Iranian Jews barely hanging on under hard-liners
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
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
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
"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
He told of a secret passage out
of Iran for Jews under the clerical regime since 1979 through
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
"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."
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
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.
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
The synagogue was packed
Friday night, men on one side and women in the back, according to
But the neighborhood was
increasingly emptying of Jewish families as they felt the pressure of
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
"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