties that they are facing," Nahshon said.
Radical Shiite clerics opposed to Israel's existence have ruled Iran since seizing power in its 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Iranian Jews held rallies in five cities on Oct. 30 to denounce Israel for waging war against Hamas, which triggered the conflict with its Oct. 7 terror attack on Israel.
Hundreds of Jews participated in the rallies in the capital, Tehran, and in the cities of Shiraz, Isfahan, Yazd and Kermanshah, according to videos and photos published by five Iranian state news agencies and reviewed by VOA. They were the largest anti-Israel Jewish gatherings observed in Iran since 1979.
Nahshon said Israel harbors no ill feeling toward Iranian Jews. "They are our brothers and sisters, and we love them very much," he said.
An excerpt of Nahshon’s English-language interview, which was dubbed into Persian, was first published in its original English in this week’s edition of VOA’s Flashpoint Iran podcast.
In a Nov. 3 statement sent to, and first reported by, VOA, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said the Biden administration is aware of reports Iranian authorities "coerced Iranian Jewish leaders and their communities" to engage in the protests.
"It is reprehensible that the Iranian regime continues to pressure religious groups to advance their propaganda," the spokesperson said. In reference to the Israel-Hamas war, the spokesperson added, "Iran’s apparent exploitation of this conflict to advance its repression and propaganda against its Jewish community is abhorrent."
Iran’s U.N. mission in New York responded to the U.S. criticism by sending VOA a statement noting an Oct. 18 anti-Israel protest held by far-left American Jews in Washington and asking if they also had been "subject to pressure" to denounce Israel.
The Iranian statement also said, "Iranian Jews, akin to other Jews worldwide ... are indeed fed up with the egregious crimes committed by the occupying regime [Israel] against innocent Palestinian women and children."
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a global Jewish human rights organization, has said world Jewry, rather than expressing anger toward Israel, is facing an "unprecedented rise" in antisemitism related to the Israel-Hamas war.
American Rabbi Abraham Cooper, who chairs the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, gave his first public reaction to Iran’s statement about its Jewish minority in a Thursday phone interview with VOA. Cooper also serves as the Wiesenthal Center’s director of global social action.
"Iran’s Jews, like its other minorities, are essentially hostages of the regime who can pray as long as they say the right words and follow the regime’s rules," Cooper said. "The Jewish community members know that if the regime tells you what to do, you don’t mess with it. That’s not religious freedom."
The State Department’s latest annual report on international religious freedom, published in May, cited the Tehran Jewish Committee as saying Iran is home to approximately 9,000 Jews. It also cited an unnamed member of the community as giving a higher population estimate of 20,000 during a 2021 visit to the United States.
VOA Persian correspondent Siamak Dehghanpour reported from Jerusalem and Michael Lipin of VOA’s News Center reported from Washington.