Thursday, May 31 2001 14:30 9 Sivan 5761
By Leora Eren Frucht
(May 31) - As the Baha'is inaugurate their magnificent $250 million gardens
project in Haifa, Leora Eren Frucht asks who they are, what is their link
to this land, and why have many Jews outside of Israel been drawn to their
With suicide bombs and air-force reprisals dominating the news, it seems
an odd time for thousands of people from around the world to congregate
in Israel to affirm their faith in the brotherhood of man.
But last week, as Israelis and Palestinians braced for a long and bloody
conflict, some 3,500 members of the Baha'i faith descended on Haifa, the
world headquarters of the movement, to celebrate the completion of what
they hope will be a small piece of Eden on earth.
"Concrete evidence of the ability of the human spirit to overcome hatred
and cruelty," is how one Baha'i representative described the movement's
multi-million dollar garden project, inaugurated on Tuesday in Haifa.
Looking at the 19 terraced gardens that stretch a kilometer from the top
of Mount Carmel to the base in downtown Haifa, gazing at the sparkling
golden-domed Baha'i shrine in the center, hearing the hypnotic flow of
water running down the channels alongside the stairs, this place does
seem to offer a taste of Eden. It's certainly a world apart from the
violence and carnage taking place a short distance away.
The $250 million project, which took 10 years to complete, was funded
entirely by the contributions of Baha'i members. The donors include
everyone from "the poorest farmer in the Congo forest to a wealthy
banker in Ottawa," says William Ogeuna, the manager of a pizza
restaurant in Uganda, and one of the 3,500 Baha'is who attended
Tuesday's inauguration. The architect, Fariborz Sahba, an Iranian-born
Canadian Baha'i, also designed the famous "Lotus Temple" in New Delhi,
which now attracts more visitors than the Taj Mahal.
When it opens to the public on June 4, Israelis will be able to enjoy -
for free - what is being dubbed as "the eighth wonder of the world."
"We want this to be a gift" says Glenn Fullmer of the Baha'i movement's
public information office in Haifa.
Who are these people? Why would they want to give such a gift to Haifa?
And how can they still believe in the possibility of universal
brotherhood when drive-by shootings, shellings and bombings are almost
THE NEWEST monotheistic religion, the Baha'i faith originated in Iran in
1844, and today boasts some five million followers in 200 countries. It
was born out of Shi'ite Islam, "but is as far away from Islam as you can
imagine," says Prof. Moshe Sharon, chair of Baha'i studies at the Hebrew
University of Jerusalem.
It is a universalistic faith that regards the earth as one country, and
mankind its citizens. It strives for equality between the sexes,
universal compulsory education, the elimination of the gap between rich
and poor, the pursuit of reason and scientific knowledge and the
abolition of racial and other forms of prejudice.
The principles sound lofty enough, but what about practice?
Sharon, who has studied the religion for years - has nothing but praise
for the way Baha'is conduct their affairs. He notes, for instance, that
the budget for the gardens project - $250 million - was set 15 years
ago, and hasn't been modified at all.
"Money is handled with such care and responsibility that not one penny
is spent without proper accounting."
What's more, the entire movement is run democratically, he notes. There
are no religious leaders, just elected administrative councils that
function at a local, national and international level. (The
international body - the nine-member House of Justice - sits at the
Baha'i headquarters in Haifa and members are elected for a five-year
term). The Baha'i principles prohibit any involvement in political
activity; they are even discouraged from campaigning for positions in
"The result is that you'll find people who are informed that they have
been elected to the highest body in the movement and they didn't have a
clue that they were even in the running," notes Sharon.
They are also prohibited from using firearms, drinking alcohol or taking
drugs; smoking is discouraged. Children may be raised as Baha'is, but
they are not considered to be members of the faith unless, once they are
older, they choose to be.
"It's really hard to find anything to criticize about this faith," says
the Hebrew University professor, who began studying the Baha'is because
it offered an opportunity to observe the development of a relatively new
The founder of the faith, a Persian merchant named Siyyid Ali-Muhummad,
is known to Baha'is as the "Bab" (Arabic for "gate"). His announcement,
in 1844, that he was a messenger of God sparked a near revolution in
Persia, which was at the time gripped by messianic fervor. Within a few
years, 20,000 of his followers were massacred by the army of the shah,
who regarded the movement as a direct challenge to Islam.
The Bab, a descendant of Muhammad, was himself executed in 1850 under
circumstances that only added to the mystique surrounding him. Taken
from his cell before he had finished giving instructions to his
secretary, he warned his guards that "no earthly power" could silence
him until he had finished what he had to say. He was placed in front of
a firing squad of 750 Armenian soldiers who proceeded to fire.
When the smoke cleared, the Bab had vanished. Moments later, he was found
back in his cell, completing his instructions to his secretary. When he
finished, he told the guards that he was now ready to be executed. The
members of the original firing squad, convinced that they had witnessed
divine intervention, were too frightened to repeat the task and a new
squad was summoned. This time the bullets hit their target.
While the story sounds like colorful legend, Sharon says that it is in fact
documented by the many European ambassadors who witnessed the botched
execution. He explains: "The Bab was suspended by a rope, and the first
bullets apparently penetrated the rope, releasing him [to a lower level]
out of the range of the executioners. It was the kind of thing that had a
one in a billion chance of happening at any given execution. The Bab just
walked away - he could have fled - and went back to his cell."
His remains were hidden by his followers for many years and eventually
brought to Mount Carmel for burial in a simple stone mausoleum. In 1953,
the tomb was incorporated into the golden-domed Shrine of the Bab, which
has since become a landmark of Haifa, seen miles away at sea.
The Bab's main purpose, according to the Baha'i, was to presage the
coming of an even greater messenger of God: a Persian nobleman called
Mirza Husayn-Ali, or the Baha'u'llah - Arabic for "the Glory of God."
The Baha'u'llah gathered the scattered followers of the Bab and began a
new community in Baghdad. At the urging of the shah, he was exiled by
the Ottoman Turks who ruled the region, first to Turkey, and then even
further away, to Acre, thought to be the worst penal colony of the time.
The Baha'u'llah apparently won over his captors and was eventually
allowed to live in a home near Acre, which is today considered to be the
Baha'i's holiest shrine. (When Baha'i pray they turn towards Acre.)
During his time in the Holy Land, the Baha'u'llah visited Haifa several
times and, on one visit, declared that the remains of the Bab should be
buried at Mount Carmel. On another visit, he had an encounter that brings
to mind Moses's experience at Mount Sinai.
"He emerged with the Table of Carmel, a poetic scripture, that takes the
form of a dialogue between God and Mount Carmel, and forms the basis for
the establishment of the Baha'i world center there," explains Fullmer.
(That dialogue was also the inspiration for the composition written by
Norwegian composer Lasse Thoreson and Tajik composer Tolib Shabidi
especially for Tuesday's inaugural concert at the gardens.)
While the incarceration of the Baha'u'llah in Acre was "an accident of
history," Fullmer says, "it was almost as though his enemies unknowingly
conspired to fulfill prophecy by bringing him to the Holy Land and the
outskirts of Mount Carmel." The garden project at Mount Carmel is
regarded by the Baha'i as the fulfillment of Baha'u'llah's vision: the
once barren, neglected slopes - where the prophet Elijah once stood -
have been revived into a fertile, forested mountain whose terraces
embrace the Shrine of the Bab like a setting around a jewel.
ACCORDING TO the Baha'i faith, the founders of the world's major
religions - Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and
Muhammad - are all divine teachers sent by one God to educate humanity
through teachings and laws suited to its stage of development. The
Baha'i faith adds two more teachers to that list: the Bab and
Baha'u'llah - the latter is regarded as the ultimate teacher whose
revelations should enable mankind to achieve its full potential.
Today the Baha'i religion has grown from an obscure sect in Persia to
the second most geographically widespread religion in the world, after
The largest concentration of Baha'i followers - some three million - are
found in India. The religion is spreading fastest in Africa. The United
States has about 100,000 Baha'is.
"On the one hand, its emphasis on the equality of all people and the
elimination of racial prejudice, makes it appealing to members of the
lowest castes in India and to blacks in Africa. Yet, it's also a highly
sophisticated philosophical religion that draws intellectuals with
pacifist tendencies," says Sharon.
Kari Skatun, a Norwegian consultant in her forties, was attracted to the
faith some 20 years ago when she was "seeking more spirituality and
learning meditation from India.
"I liked the religion because it provided an answer to my own personal
spiritual needs, but also offered solutions to the world's problems,"
says Skatun, referring the religion's emphasis on international social
action. The turmoil in the Middle East hasn't fazed Skatun's belief in
world peace and brotherhood.
"Humanity goes through stages the same way individuals do," says Skatun,
who has been living in Haifa for the last two years. "Right now we are
at the stage of adolescence: self-absorbed, competitive, thinking only
of ourselves. But ultimately, as we approach adulthood, we will begin to
consider the well-being of all the members of the family of man."
Paul Ancheta, a 35-year-old interior designer from the Philippines,
converted when he was 15, after his father exposed him to the religion.
His 10 brothers and sisters also became Baha'i, one by one. He says he
was struck by the scriptures of the Baha'u'llah which were "so
intelligent" and couldn't help but contrast them with the banality of
the television evangelists who were becoming increasingly popular in his
home at the time.
"I couldn't understand why my aunt was fainting in front of the television
and I felt uncomfortable that I, too, was expected to faint," recalls
Ancheta, noting that in the Baha'i faith prayer is personal.
Leissan Khakimova, a 20-year-old university student from Khazan in the
former Soviet Union, left Islam to become a Baha'i at 15. She notes that
her grandmother, a practicing Muslim, speaks positively about the
movement to her friends.
"She sees the results," explains Khakimova. "In Russia, many young people
hang out on the streets drinking alcohol instead of going to school. But
the Baha'i youth do things to help humanity," says Kahkimova, who is one
of about 200 Baha'is in her city and one of about 3,500 in the FSU.
While the Baha'i shun politics, they are strong advocates of social
action and are involved in many United Nations social and educational
development projects worldwide. That involvement often gives them
influence beyond their numbers.
In the Philippines, for instance, the movement has 120,000 followers - out
of a population of 72 million. The government has asked the movement to
introduce Baha'i writings into the country's schools through a course in
values education. In Bosnia, the Baha'is are running a peace-education
In Iran, the 350,000 Baha'is are the country's largest religious minority.
Since the Islamic Revolution they have once again been subjected to
relentless persecution. "In the early days of the revolution, the nine
members of the national spiritual assembly were kidnapped and disappeared.
They are presumed dead. Another nine were elected, and were subsequently
executed," Fullmer says.
"When the next nine were elected, a law was passed banning them."
Since it is a Baha'i principle to obey the government, the movement
complied with that law, and disbanded the assembly. However, Baha'i
followers continued to teach the religion and culture to their children.
That led, in 1983, to the hanging of 15 teenage girls accused of holding
Faced with international condemnation over the executions, the Iranian
authorities adopted more subtle forms of repression, banning Baha'is
from studying and teaching at university. In response, the members
created universities in their homes, equipping them with computers and
laboratories, and offering degrees in subjects ranging from pharmacology
In 1998, the Iranian authorities raided these home universities and
confiscated the equipment.
Like the Jews in Iran, Baha'is are frequently charged with being agents
or spies for Israel. In the last two decades, tens of thousands of
Iranian Baha'is - some of them fifth-generation members - have left the
country and settled in other parts of the world.
The Baha'i communities in other Muslim countries - with the exception of
Turkey - face differing degrees of persecution. In most Arab countries,
they are obliged to inform the authorities if they want to congregate
even for a picnic. Fullmer is reluctant to reveal more details about
these communities. "Our experience is that every time we do that, there
are repercussions for the community in question," he says.
IN ISRAEL, there is no local Baha'i community. The Baha'is who work at
the international center in Haifa are all sent over from other countries
for limited periods of time. The absence of a local Baha'i community is
the result of the Baha'u'llah's written order not to engage in any
proselytizing in the Holy Land. The Baha'i have studiously adhered to
"When Israelis approach us, we direct them to our Web site where they are
able to satisfy their curiosity," explains Fullmer. "If they want to do more
than that, we explain to them that there is no formal community here."
Albert (Avraham) Ben-Joya, a retired bank employee from Haifa, once
offered to volunteer at the Baha'i Center. "I do a lot of volunteer work
for different organizations and I wanted to offer my services here, too,
because these people seemed so decent. But they turned down my request,"
he recalls. "They said that only Baha'is who come from abroad can volunteer
at the center."
The Baha'u'llah never gave a reason for the ban on missionary work in the
Holy Land - missionizing is legal in Israel as long as it does not involve
the giving of cash or goods to entice converts. But experts in and outside
the religion suspect that it was done in order to enable the movement to
establish a foothold in Haifa without provoking friction and opposition.
While there is no Israeli Baha'i community, there are many Jews who have
joined the religion - in particular in its birthplace, Iran.
In fact, by 1940, about one out of every 10 Jews in Iran had converted to
the Baha'i faith, according to Dr. Amnon Netzer, the head of the Hebrew
University's department of India, Iran and Armenia studies.
"Even today, nearly every Iranian Jewish family in the world, including my
own, has some Baha'i relatives," says the Iranian-born academic.
Netzer attributes the popularity of the movement to two factors: first,
a substantial number of Jews in 19th-century Persia gravitated to other
religions including Islam and Christianity.
"Jews were badly persecuted in every respect," explains Netzer, noting
that the Shi'ite Muslim Iranians have a special word to refer to Jews:
it is "najes" - which is Persian for "ritually impure."
The Baha'i movement was particularly seductive because, unlike Christianity
and Islam, the Jews who joined it did not have to renounce their Jewish
"It was regarded as a social and cultural movement more than a
religion," says Netzer. "And at first those who joined it continued to
mark Pessah, Shabbat, Yom Kippur and all the other Jewish holidays.
Subsequent generations became more cut off from Judaism," he notes. "But
Jews did not regard Baha'i converts with the same contempt that they
regarded a Jew who converted to Christianity or Islam, which would
usually lead to a complete severance of ties. Even today, most Iranian
Jews - including myself - treat their Baha'i relatives as Jews."
But what if they don't observe any Jewish rituals or holidays?
"You could say the same about many secular Jews," replies Netzer. "To be
Baha'i does not mean you turn your back totally on your last religion. And
besides, these people are not fanatic; they never try to coerce others to
convert." Netzer notes that the universal nature of the religion was
particularly attractive to Iranian Jewish intellectuals, who saw in it
something not that different from the writings of the prophets.
JEWISH INTELLECTUALS in many parts of the world are drawn to the universal
message of the Baha'i faith. Kate Shanks, an American university professor,
who grew up Jewish, became a Baha'i in her thirties. An articulate woman
who looks much younger than her 60-something years, Shanks was clearly
disappointed with her own Jewish upbringing, but is, in keeping with
Baha'i principles, reluctant to criticize it in public.
"I don't want to hurt anyone," she says, but when prodded, finally tells
Shanks grew up in a non-religious Jewish home in the Midwest. "I knew I was
Jewish and that all my friends were Jewish, and that my family had always
been Jewish, but to be frank with you, I didn't know what faith was."
Eventually Shanks married a Christian. "When my first child was born, I
wanted her to have equal respect for the religions of both of her
grandparents and not judge them," she says. The Baha'i religion, first
discovered by her husband, answered that need since it holds both
Judaism and Christianity in esteem. "There was nothing in the teachings
of the Baha'i that I would ever regret my children learning," she says.
"There was tolerance, equality of men and women, justice."
"Leaving the Jewish faith was very difficult; there was a psychological
separation that was hard," she recalls. But Shanks never denies her Jewish
background. "I call myself ethnically Jewish, but my religion is Baha'i."
To convert, Shanks was required to say, more or less: "I believe Baha'u'llah
is who he says he is, a manifestation of God, and that I agree to abide by
his laws." She also signed a card to that effect.
She smiles and says that her relatives probably still regard her conversion
- almost 30 years ago - as a "delayed adolescent Sixties rebellion that I
would eventually get over." Her mother "never came to terms with it,"
though the two continued to maintain their relationship.
Shanks says that, ironically, her respect for Judaism is greater now than
it ever was before. She sent her children, raised as Baha'i, to Jewish
community-center summer camps in San Diego, where she lives, and adds that
she is proud that they, too, respect Judaism. "When they attend the bar
mitzva of friends, they read everything and take it very seriously."
As a Jew, Shanks never visited Israel. But as a Baha'i, she applied and was
accepted to work in the research department at the movement's headquarters
in Haifa. The inauguration of the gardens - to which she, like all other
Baha'is contributed - is especially meaningful. "In a sense I feel like I'm
contributing to my Jewish heritage. The people of this country will benefit
tremendously by having something so beautiful to look at and by having such
a peaceful place in which to contemplate."
Like most Baha'is stationed in Haifa, Shanks keeps a certain distance from
Israelis. She, like other Baha'is, says she is simply too busy to socialize.
"I am a Baha'i servant of God." But Fullmer admits that there is a
directive to avoid "excessive socializing" with Israelis. "It is a
closed community," he says, "and that is partly to avoid the impression
of missionary activity."
The result of that low profile is that many Israelis don't know who the
Baha'is are. "The Baha'is? They believe in beautiful things like gardens.
It's very nice, but it's not a religion," says George Attiya, a Christian
Arab who lives in a house at the base of the gardens.
"A lot of people wonder whether we are a religion or a gardening society,"
While Israelis may know very little about the Baha'is, the Baha'is know
a thing or two about Israelis. And as utopian as their principles sound,
they have a firm grip on reality. "We've heard that when Israelis see a
strip of grass on a median along the highway, they set up a barbecue
there," says Fullmer.
To avoid turning the Baha'i gardens into a site for family barbecues, most
of the terraces will by accessible only through (free) guided tours [booked
through the Haifa Tourism Board] and limited to 50 people at a time.
"We want the people coming through the gardens to have an experience that
is contemplative and meditative - and to teach them something about why the
gardens are here. We want it to be a controlled experience," explains
Fullmer, noting that with the completion of the gardens, the number of
tourists to Haifa is expected to triple to 1.2 million a year.
Israelis have long enjoyed the Baha'i presence in Israel without really
understanding it. "Newlyweds take wedding photographs here. Schoolchildren
take field trips here. Everyone is aware that we're here," says Fullmer,
"but there is very little knowledge of who we are."
With the inauguration of the terraced garden project, that anonymity is
about to come to an end.
©Copyright 2001, The Jerusalem Post