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Monday, October 02, 2006

The Jews of Iran

A reporter named Seth Wikas - whom I don't recall seeing in the JPost before - travelled to Iran with an American passport and filed a fascinating account of his trip. Here's a teaser....
I FOUND great tolerance when I told people I was Jewish. Israel, however, was a different matter. My friend's uncle, a mullah and professor of theology, said "We like Jews, but we hate Zionists."

My tour guide in Shiraz, in southern Iran, compared the Israelis to the Arabs, recalling the Arab conquests of the seventh century, saying the two peoples were invaders and occupiers.

Hajar, a university graduate with perfect English, asked, "Do you think Israel is a real country?"

Most of the Iranians with whom I spoke, when asked about Israel, saw it as an occupying entity that had displaced the Palestinians and did whatever it wanted with American consent.

Iranians, especially in the capital, are constantly reminded of this narrative. Pictures on the sides of buildings encourage martyrdom, and downtown, near the old Israeli Embassy (now the Palestinian Embassy), is Palestine Square. At the center is a large sculpture of Israel, flanked by masked men throwing rocks while crushing a Star of David under their feet, and a mother holding her fallen, martyred son.

I asked the leaders of the Jewish community what they thought of Ahmadinejad's relentless proclamations that the Holocaust was a myth and that he wanted to "wipe Israel off the map."

The president of the Jewish Association, a successful businessman, told me he had written a letter to Ahmadinejad denouncing the president's statements and retorting that if the Holocaust was a myth, then the Israeli killing of Palestinians must also be a myth.

Nourani, a Jewish shop owner in Shiraz, says this of Ahmadinejad's statements: "It's all just talk. It's just propaganda to make people forget about their problems."

Nourani sells kitchen appliances in the town, which is home to Iran's second-largest community of Jews, numbering between 6,000 and 8,000. Shiraz was Persia's capital 250 years ago, and is famous for its wide avenues and beautiful gardens. Many Jews own shops in Shiraz's commercial district, and conduct business undisturbed. Some even have Hebrew prayers or pictures of rabbis tacked up behind their registers.

Nourani and I talked about Jewish observance, but when I asked him if he celebrated the festivals, he looked at me as if insulted.

"The Jews of Shiraz are very religious - much more religious than the Jews of Teheran," he said.

"On Pessah, what do you do for matza?" I asked.

"Would you like to see?" he answered. We left his shop and went for a 15-minute walk across town. On the way, Nourani said he had actually lived in Israel in the 1970s, but came back because he didn't like it there. "The Israelis don't appreciate what they have. Iran is a better place to be an observant Jew," he asserted.

We walked down a number of alleys and finally reached what looked to be an abandoned ranch house on a barren plot of land. As we got closer, I saw a sight one might have expected in Monsey, New York, or Deal, New Jersey, but definitely not in Shiraz. I saw men and boys in kippot, boxes printed with Farsi and Hebrew, and heard the machinery, but couldn't believe it. Shiraz has a matza bakery.

I couldn't actually comprehend what I was seeing, but it was there: One room contained the mixers needed to combine the flour and water, and the other contained the oven and conveyor belt. The prayer said when ritually removing a piece of dough from the mix was written on the wall in Hebrew and Farsi. One of the older men there, Qudrat, spoke fluent Hebrew. He had learned it in Iran, in religious school, and since I didn't speak Farsi and he didn't speak English, we spoke in Hebrew.
Read it all.


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