Monday, January 15, 2007

The Forward--Iranian Jews Reject Outside Calls To Leave Push From Israel, U.S. Groups Falls Flat Despite Ahmadinejad--Marc Perelman

Iranian Jews Reject Outside Calls To Leave Push From Israel, U.S. Groups Falls Flat Despite Ahmadinejad

Marc Perelman Fri. Jan 12, 2007

A campaign to convince Iran’s 25,000 Jews to flee the country has stalled, with most opting to stay in their native homeland despite President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial and anti-Israeli speeches.

In recent months, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Israeli officials and some American Jewish communal leaders have urged Iranian Jews to leave. But so far, despite generally being allowed to travel to Israel and emigrate abroad, Iranian Jews have stayed put.

According to the statistics compiled by HIAS, 152 out of 25,000 Jews left Iran between October 2005 and September 2006 — down from 297 during the same period the previous year, and 183 the year before. Sources said that the majority of those who have left in recent years cited economic and family reasons as their main incentive for leaving, rather than political concerns.
At the same time, HIAS workers in Vienna have detected a substantial increase in the number of Iranian refugees from other minority faiths, including Bahais.

Since the August 2005 election of Ahmadinejad, a conservative firebrand, the fate of Iranian Jewry has become part of a broader diplomatic game between Teheran, Washington and Jerusalem.

Ahmadinejad has repeatedly used rabid anti-Israeli rhetoric, threatening to wipe Israel off the map, and has questioned over and over again the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust. Tehran recently hosted a conference to “assess” the Holocaust, and last year a leading daily newspaper held a contest soliciting Holocaust cartoons as a response to the uproar caused by a Danish caricature contest of Prophet Muhammad.

At times, as international tensions mounted over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, staunch opponents of the mullah regime have launched accusations of religious and ethnic discrimination against Iran in an effort to depict the country as a pariah state.

HIAS declined to comment on its efforts to promote emigration, but some observers claim that the main reason Iranian Jews have chosen to stay is that they are, for the most part, free to practice their faith. “Iranian Jews have a comfortable Jewish life,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Middle East analyst now living in Israel.

At a time when Tehran and Jerusalem trade barbs and threats, the 25,000 Jews of Tehran, Shiraz and Yazd attend packed synagogues, send their children to Jewish schools, buy their meat in kosher butchers and are even exempt from prohibitions on alcohol. This modus vivendi is the result of a compact between the leadership of the Jewish community and the Iranian authorities, whereby Jews are permitted to practice their faith as a community on the condition that they remain out of politics and do not speak out in favor of Israel.

Some Iranian expatriates dispute the assertion that Jews are staying because conditions are good. Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Los Angeles-based Iranian American Jewish Federation, asserted that the majority of Jews remaining in Iran are elderly and only speak Persian, and are naturally less inclined to emigrate.

In the early days after the Islamic revolution in 1979, several Jews were executed on charges of Zionism and relations with Israel. About 80% of the community left the country in which Jews had lived for nearly 3,000 years as descendants of slaves from Babylon saved by Cyrus the Great and enjoyed a “golden age” during the 1960s and ’70s under the Shah.

The situation for Jews improved in the years after the revolution, and Judaism is one of the recognized minority religions in Iran. Jews, Zoroastrians and Christians have rights enshrined in the Islamic constitution, and they each elect their own member of parliament and are entitled to worship freely but not to proselytize.

The State Department’s religious freedom reports have noted that the Jewish community in Iran is closely monitored by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. In other words, Jews, like other minorities, face discrimination because of the inherently Islamic nature of the regime, which prevents them, for instance, from securing government jobs or becoming army officers.

Seven years ago, a group of 13 Orthodox Jews in the southern city of Shiraz were accused of spying for Israel. The case prompted an international outcry that led to the eventual release of the Jewish prisoners after years of quiet diplomacy.

Some criticism of the regime has proved to be unfounded. A few months ago, several conservative media outlets in Canada and the United States published reports claiming that the Iranian government had approved legislation requiring religious minorities to wear a distinctive sign, invoking charged memories from World War II. The reports turned out to be wrong.

“Some people are trying to use the climate created by Ahmadinejad and the nuke issue,” said William Beeman, an Iran expert and professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota. “But Iranian Jews have a fairly vibrant communal life, and they can even criticize the regime within the constraints of the Islamic regime.”

Both Maurice Motamed, the Jewish member of the Iranian parliament, and Haroun Yeshaya, longtime chairman of the Jewish Central Committee of Tehran, who have regularly criticized Israel, nevertheless publicly condemned the president’s views, the latter in an unusual letter to Ahmadinejad, sent in February 2006.

Kermanian, of the L.A.-based Iranian Jewish federation, said that “given the situation and the current climate, some Jews there will say things are not too bad, but the totality of the picture is negative.” He said that the recent uptick in antisemitic propaganda in books and the media had stoked fears within the Jewish community in Iran.

The regime’s anti-Zionist propaganda has at times provoked antisemitic incidents. Last summer, a hard-line weekly newspaper, Yalesarat, published photographs of people waving Israeli flags in synagogues to celebrate Israeli Independence Day. The paper falsely asserted that the synagogues were in Iran, prompting an assault on two synagogues. Motamed, the Jewish parliamentarian, described the vandals as “opportunists” in comments to the BBC, and said that the incident was defused by the Iranian security forces.

Several times in recent years, Jewish burial areas were overtaken by local authorities for urban development purposes. A Western diplomat said that while antisemitic intentions played a part in the incidents, another factor was that, in general, burial places are less sacred for Shia Muslims than they are for Jews.

For all his inflammatory rhetoric, Ahmadinejad has been careful not to single out Iran’s Jews, and his office even donated money to Tehran’s Jewish hospital.

“The government goes to extra lengths to differentiate between the government of Israel, with whom they have fundamental issues, and the Jewish people, especially Iranian Jews,” said Amir Cyrus Razzaghi, a Tehran-based commentator who is not Jewish. “There is a genuine interest to keep the Jewish community in Iran to demonstrate to the world that the government is anti-Israel and not anti-Jewish. This is especially important to a government that strives to be not only the leader in the Islamic world, but also a key regional and global player.”

The result is the only Jewish community living under an avowedly Islamic regime. In Tehran, where the majority of the community lives, there are six kosher butchers and about 30 synagogues. In addition, there is the Jewish hospital, which has a Jewish director and is funded by donations from the Diaspora, though the vast majority of its staff and patients are Muslim.

Children attend Jewish schools where they are taught Hebrew and receive religious training. All principals are Muslim, the schools do not close on the Sabbath and the curriculum is supervised by the government.

While Jews are allowed to obtain passports and visas to leave Iran, they have to submit their requests to a special section of the passport office and there are restrictions on families leaving en masse. Iranian Jews travel to and from Israel via a third country with the full knowledge of the authorities. Both sides had kept quiet about such journeys, but recently acknowledged them.

“It might seem strange,” said Javedanfar, the Israel-based expert, “but they can travel to Israel and other places, come back [to Iran] and have a comfortable Jewish life, as long as they keep quiet about Israel.”

Fri. Jan 12, 2007

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Youth Movement: Iran's New Generation will be more Moderate--William O. Beeman

Article published Jan 14, 2007

Youth movement Iran's new generation will be more moderate

By William O. Beeman

The Providence Journal

The recent election in Iran signals change in the Islamic Republic. The rising generation of Iranian youth, along with the increasingly important population of politically active women, is making itself felt in a dramatic way. It is this combination -- youth and women -- that will lead Iran in the near future.

The new political landscape is not yet at full strength -- that will occur in about five years as the post-revolutionary population matures. If left to its own devices without foreign interference, Iran would undoubtedly be more democratic, more liberal, more secular and more positively disposed toward the West than ever before.

The elections that chose the members of local municipal councils as well as the Assembly of Experts, which monitors the actions of Iran's Spiritual Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, resulted in losses for the extreme conservative elements in Iran's political spectrum and a resurgence of moderate and reformist candidates.

Many commentators have had difficulty interpreting the election results. It becomes easier, however, once the Iranian political landscape has been properly laid out.

The dominant group in Iranian political life is what I call the post-revolutionary hard-line conservatives. This is the group who came to power under the aegis of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The current Iranian spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, and his supporters make up the bulk of this group, which currently dominate the government. Often identified in derogatory fashion as the "mullocracy,'' it is no longer dominated by clerics.

Challenging this establishment for power are three groups. First are a number of moderate conservatives -- individuals and factions who have posts within the conservative establishment who are vying for power. Chief among them is Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, a former president who ran for a second nonconsecutive term against current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2006 elections. Hashemi-Rafsanjani currently heads the Expediency Council, which mediates between the spiritual leader and the parliament. Another contender for power is the current mayor of Tehran, Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, who also ran for president.

The second group consists of the Reformers, who, under President Mohammad Khatami, the last president, made strong gains in modifying the hard revolutionary line of the Khomeini conservatives. They were voted out of office by a public disgruntled because they could not take their reforms far enough. They were also prevented from seeking election by the conservatives who, under the constitution, have the right through a body called the Council of Guardians to remove "unsuitable'' candidates from elections. Former parliament Speaker Mehdi Karrubi, who came close to being in the presidential runoff last year, is part of this group.

The third challenger group might be called the revolutionary reactionaries, headed by current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This group is disgruntled for many reasons. Many are veterans of the Iran-Iraq War. They have never achieved real power in government, though they maintain a certain control in local politics. They reject the idea of clerical rule and want Iran to return to the ideals of the original revolution -- particularly in economic reform. They view the current conservative rulers as corrupt and venal. President Ahmadinejad's fiery rhetoric is aimed at energizing this group and attracting new followers to its philosophy. He is too weak to effect the religious conservative rollback in laws involving public behavior, or in redistribution of the nation's wealth -- one of the hallmark goals of the original revolution.

Unfortunately for both the reformers and the revolutionary reactionaries, they have very little power. President Khatami and those who represent his political stance are regularly vilified in the press and in public rhetoric. Though President Ahmadinejad has the bully pulpit at his disposal to launch whatever attacks he wishes on Israel, the United States or those who oppose Iran's nuclear-energy program, in fact he has very little actual power. Under Iran's governmental system the president has no control over the military, foreign policy or Iran 's nuclear program. Therefore, his words are empty.

Iran, however, does have a real, functioning electoral system, despite denigrating remarks made by the Bush administration. President Ahmadinejad hoped to increase his power by forming a political party and running candidates who would represent his philosophy. The reformers also ran candidates to challenge the conservatives.

Now that election returns are in, it seems clear that the voters have favored the reformers, and the moderate conservatives in both the local elections and for the Assembly of Experts. Mr. Ahmadinejad's supporters came in a distant fourth in all aspects of the election. This is certainly a setback for his political ambitions, and it should help Westerners to put his extreme remarks in perspective: Clearly Iranians don't buy them any more than forces in the West.

The trend among Iranian voters is thus in the direction of change away from the conservatism of the past. This has been the general direction of Iranian politics, and it will undoubtedly continue.

The one issue in which all Iranians are united, however, is the right for Iran to develop its nuclear-energy capabilities. This is a matter of national pride in Iran, where it is seen as an aspect of modernization. There is no strong evidence that Iran is pursuing a weapons program. The United States is foolish to continue to antagonize the Iranian people by threatening attacks, sanctions and other hostile actions based on this one-note foreign policy.

A policy of talking to Iran, engaging in diplomacy and working toward reasonable mutual solutions to regional issues of mutual concern will pay off in the long run when Iran's new generation comes to power.

William O. Beeman is a professor of anthropology and Middle East Studies at Brown University and the author of "The Great Satan vs. The Mad Mullahs: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other."

Youth movement Iran's new generation will be more moderate | | Times Daily | Florence, AL

Youth movement Iran's new generation will be more moderate Times Daily Florence, AL