Distinction in travel journalism
Is independent travel journalism important to you?
Click here to keep it independent

21 Feb, 2015

Iran’s Jews: It is our home and we plan to stay

Tehran, Feb 20, IRNA – National Public Radio (NPR), a media organization in the United States, says Iranian Jews believe Iran is their home and they want to stay in their home.

In a report written by the NPR reporter Steve Inskeep, we read Iran is a country where people at rallies routinely chant ‘Death to Israel.’ It’s also home to the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside of Israel and Turkey.

Iran’s Jewish population topped 100,000 in the years before the Shah of Iran was toppled in 1979 by the country’s Shiite Muslim clerics. Today, the number of Jews has dipped to below 9,000.

The Jews’ very presence in Iran demonstrates the complexity of a country that is hard for outsiders to understand. Our search to understand what keeps the Jews here begins in the kitchen of a kosher restaurant in Tehran.

The cooks were in the basement, cutting up meat. We took a table in the dining room, and talked with David Shumer, 28, the son of the owner. He says his family has run this place for 35 years, serving kebab and chicken on the bone.

‘Many restaurant is better than this restaurant,’ he says.

I stopped him, wanting to be sure of his English.

‘I am honest,’ he says with a laugh.

We asked Shumer for an honest answer to a more serious question: What is it like to be Jewish in an Islamic republic?

‘It’s so good and so happy,’ he says.

He contends that Jews have equal rights. Shumer does lead a comfortable middle-class life.

‘I have a car, and a job. Everything I have is here,’ he says. ‘Why not?’

David Shumer handles takeout orders at a kosher restaurant in Tehran that his family has run for 35 years. He has a comfortable, middle-class life and says he is happy in Iran. An image of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the past and present supreme leaders of Iran, hangs on the wall.

Americans might start with a slightly different question: Why are thousands of Jews still in Iran?

The government assigns Jews a different status than Muslims, but still celebrates their presence. It holds them up as evidence of Iran’s tolerance.

The truth is, Jews have lived here for millennia, and their story says much about a changing Middle East.

We heard part of that story from Iran’s one Jewish member of Parliament, Siamak Moreh Sedgh. His seat is one of five that the government reserves for Iran’s religious minorities.

‘Iran is the country of unbelievable paradoxes,’ says Moreh Sedgh, who smoked one cigarette after another from a red-and-white pack of Winstons. ‘You can find that there is the greatest Jewish community in the Middle East in Iran, in the country with the greatest political problem with Israel.’

In addition to being a member of Parliament, Moreh Sedgh is a general surgeon; he met us at the Jewish charity hospital he directs. It takes in patients of all faiths.

Tradition says the first Jews moved here in ancient times. They were forced to move eastward from what’s now Israel to the kingdom of Babylon, which was later conquered by the rulers of ancient Persia.

Today, the Jewish lawmaker says simply that Iranian Jews are Iranians. They stay because it’s their country. And Moreh Sedgh says he supports his country’s foreign policy, even when it comes to the Jewish state.

He says Judaism is not the same as Zionism, the project of building Israel.

Siamak Moreh Sedgh is the only Jewish member of Iran’s Parliament. Jews are not allowed to hold high office or be judges in Iran. Moreh Sedgh is also a surgeon who runs the Dr. Sapir Hospital and Charity Center. Most of the staff and patients are Muslims.

‘There is a great difference between being a Jew and being a Zionist,’ he says.

The lawmaker draws more distinctions when it comes to Iran’s controversial former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who raised questions about the Holocaust.

‘I think that the Ahmadinejad case must be viewed from another window,’ Moreh Sedgh says. ‘He does not deny the Holocaust clearly. He said there is some question about the Holocaust, and this idea was not the official statement of the Iranian government. This was only a personal idea of President Ahmadinejad.’

Moreh Sedgh said Ahmadinejad’s comments prompted him to write a letter to the president saying that denying the Holocaust is denying truth, and ‘it’s not even in the direction of Iranian national interest.’

Here you see a clue to Iranian Jews’ long-running survival. The Jewish lawmaker keeps his disagreements narrow.

Moreh Sedgh says he prefers to focus on slowly improving Jews’ daily life, and their secondary status in Iran. They may freely practice their faith and vote, but they cannot hold high office.

So they gradually push for more rights. They recently won permission to keep their children out of school on the Jewish Sabbath. And Moreh Sedgh says he would like it if Jews could someday serve in cabinet posts or as judges.

‘It’s not a problem that affects our day-to-day life, but we think that people with good knowledge and a high degree of ability, from a religious minority, can help the country to be a better country,’ he says.

Moreh Sedgh says it’s best to seek improvements ‘little by little, step by step.’