Bahai News - Iranian Jews barely hanging on under hard-liners

Iranian Jews barely hanging on under hard-liners

Ben Barber
THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Published 8/9/00

     SHIRAZ, Iran — The convictions last month of 10 Jews who were accused of spying for Israel appears to have sounded a death knell for a historic community that has survived in Iran for 2,500 years.
     Many of the Jews left in Iran are quietly preparing to sell their property and get out.
     A secret escape route across the southeastern deserts by bus, jeep and donkey to Pakistan, used by many Jews since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, has recently slammed shut, Jewish sources said.
     But these days Persian Jews are leaving legally, through Austria or Cyprus, to Israel or the United States.
     In a narrow back street of ancient mud-walled streets the father of one of the imprisoned Shiraz men sat in sadness, selling melons and tomatoes. He refused to talk to a visitor.
     Things can only get worse for his son, a 20 year old Hebrew teacher who worked at his father's stall before he was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison, said other local Jews, also afraid to be quoted in a newspaper.
     Each Wednesday the vegetable seller visits the prison where his son passes each day alone in a cell without any time outside for exercise.
     "The boy cries every time," said another Shiraz Jew, also on the condition of anonymity.
     "He says, 'Father, I can't take it any more.' "
     Clinton administration, Israeli, Jewish and human rights officials have protested the trial that took place in secret, after the men confessed after months in solitary confinement.
     Jews in Shiraz and Tehran said they could not believe the naive, young Jews had access to any military information and suspect they were prosecuted to create a rift between the hard-line Islamic clerics running Iran since 1979 and reformers seeking improved relations with the United States.
     In Shiraz, 13 synagogues still function, but the Jews no longer post mezzuzahs, or tiny scroll boxes, on the door posts, unwilling to identify their homes and buildings as Jewish.
     "I was kept in jail for six months, and they beat me a lot after I sent my children out of Iran," said one Jewish man, whispering in Hebrew.
     He told of a secret passage out of Iran for Jews under the clerical regime since 1979 — through Pakistan.
     Although one of the world's most openly anti-Semitic countries, where Jews are blamed for much of the world's problems and there is no resident Jewish community, Pakistan was used as a passage to safety by many Jews.
     "I told my children to go — to save themselves — during the bombing in the war with Iraq," said the man, showing photos of his children, now safely living in Israel.
     He has not seen them for 13 years.
     "They went without passports —they were all around 20 years old," he said. "They were arrested in Pakistan. But after a month, an Iranian Muslim heard about it and paid their bail."
     Then a Jewish agency took over, spiriting the girl and her brothers to Israel, where they spent a month in a hospital recovering from diseases contracted in the prison in Pakistan.
     Now, in the evening, the man relishes calls he receives from Israel — routed through Europe — from his children.
     It's unknown how many Jews used the Pakistan route. Some women went covered in Burkas or Muslim coverings. Others went with smugglers around the border posts through the Baluchinstan desert.
     There was a similar secret exodus of Jews from Ethiopia, through Sudan to Israel, that was aborted after a Jewish newspaper revealed the route and the embarrassed Sudanese ended the airlift.
     About three years ago, however, said Jewish sources, the Pakistan route was closed for unknown reasons. Now Jews, who are able to get passports, leave through Austria, where they are given three months of English and cultural preparation before flying to refuge in cities such as Los Angles and Baltimore, which host large Persian Jewish communities.
     Others go to Cyprus or Athens and then Israel.
     The fear of remaining in Iran was very strong, even before the Shiraz trial.
     One man in Tehran said his home was raided in the middle of the night two years ago by armed police from the Ministry of Information — the intelligence ministry —after Muslim neighbors accused them of something.
     "They had us lie on the ground like this, with our hands behind our backs while they searched the whole apartment," said the man. "I am feeling terribly frightened to tell this to you now. You do not know what danger there is here."
     The 20,000 Iranian Jews who remain in this country — in Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan and a few smaller cities — will join the 60,000 who already fled into exile since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 left them as second-class citizens here.
     Jews, Bahais, Christians and other minorities could no longer hold government jobs and Jewish children in public schools were forced to sit through a half-hour of Muslim prayers before class after the Islamic revolution in 1979 ousted the pro-American and pro-Israel government of Shah Reza Pahlavi.
     Jews also hear and read anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish remarks on state-run television and radio, and the press.
     Jews first came to what is Iran under the Assyrians in 727 B.C. and then, after the destruction of Solomon's temple a half-century later, more came, according to Massoume Price, a social anthropologist from London University.
     The Jewish exiles first went to Babylon, currently Iraq, and then were taken by Cyrus the Great to Persia. Under Darius the Great, Jews were permitted to return to Israel to rebuild their temple but were again driven into exile around 70 A.D. when Romans sacked the second temple.
     In Persia, now Iran, they went through periods of repression when they were forced to wear yellow badges on their clothes, were segregated and could be killed by Muslims who faced only a fine and no physical punishment.
     Under the shah and his father, Jews enjoyed good times, especially when Israelis were invited to help the modernization programs of the 1950s and 1960s. But many began to move to Israel and to the United States as it became apparent they would enjoy greater religious freedom there.
     In a great irony, the newly elected president of Israel, Moshe Katsav, is one of them, an Iranian Jew who left at age 9 for Israel. Mr. Katsav hails from the same Iranian city of Yadz as Iran's president, Mohammed Khatami.
     And Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak also hails from Iran — his kin were Kurdish Jews who fled to Israel after anti-Jewish riots in 1951 in Kurdish regions of Iran.
     "In Iranian folklore, Jews are portrayed as mean, miserly and polluted," writes Miss Price. "Children were warned not to go to Jewish quarters because they would be kidnapped and Jews would drink their blood. They are used as stereotypes to portray evil characters."
     In a Tehran synagogue, the Persian Jews add a few local customs to prayers that generally are identical to those of Orthodox Jews around the world.
     When a man enters and sits down, a half-dozen men nearest him all half-rise as a sign of respect. And before the Amidah, a long silent prayer, the men kiss their fingers and wave to those around them as if wishing them a good experience.
     The shelves of one synagogue were crowded with miniature torahs, scrolls of the Five Books of Moses. Asked why these little torahs in their silvery metal cases were there, a rabbi explained: "Each family that leaves here for America or Israel places one of these here on the shelves."
     The synagogue was packed Friday night, men on one side and women in the back, according to custom.
     But the neighborhood was increasingly emptying of Jewish families as they felt the pressure of fear.
     After 2,500 years, the Persian Jews were the largest Jewish community in the Middle East. Since 1948, 300,000 Jews left Morocco, thousands more left Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Iraq and Yemen.
     Now the Iranian Jews appear destined to join them.
     "The judge in Shiraz said they are still searching for others in the spy ring," said one man. "Naturally we are all frightened. Everyone is talking about selling everything and getting out."


©Copyright 2000, The Washington Times

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