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An ancient community that is slipping away

May 20, 2000

The number of Iran’s Jews has been dwindling. Now the trial of 13 of their menfolk could hasten the exodus

By GUY DINMORE
Financial Times (London)
May 20, 2000, Saturday

The family shop on Dastgheib Street, backing on to the ancient Jewish quarter in the Iranian town of Shiraz, is shuttered and locked. Its owners, Hamid and Omid Tefilin, brothers who sold shoes for Dollars 3 a pair, are among 13 Iranian Jews on trial in a Revolutionary Court, accused of spying for Israel.

In nearby Jerusalem Street, the chant of evening prayer and the scent of orange blossom drifts over the walls concealing Shokr synagogue. Across an alley wide enough for an apple-cart, workmen brew tea while renovating Kohanim, another place of worship.

Elderly Jews run grocery stores and a kosher butchers. Most of the nearby cloth and shirt shops are also owned by Jews. Turbaned Afghan refugees, Armenian Christians and Shia Moslems add to the ethnic mix.

But for the small and dwindling Jewish community in Shiraz, the arrests of the 13 men more than a year ago and their continuing trial have raised troubling questions of the commun-ity’s identity and loyalty to Iran, which has been its homeland for more than 2,500 years since Jews migrated as freed slaves from Babylon. But this long chapter appears to be drawing to a close.

Over the centuries the Jews of Iran have enjoyed privileges and prestige bestowed by some dynasties, but also suffered pogroms and persecution. In the 21 years since the Islamic revolution, the Jews have kept a low profile and are free to practise their religion.

“Muslims are very respectful of us. Most of my customers are Muslims,” says a 64-year-old stall-keeper. His friend, selling cloth, agrees: “We Jews have been here for 2,000 years and this is the first time we are accused of spying. It must be a misunderstanding. We felt fear and shock at the news. More Jews are leaving Shiraz these days but I’m not sure if it’s because of the trial. When we meet to pray we notice people have left.”

Leaders of the Jewish community in Shiraz and the capital Tehran might be deeply disturbed by the trial. But they stress that Jews are treated fairly in the Islamic Republic and express confidence in the judicial system, although one man acts as judge, jury and prosecutor.

“We live freely. We have no problems,” says Manouchehr Eliasi, the outgoing member of parliament for Iran’s Jews, who are reserved one seat as a religious minority recognised by the constitution. “We work, have students in schools and pray. We have a special school run by the Jewish Society where Hebrew is taught. We can make wine.”

But in private, Jews voice unease and explain why their numbers have more than halved since 1979.

Like many Iranians they left in search of higher living standards. But as a minority they also feel vulnerable and potential pawns in a broader political struggle.

The revolution in 1979 divided the Jewish community. Some prominent Jews in Tehran were avowed anti-Zionists and helped overthrow the Shah. But smaller communities in Shiraz and Mashhad had close links with Jews in Palestine even before Israel was founded in 1948.

Iran under Mohammad Reza, the last Shah, had good relations with Israel too. It was widely known that Jews worked in the Savak, his detested secret police.

But after the Shah fell, some religious Jews felt they were unfairly targeted by Islamist vigilantes, subjected to fines, harassment and confiscation of property. Soon after the revolution, one of Iran’s best-known Jewish figures, Habib Elghanian, was executed for corruption and contacts with Zionists and Israel.

Jamshid Sedaghat, a historian and Muslim in Shiraz, has researched Jewish persecution. Under the Kajar dynasty in the 19th century, laws regulated their lives. They had to wear a sign identifying them as Jews, they could not build houses higher than their Muslim neighbours, they had to dismount from their horse when passing a Muslim.

Pogroms were also known. According to some accounts, about 5,000 Jews were killed in Kashan in 1693. Sedaghat said the Jews of Shiraz were attacked once a year in the late 19th century until pressure from western ambassadors halted the violence.

When pressed, Jews will relate the events of 1910, the last time they were seriously attacked in Shiraz. According to contemporary accounts, a mob looted the whole Jewish quarter and killed 12 Jews, blaming them for the death of a Muslim girl. “All of them, rich and poor, are now helpless and miserable,” wrote the British consul of the day. He believed the riots were staged as part of a power struggle being waged across Iran as the Kajar dynasty crumbled.

Nonetheless, Iran’s Jews make up the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside Israel. But just how many is not known.

Eliasi, an MP who lost to a more liberal candidate in recent elections, estimates 30,000 Jews remain in Iran, including one qualified rabbi, and about 50,000 have left since 1979. According to the 1996 census, however, fewer than 14,000 Iranians declared themselves as Jewish.

Whatever the figure, all agree the community is slipping away and that the outcome of the trial will have an impact, although few believe a guilty verdict will mean death sentences, as some conservative clerics demanded.

Most of the 13 prisoners are shopkeepers and some also played important social roles – prayer leaders, teachers of Hebrew, kosher slaughterers of meat, a baker and mortician. Haroon Yashyaee, head of the Jewish Society in Tehran, is proud to have joined the Islamic revolution but warns that the trial risks destroying the ancient community.

His appeal to the judiciary to allow a Jewish observer in court was denied.

Although the trial is closed, state television has carried interviews with several accused, including Hamid Tefilin. They confessed to spying. Hamid is described by his lawyer, however, as “semi-literate”. In court Hamid said he had only “intended” to commit espionage.

The defence has also questioned the legality of the televised confessions and their impact. “The whole country is watching these confessions. Iranian Jews are becoming more isolated and their children are regarded with contempt by classmates,” said Esmail Naseri, one of the lawyers.

As the trial nears its conclusion – a verdict could be known this month – the sense of insecurity grows. A poster at the main gate of Shiraz University medical faculty attacks an unnamed Jewish professor for supporting a class boycott led by reformists.

“He is one of the biased Jews and we hope he has no Zionist inclinations,” the unsigned poster says. Students said it was put up by the Basij, a hardline Islamic militia.

Three Jewish prisoners have been bailed, including Omid Tefilin, whose widowed mother lives in Israel and was visited twice by brother Hamid. Tefilin tells reporters he is innocent. Will he stay in Iran after the trial? “One hundred per cent,” he replies. “There’s no reason to leave. The trial is a misunderstanding.”

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