TEHRAN - Notwithstanding the stormy history of relations between Tehran and Tel Aviv since 1979, the Islamic Republic remains home to the largest community of Jews in the Middle East outside Israel itself, with the group enjoying religious protections and even a reserved seat in the country’s parliament.
Iran is home to as many as 25,000 Jews, not the 8,000-15,000 that is sometimes estimated, and they feel safer in the Islamic Republic than they do in Europe, Rabbi Yehuda Garami, Iran’s chief rabbi, has suggested.
“We have total freedom of religion. All the synagogues are open, and Torah classes take place there. We have all sorts of educational institutions too, including elementary and middle schools,” Garami said, speaking to Al-Monitor.
According to the rabbi, Jews in Iran are more protected than they are in some European nations, where Jewish communities have been subjected to knife and gun attacks, bombings, death threats and discrimination.
“Our Muslim neighbours have a lot of respect for us as Jews living in Iran. Unlike in Europe, for example, we do not have guards outside our synagogues and schools, and our personal safety is excellent,” Garami said.
“Of course, we sometimes encounter people who are anti-Semitic, but that happens everywhere. Most of the population respects us and lives in peace with us. What is important is that in Iran there is no such concept as organized attacks on Jews,” he explained, adding that that the Jewish community in Iran has “very strong ties” to the country, with their ancestors living here for thousands of years.
Judaism ≠ Zionism
As for the long-running geopolitical conflict between Iran and Israel, Garami said the conflict is motivated by politics, not religion.
“We are always emphasizing that we do not like getting involved in all the disputes, wars and politics between the two countries," he noted. "It is a debate between politicians and has nothing to do with religion. People tend to get confused, but there is a big difference between Zionism and Judaism. Judaism is a religion that is 3,300 years old, while Zionism is a national and political movement that is just 100 years old. As a country, the State of Israel has nothing to do with religion in general and Judaism in particular. This is not a war between religions. All the Jews here emphasize that.”
Garami added Israel’s government has shown its true attitude toward religion with its actions. “The Israeli government doesn’t care about Judaism at all. Everything that they supposedly give to the Orthodox is because of some political deal or other, and not because of their religious approach,” he argued.
Otherwise, the rabbi said, Iran’s Jewish community is the same there as it is in other country, exhibiting strong respect for tradition, engaging in mutual aid, and being good members of their communities. In January, Garami joined other religious leaders in paying his condolences to the family of Revolutionary Guards commander Qasem Soleimani after he was assassinated in a US drone strike. In his interview with al-Monitor, the rabbi explained that he did so to again demonstrate that this was a geopolitical conflict, not a conflict between religions, and to let the world know that Soleimani was an Iranian national hero, including for his role in the war against Daesh (ISIS)* in Syria.
It’s estimated that Jews have lived in Iran for over 2,700 years. Multiple books in the Bible reference the life of Jews in Ancient Persia. Around 537 BC, after freeing Jewish slaves from the Babylonians, Persian King Cyrus the Great allowed those Jews who wanted to return to Israel, while those who chose to remain were granted citizenship and allowed to rebuild their religious shrines. After the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 7th century, Jews maintained significant religious and economic freedoms, and did not face the same type of persecution as Jews in Medieval Europe. After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, over 100,000 Iranian Jews left Iran. However, Iranian officials going back to Ayatollah Khomeini emphasized that their quarrel is with Zionism, not Judaism.
Today, the Jewish community in Iran enjoys official minority status, including a permanent seat in parliament, and religious freedom protected by the state, including the right to make Sabbath wine in a country which otherwise prohibits the production and consumption of alcohol.