April 20, 2006
Tehran Jews Talk of Future in Iran
A 15-member women's amateur folk dance group composed of Jews from Iran performed in Russia this month and, perhaps most notably, they insisted that there is a Jewish future in Iran.
The trip was a rare group visit abroad by Iranian Jews, who live in an Islamic community whose government is virulently opposed to the State of Israel. The Iranians -- ages 14 to 30 -- came to Russia thanks to diplomatic efforts by Arkady Gaidamak, a Russian Jewish leader and businessman, who helped obtain a special permit from Iranian authorities.
Russia is a major supplier of nuclear technology to Iran, which is currently under strong international pressure to halt its supposed nuclear weapons program.
All members of the group live in the capital of Tehran, which is home to 15,000 Jews, the majority of the estimated 25,000 Jews who live in the Islamic republic. More than 100,000 Jews lived in Iran before the 1979 Islamic revolution.
The Jewish travelers said their community has a future in Iran, but conceded their lot isn't especially easy.
"After the revolution, problems began for the community," said Elham Abaei, 30, the leader of the group that came to Russia. Abaei, who runs the Iranian Jewish community's Web site, www.iranjewish.com, said the community has adjusted to the political and social climate.
"We can now run cultural and religious but not political activities," she said. "Political" includes anything related to Israel.
Opposition to the Jewish state has been a cornerstone of the Islamic revolution. In 1999, 13 Jews were accused of spying for Israel. Ten eventually served jail terms, with the last being released in 2002.
Most recently, Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, caused a wave of international condemnation when he suggested that Israel should disappear from the map and called the Holocaust a myth.
The statement about the Holocaust reportedly triggered a rare public protest from the country's Jewish leadership. Harun Yeshayaie, the community's chairman, wrote a letter to Ahmadinejad saying that the remarks caused fear in the country's Jewish community.
Yeshayaie had been expected to travel with the group but had to cancel at the last minute because of health reasons, said members of the delegation.
On the issue of Israel, these Iranian Jews would not speak out against Tehran's official policy.
"You can be Jewish and not associate yourself with Israel," said Sarah Hay, a 21-year-old computer engineering student from Tehran.
The communal activities range from Jewish day schools -- one-half of Tehran's Jewish children are said to attend Jewish day schools -- to synagogues, youth clubs and summer camps, and even a Jewish hospital in Tehran.
One of the members of the group described her community as one having "everything a Jewish community should have" except for any Israeli connection.
In addition to general tourist sites, the delegation visited a synagogue and a Jewish day school in Moscow, as well as the Jewish community of Yaroslavl, a city in central Russia.
But even far away from Tehran, members of the group tried to distance themselves from any reference to Israel when visiting Russian Jewish institutions.
One such incident occurred in Yaroslavl, when the local community baked two cakes for the Iranian guests.
But members of the group were visibly shocked when they saw the cakes were glazed with the design of the Israeli flag.
The hosts gave the guests only those slices of cake without the flag design.
Iranian Jews are accorded a status of an officially recognized minority and are generally free from discrimination -- although all women in the country, regardless of their faith, have to cover their faces in public.
Privately, some women said it is impossible for Jews to enter some sectors of the government, but said they did not want leave Iran.
"We are Iranians first. We share our country's history," said engineering student Hay.
Group leader Abaei said her parents were too old to leave, and generally those who stay in Iran after all those years feel comfortable there.
"There are no ghettos, you can live your life," she said.
The main problem the community has, she said, was lack of rabbis and teachers of Judaism.
There are no yeshivot in Iran, and only one ordained rabbi is serving the Tehran community that maintains 16 active synagogues.
A Moscow Jewish leader said the Russian community should take advantage of Moscow's good relations with Tehran to benefit Iran's Jews.
"Maybe we can invite a group of Iranian Jewish boys to study in a Moscow yeshiva," said Pinchas Goldschmidt, Moscow's chief rabbi.