Stockholm Syndrome in Tehran

Jun 22, 2023 | Tammy Reznik

A celebration of the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer in Tehran (Photo courtesy of Beni Sabti)
A celebration of the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer in Tehran (Photo courtesy of Beni Sabti)

Australian Jewish News – 23 June 2023


In a stranger than fiction moment, earlier this month, a small group of Jews gathered in a synagogue in the heart of Tehran to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Iran’s first Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who came to power following the 1979 Islamic Revolution and died on June 3, 1989. It seems bizarre to see online images of Iranian Jews celebrating the Ayatollah, who infamously implemented Iran’s anti-Israel, anti-Zionist repressive agenda – and established a regime which caused the overwhelming majority of their ancient community to flee the country.

A similarly curious moment occurred in April when the Jewish community “chose” to cancel their traditional end of Passover celebrations (Mimouna) in favour of “celebrating” Al Quds Day – which happened to fall on the same day this year. In fact, the single Jewish representative in the Iranian parliament, Dr Homayoun Sameyah, very publicly joined in the annual anti-Israeli Al Quds Day march demanding Israel’s destruction.

What these events illustrate is the precarious position that the 9000 or so remaining Jews of Iran find themselves in on a daily basis. Nobody truly understands the veritable tightrope that contemporary Iranian Jews must walk on better than someone who grew up there, and so I recently connected with Beni Sabti, an Iran specialist living and working in Israel – and who happens to be almost my exact contemporary. According to Sabti, Iran’s remaining Jews “have been turned into prisoners or hostages” and many are experiencing a version of “Stockholm syndrome”.

Stockholm syndrome refers to “a mental and emotional response in which a captive displays seeming loyalty to – even affection for – the captor”. This appears apt, because according to Sabti, some of the remaining Iranian Jews are not just enmeshed in Persian culture, with its 2500-year history, but appear to fully embrace “the revolutionary Islamic ideology of the Iranian regime”.

One example is Rabbi Younes Hamami, who delivered a sermon on Al Quds Day that bordered on hate speech against Israel. Whilst many Iranian Jews outside Iran may feel Hamami went too far, Sabti believes he is trying to show that the Jewish community satisfies the regime’s demands that “Jews have to be united with Muslims in Iran”.

Inside and outside the 1979 Islamic Revolution

My interest in the plight of the Jews in Iran can be dated to events all the way back in my childhood. In 1979, as a young girl, I became riveted (and somewhat petrified) by the images of an intimidating bearded man that regularly appeared in news casts on our suburban home TV.

I had no idea at the time that there were Jews living in Iran. I only knew a culture of Yiddish and gefilte fish; nothing of the thriving Jewish culture that spoke Farsi and ate gondhi (a Persian Jewish dish of meatballs traditionally served on Shabbat).

Just as I was transfixed by the image of Ayatollah Khomeini on my TV in Melbourne, a young Jewish boy named Beni, the same age as me, was standing with his parents, crammed in with tens of thousands of others at Tehran airport, ready to welcome the returning exiled Ayatollah and soon to be Iranian Supreme Leader as he disembarked from his personal aircraft. He is of course the same Beni Sabti I quoted above. Sabti is now an Iranian regime researcher at the Institute for Strategic Studies in Jerusalem. He was one of the founders of the IDF spokesperson’s platform in Persian and acted as an adviser for the Israeli hit TV series Tehran.

Born in Tehran in 1972, he fled with his parents and siblings to Israel in 1987 in a harrowing escape that itself reads like a script for a TV action series – complete with smugglers, long days traversing the desert, bribes and car chases.

Iran may be controlled by a regime which rules through fear and intimidation, and espouses hate and antisemitism, yet Jews remain there in sizeable numbers – the largest community in the Middle East outside of Israel. There are an estimated 8000 to 9000 Jews living in Iran today.

According to Sabti, “Their relationship [to Iran and the Islamic regime] is complex,” adding, “Jews in Iran are Iranian first, they do not embrace change … They are influenced by Iranian Muslim practices.”

Sabti added that members of the community try to maintain a low profile, “they try to blend [in]”, so as to avoid appearing disloyal to the state – though a few did participate during the nation-wide protests that followed the death of Mahsa Amini last year. At least five Jews were arrested as a result.

According to Iranian state policy, Jews are purportedly “free” to practise their religion, but this comes with severe caveats and limits. As a recognised minority, Jews are granted one token representative to the Iranian parliament (Majlis), which is dominated by Islamic clergy. Jews and other recognised minorities are barred by law from serving in Iran’s judiciary and security services or running for public office. They also cannot hold authority over Muslims in the armed forces. Like all Iranians, Jews must also abide by Islamic Shari’a law.

Iran has a number of active synagogues, Jewish centres and schools. The current Chief Rabbi of Tehran, Rabbi Yehuda Gerami, says his community has achieved some positive developments in recent years, like persuading Iranian authorities to let Jewish schools close on Saturdays for Shabbat, which they previously were not allowed to do. “We now have six kosher restaurants in Tehran, two in Shiraz and two in Isfahan,” Gerami said.

As recently as March, Gerami tweeted footage of Jews singing the Shoshanat Prayer at the end of Purim.

However, within a month, the regime renewed public pressure directed at the Jewish community – pushing them to cancel traditional post-Passover Mimouna celebrations and join the regime’s annual anti-Israel and antisemitic Al Quds Day protest rallies (held on the last Friday of the Muslim holy month Ramadan). As noted above, the community had no choice but to comply.

The long Jewish history in Persia

The Jewish presence in Iran dates back to the Babylonian exile in 539 BCE when the Persian King Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon, allowing many Jews in exile there to return to their homeland in today’s Israel, while others remained. The traditional Jewish Purim story, involving Esther and Mordechai, is set in Persia during the reign of one of Cyrus’ successors.

At its height, just ahead of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran’s then-thriving Jewish community numbered approximately 80,000. As tensions rose between loyalists and opponents of the Shah during the 1970s, migrations of Iranian Jews commenced. Despite the perilous situation, a number of the remaining Jews tried embracing the revolution, with some 5000 of them even taking part in the Ayatollah’s official welcoming ceremony. But Jews continued to steadily emigrate, with a flood of departures following the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988).

It was during this period that life became increasingly harder, Sabti recalls, and gaining access to government services like passports became nearly impossible.

“We were regularly threatened or bashed for no reason,” he recalls. “Everyone in Iran suffered. But the Jews suffered more. IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] officers would come to Jewish shops and intimidate or arrest.”

Sabti decided at age 14 to join the ranks of the IRGC himself. It was the only way to stay safe. “They didn’t care who you were as long as you pledged allegiance to the state.”

Yet the final straw came for the Sabti family when Beni’s father became a victim of a hit-and-run accident. A year later they fled illegally with the aid of smugglers. “Today it is different,” says Sabti, “but you do need to have both contacts and money to leave.”

Anti-Jewish Paranoia and Holocaust Denial

Sabti says there is a “deep suspicion and secrecy that is a part of life for all Iranian citizens, but even more so for the remaining Jews”.

A recent report by Iranian state media claimed that security forces had arrested 14 members of an alleged Israeli terror group, following the 2022 arrest of 12 Baha’i in Mazandaran on charges of spying for Israel.

Last year a top-secret letter written by an Iranian lieutenant colonel was leaked saying, “All Jews are secretly spying on behalf of the State of Israel or working for the Mossad.”

Such anti-Jewish paranoia has been a perennial problem. Shortly after the 1979 revolution, several leading Iranian Jews were accused of spying for Israel and executed.

Another consistent trend has been the promotion of Holocaust denial. Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-13) was notorious for both his Holocaust denial and calls for Israel to be “wiped off the map”. Current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has repeatedly used Twitter to deny the Holocaust and promote Nazi ideology.

Sabti says the promotion of Nazi ideology was endemic to the education he received in Iran. “They would hand out copies of Mein Kampf and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion for free in mosques, and translated copies in Farsi online.”

More recently, before this year’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Islamic Republic-controlled Channel 4 ran an entire series featuring British and American Holocaust deniers. The Kayhan newspaper – Ayatollah Khamenei’s own favourite media outlet – last year published a guest column praising Hitler.

Iran’s Jews and Israel

Sabti says that, with everything else, Iran’s remaining Jews are forced to use code words when discussing Israel. They often even find ways to visit by circumventing the borders and exiting Iran via a third country. The community is tight, and information on how to travel to Israel secretly is shared.

Despite the pressure and fear, there is a sense of connection among Iranian Jews that never leaves them, wherever they are.

Another Iran specialist, Professor Lior Sternfeld of Penn State University, points to the district in south Tel Aviv widely known as Little Persia “where one can find spices and goods from Iran and authentic Persian restaurants”. There are similarly strong Persian-Jewish enclaves in LA and Long Island, New York.

The recent visit to Israel of the eldest son of the late Shah of Iran Reza Pahlavi, gives Sabti hope for a brighter future for the unique global community he is a part of.

“You can take the Jew out of Iran, but you can never take Iran out of us,” he says.

Tammy Reznik is a policy analyst at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.


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