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EXCLUSIVE: US Calls Iran’s Apparent Coercion of Minority Jews into Staging Anti-Israel Rallies ‘Abhorrent’


FILE - Iranian Jews in Isfahan walk in a procession holding signs in Persian and English denouncing Israel's war against Hamas, Oct. 30, 2023. (Credit IRNA)
FILE - Iranian Jews in Isfahan walk in a procession holding signs in Persian and English denouncing Israel's war against Hamas, Oct. 30, 2023. (Credit IRNA)

The U.S. State Department has denounced as "abhorrent" Iran’s apparent coercion of its Jewish minority into staging an unprecedented series of anti-Israel rallies in five Iranian cities Oct. 30.

In a Friday email to VOA, a 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.

Videos and photos published by five Iranian state news agencies and reviewed by VOA showed hundreds of Iranian Jews participating in the anti-Israel rallies in Tehran, home to the largest Jewish community in Iran, as well as the cities of Shiraz, Isfahan, Yazd and Kermanshah. The rallies involved gatherings and speeches inside and outside synagogues and street processions in which participants held signs and chanted slogans condemning Israel.

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.

In the email to VOA, the State Department spokesperson noted that Iran’s Jews, like other religious minorities, have endured discrimination and persecution since 1979, when Shiite clerics opposed to Israel’s existence seized power. The email also noted that Iran is among the worst violators of religious freedom worldwide and its officials regularly spread antisemitic views.

"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."

Iranian state news agencies IRIB, IRNA, ISNA, Fars News and Mehr News all sent their own reporters to the Oct. 30 anti-Israel rallies, filming, photographing and interviewing participants.

At the rally inside Tehran’s main Yusef Abad synagogue, prominent rabbi Yehuda Gerami told a gathering of more than 100 congregants that they should avoid contact with Israelis, whom he said "consider themselves to be Jews and commit crimes in Palestine."

Younes Hamami Lalehzar, another prominent Iranian rabbi, also spoke at the synagogue, condemning what he called the crimes of the "Zionist regime," a pejorative term for Israel, for "killing the innocent people of Gaza."

Israel has said it only targets what it calls terrorist sites in Gaza while acknowledging that its strikes have killed Palestinian civilians whom it says Hamas uses as human shields.

Iranian Jewish diaspora researchers and journalists told VOA that the Oct. 30 rallies marked the first time they have seen Iran’s Jews engage in anti-Israel protests on such a large scale.

Karmel Melamed, a Los Angeles-based Jewish Iranian American journalist and researcher, said he had never seen what he called "this scale of the Iranian regime parading the Jews and using them to make statements under duress for propaganda purposes." Melamed said he based his assessment in part on contacts in recent days with Iran-based Jews, whom he did not identify to protect their safety.

Beni Sabti, a Persian Israeli researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, said Iranian Jews faced threats to their businesses from the Iranian government and its supporters during previous fighting between Israel and Hamas in the last two decades.

"But this time, the conflict is bigger, so the pressure on Iran’s Jews is greater and they took this very unusual step of protesting against Israel in synagogues, a symbol of their Judaism," Sabti said. "It is an act of survival."

Images of the Oct. 30 rallies published by the Iranian state news agencies showed Iranian Jews holding anti-Israel banners and signs in both Persian and English as they walked in street processions in Tehran and Isfahan and stood at an intersection in Kermanshah. Similar signs in Persian and English also were displayed at synagogues in Shiraz and Yazd.

Melamed said Iranian state media devoted extensive coverage to the Jewish rallies in part to convince Iranians, many of whom have protested in recent years for an end to Islamist rule, that even Iran’s tiny Jewish minority adopts the government’s position on the Israel-Hamas war.

But he said the images of Iranian Jews with signs in Persian and English also appear to have another intended audience – the West.

"The regime wants to send a message that 'We have these Jews here living in Iran and we want to let you know that they are potential hostages for us to deal with as we wish,'" Melamed said.

Iran's U.N. mission in New York responded to a VOA request for comment on Monday, emailing a statement that compared the October 30 anti-Israel rallies by Iranian Jews to an October 18 anti-Israel protest held by far-left American Jews inside Washington's Cannon House Office Building of the U.S. Congress. U.S. Capitol Police arrested more than 300 activists of the groups IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace, or JVP, for violating a ban on protests in congressional buildings.

Iran's U.N. mission began its statement with a question that included another derogatory term for Israel: "Have the Jewish individuals who staged protests in the American Congress to support the Palestinians and denounce the apartheid regime's crimes been subject to pressure?"

Asked by VOA for a response to the Iranian statement, Rabbi Yaakov Menken, managing director of the U.S. nonprofit Coalition for Jewish Values, said, "The obvious answer is no, because American Jews, like all Americans, do not have the experience of living under a repressive, totalitarian government like that of Iran." CJV advocates for classical Jewish ideas in U.S. public policy.

The Anti-Defamation League, another U.S. nonprofit, has described the two groups that participated in the October 18 anti-Israel protest in the U.S. Congress as "radical" anti-Zionist organizations that "do not represent the overwhelming majority of the Jewish community."

The statement of Iran's U.N. Mission also said, "Iranian Jews, akin to other Jews worldwide ... are indeed fed up with the egregious crimes committed by the occupying regime against innocent Palestinian women and children."

Rabbi Menken noted that Iranian Jews have much deeper experience with antisemitism than their counterparts in America.

"This is also how the State Department knew the Iranian Jews were coerced. What Jews worldwide are fed up with is Israel being attacked by genocidal enemies."

Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and its aftermath led to tens of thousands of Iranian Jews fleeing what they saw as an oppressive Islamist regime, while those who remained have had some rights as a constitutionally recognized religious minority in return for publicly professing loyalty to their Islamist rulers.

Sabti and Melamed said their research into Iran’s Jewish community suggests that some of its members may approve of Tehran’s hostile stance toward Israel.

"I have been analyzing the community’s official statements for the past 12 years, and they have become more and more extreme in their negative characterizations of Israel," Sabti said.

Melamed said some of Iran's Jews rely on the government for their livelihoods and are willing to recite its talking points for that reason. "But the folks who genuinely support the regime's anti-Israel positions are probably in the minority," he said.

Looking ahead, Melamed said the efforts of Iran’s minority Jews to endear themselves to their Islamist rulers are likely to pay off in the short term.

"For now, as long as the Jewish leadership and the community toe the line and repeat the regime's views, they should be fairly secure," he said.

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