|The Jews and the Baha’i in Iran
by Louis Proyect
THERE'S AN ARTICLE IN the August 3rd Counterpunch by Jonathan Cook that makes a number of excellent points about the status of Jews in Iran. Since the neoconservatives in Washington and their Zionist allies represent Ahmadinejad as the Hitler of today (taking over Saddam’s job) in order to make the case for war, it is imperative that the truth come out.
To Cook’s credit, he makes no attempt to whitewash the Iranian government:
As one of several non-Muslim minorities in Iran, Jews there suffer discrimination, but they are certainly no worse off than the one million Palestinian citizens of Israel — and far better off than Palestinians under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.
Iranian Jews have little influence on decision-making and are not allowed to hold senior posts in the army or bureaucracy.
Despite these limitations, Jews enjoy a fairly trouble-free existence in Iran. Cook writes:
They have an elected representative in parliament, they practice their religion openly in synagogues, their charities are funded by the Jewish diaspora, and they can travel freely, including to Israel. In Tehran there are six kosher butchers and about 30 synagogues. Ahmadinejad’s office recently made a donation to a Jewish hospital in Tehran.
These points are absolutely necessary to be made, but there are still some troubling aspects to the status of Jews in Iran, no doubt reflected by emigration statistics. In 1979, there were 80,000 Jews in Iran but today there are only 20,000. That is a mass exodus that needs to be analyzed. To some extent, it can be explained by the privileged material status of Jews, who were primarily bourgeois and petty-bourgeois. Like many other Iranians, particularly those with ties to the Shah, the felt that their class interests were being threatened and emigrated to Israel or to the United States, where many settled in Los Angeles, along with tens of thousands of non-Jewish Iranians.
Cook refers to Zionist conspiracies to recruit Jews in the Middle East as agent provocateurs. The goal was to create a backlash that would result in forcing Jews out of their native countries and flight to Israel:
Even more notoriously, Israel went to greater lengths to ensure the exit of the Arab world’s largest Jewish population, in Iraq. In 1950 a series of bombs targeted on Jews in Baghdad forced a rapid exodus of some 130,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel, convinced that Arab extremists were behind the attacks. Only later did it emerge that the bombs had been planted by members of the Zionist underground, supported by the Israeli government.
Now, Iran’s Jews may find themselves treated in much the same manner — as simple human fodder. Stories are growing of Israel exploiting the free movement between Iran and Israel enjoyed by Iranian Jews and their Israeli relatives to carry out spying operations on Iran’s nuclear program. Such reports have come from sources such as the American journalist Seymour Hersh, citing US government officials.
It would be an acid test for the Islamic Republic to be able to determine where such threats were real or bogus. Unfortunately, there was evidence in 1999 that it could not. On June 10, 1999, Counterpunch regular Patrick Cockburn reported in The Independent:
The arrest of two Jews in Iran accused of selling alcohol to Muslims has turned into an international dispute over alleged spying, involving Israel and the United States.
Under interrogation, and probable torture, after their arrest in Shiraz three months ago, the two men implicated 11 other Jews, religious leaders and teachers, who were accused last weekend of spying for the Israelis and Americans.
It should be mentioned that Shiraz had historically been a center of wine-making in Iran, with Jews playing a key role in production and sales. The famous shiraz or syrah grape can now be found everywhere in the world. Additionally, Jews are allowed to use wine in Iran, as part of their ceremonies. Whatever the circumstances in Shiraz, it seems doubtful that two men who were caught selling booze to Muslims would also be involved in an espionage ring as Jews are carefully monitored in Iran for exactly this kind of activity
Four days later Cockburn reported that the arrests were probably an attempt by hard-liners to scuttle reformist efforts to improve relations with the US. This is a repeating theme in Iranian politics, as evidenced by recent arrests of “George Soros operatives”, etc. While there certainly are efforts always afoot to create a fifth column in Iran, the regime has lots of trouble making its own case before public opinion. The arrest of Haleh Esfandiari, a 67 year old scholar, was particularly counter-productive based on the presence of such names on a petition demanding her release:
Juan R. Cole, University of Michigan
Valentine Moghadam, Purdue University
Tariq Ramadan, Oxford University
Ervand Abrahamian, City University of New York
Noam Chomsky, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Eventually an Iranian appeals court showed some leniency. Asher Zadmehr, a university teacher, had his sentence cut from 13 to seven years, while Hamid Tefilin, a shopkeeper, had his reduced from 13 to nine. The other eight men were left with reduced jail terms ranging from two to eight years.
Despite this, or perhaps because of this, many Iranian Jews decided it was time to leave the country. A combination of judicial repression and a worsening economy was sufficient to generate a new exodus, even though by all accounts Jews did not face the kind of systematic violence that another religious minority faced. Unlike the Jews and the Zoroastrians, the Baha’i sect was considered fair game.
In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini was interviewed by James Cockcroft in the pages of Seven Days, a radical magazine:
Cockroft: Will there be either religious or political freedom for the Bahá’ís under the Islamic government?
Khomeini: They are a political faction; they are harmful. They will not be accepted.
Cockroft: How about their freedom of religion – religious practice?
I first encountered the Baha’i in the early 1980s when I discovered that my barber was a member of the sect, which emerged in 19th century Persia. It was basically a kind of reformist initiative within Islam that corresponded to Reform Judaism or any of a number of Christian sects that embraced enlightenment values. The founder of the religion claimed he was the Mahdi and thus had equal status to the Prophet Muhammad with the power to abrogate Islamic law. This was not likely to endear you to the Muslim clerics who had a hearty appetite for martyring the Baha’is. When the Islamic Republic was created in 1979, it provided a legal sanction for bloody repression.
While the Baha’i do not have anything like an official clergy, they do elect a National Spiritual Assembly (NSA) and Local Spiritual Assemblies (LSA). In November 1979, the secretary of the NSA in Iran was kidnapped and never seen again. In August 1980 all nine members of the National Spiritual Assembly were arrested while meeting at a private home. After they were replaced by a new NSA, they too were arrested by the Iranian authorities and executed without a trial on December 27, 1981.
Over the next 3 years many more Baha’i leaders were arrested and executed. Finally, under pressure from human rights organizations around the world, the Iranian government modified its approach. Instead of using extra-legal violence, there would be stepped up efforts to punish the Baha’is economically and to deny them influence in universities and elsewhere. This is not to say that repression has ceased to exist. Last year 54 Baha’is in Shiraz were arrested for the crime of organizing a community service project that no doubt included propagation of their beliefs. That is what religious people do, after all.
Back in the 1980s, when I went to Baha’i services in New York about every 2 or 3 months, I came away very impressed with their beliefs–all except of course their silly notion that there was some kind of deity controlling the destiny of humanity and the world. There were a number of exemplary figures who had become members of the sect, largely on the basis of their 19th century humanitarian principles. Among them were jazz musicians Dizzy Gillespie and poet Ogden Nash of purple cow fame. The Diz, who believed in world peace and traveled to Cuba on numerous occasions, described his beliefs as follows:
Every age in music is important. Equally as important as the previous one, and is as important as the one that’s coming after that. The same thing with religion you know, like when religion reveals itself. God has got it set up now. His education of mankind is through these prophets, and each one’s supposed to come for a specific age, so they just keep coming, and after his is over another one takes their place. That’s what the Baha’is teach you. They got a really intelligent way, looking at God’s work on the planet. So I believe that music is the same, too. Messengers come to the music and after their influence starts waning, another one comes with a new idea, and he has a lot of followers.