Giving Voice to the Stifled Jews of Iran
Shirin lives in constant fear. We met on social media. This is her story.
Iran’s small Jewish community lives under the shadow of institutionalized-hatred, bound by fear and the threat of retaliation should they dare offer but a whisper of resistance. It is those voices I wish to air today, so that their cries find an echo in the silence which suffocates them.
Shirin* is the daughter of a textile merchant from Isfahan, an affluent city of central Iran, a six-hour drive from the capital Tehran. Formerly home to a buoyant Jewish community, Isfahan is now home to an estimated 1500 Jews and 13 synagogues, all mostly located in an area dubbed the Jewish Passage, a far cry from the bustling community who once upon a time called the city home.
“After Tehran, Isfahan had one of the most populous and thriving Jewish communities. Today things are very different. The streets of our neighborhoods have gone increasingly quiet and so many of our family members have left for Europe, the United States or Israel. It has been difficult to feel a real sense of belonging now that we are cut off from one another … Even though we try to stay in touch with everyone through social media and Whatsapp, there is always the fear that our phone calls and messages could be misinterpreted by the regime and accusations of espionage or direct support to Israel made against us.
“My cousin left five years ago for the UK and I’ve stayed in touch with her through journals. A family friend who is a trader often travels between Iran, Turkey and the UK and when he does I make sure to give him my journals so that Serena could read them … and vice versa. This way I get to share my innermost thoughts and everyday life without censorship.
It’s a bit lonely as I miss hearing my cousin’s voice but it’s the only safe way we have to maintain our close bond.
I wish we didn’t have to hide ourselves away. Sometimes I wish Iran wasn’t my home.
“I wish we had the freedom to be ourselves and enjoy our families. I wish we didn’t have to hide ourselves away. I wish so many things for my community and my parents. Sometimes I wish Iran wasn’t my home.”
A sister to her four brothers and an only daughter to her loving Jewish parents, Shirin is 27 years old. An avid reader of the French classics, Shirin dreams of teaching at La Sorbonne, a well-known French University in Paris, a dream she knows is unlikely to come true as leaving Iran is not a simple matter.
Shirin has an M.A in French Language and Literature. She now teaches French privately, hoping soon to further her studies by pursuing a degree in Western Philosophy.
“It hasn’t been an easy road for me. I had to work twice as hard as other students and every step of the way I had to justify to both my professors and the faculty administrative body that my ambitions were purely academic and not politically motivated.
“Jews in Iran live under permanent suspicion; everything we do is put under a microscope. The most trivial matters can lead the authorities to question our motives. When I first applied to my B.A in French Language my father had a visit from SEPA (Iran Intelligence Services) asking him why his daughter felt the need to study a foreign language when she could simply marry and limit herself to being a mother and a wife.
“The fear was that I might develop links to French organizations through my studies and get involved in politics.
“Bless them, my parents have been so supportive of me! I’m eternally grateful to my dad for standing up to government officials for me when it would have been so easy for him to demand that I give up.
“I had to wait for an entire year for my application to be accepted. After that I had to face daily berating from my teachers and fellow students. I was also asked to systematically hand over my notes and research papers to a committee for verification before I could be allowed to attend the rest of my classes. I don’t know what they were looking for but I had no choice in the matter. And so I complied.
“I was the only Jew in my classes and I found it difficult to make any friends. I tried but most people kept away from me. It was a lonely experience but I pushed through. My studies mean everything to me and without them I would have nothing.”
Under Constant Suspicion
On paper the Islamic Republic does not discriminate against its citizens on the basis of ethnicity or faith, but realities on the ground are very different - even more so for Iran’s small Jewish community. Fed by paranoia against the Jews, the State peddles the view that every Iranian Jew harbors seditionist feelings towards Tehran and that without proper monitoring they would either foment an uprising or enable foreign agents to sow discord within.
Such level of mistrust has fuelled many great tensions and fanned feelings of enmity against the Jewish communities, leaving the Jews of Iran to have to justify their actions under the watchful eye of the state intelligence services.
“I was told very young not to mix with children outside our community as mixing could put my father and his business in jeopardy. There is no law preventing us from participating in social gatherings or even sports but it’s very much frowned upon. All aspects of life in Iran are closely monitored by SEPA and the Basij (a paramilitary group close to Ayatollah Khameini set up to serve as an auxiliary force engaged in activities such as internal security, and enforcing state control over society.)
Women in Iran have a very limited space within which they can freely move and I have to contend with those limitations on top of being an Iranian Jew.
“Even our synagogues are watched and so many choose to practice at home rather than risk bringing attention to themselves. Being a girl makes things terribly difficult.
Women in Iran have a very limited space within which they can freely move and I have to contend with those limitations on top of being an Iranian Jew. As a child I rarely went to the park with my mother and brothers to play. Even picnics, a favorite hobby among Iranians, had to be a well thought-out affair.
“I’m suffocating … I wish I could be free to choose how I want to live my life and my faith without thinking of all the ways I might put my family in danger.”
Shirin found refuge in the anonymity of social media. We met when Shirin posted a Facebook comment on one of my posts.
“We live under the constant threat of arrest. Should the state decide that we acted against their interests, we face the risk of having our loved ones imprisonned and tortured. Jews cannot travel freely across Iran without arousing suspicion. The state may claim that we can, it’s simply not true. The worst part is that there are no clear guidelines or rulebooks. Everything is up to the intelligence services to decide. A simple text message to a friend could be misunderstood and lead to an arrest or a visit of Basij into our homes.
“Jews are immediately flagged at the airport should we wish to leave the country for fears that we will contact opposition groups and help depose the regime. Our phones are tapped and our gatherings spied on.
“We also have to play a part in the state’s propaganda machine by sending representatives to vouch for the happiness of the Jewish community under the authority of the Ayatollahs.
Tehran’s claims that the Jews of Iran are safe is all a sham. We are paraded a few times a year so that state officials could claim diversity and inclusion. They mock our rituals by forcing us to perform before their state cameras to then congratulate each other for the tolerance of their institutions.”
Shirin feels trapped in the face of oppression.
“What could we ever hope to achieve in resisting the wishes of the government? The whole system has been architected in such a way that no matter what avenue we wish to pursue we will fail … our studies, our travels, our friendships, our businesses, our practices are put under a microscope and our ambitions curtailed to make way for regular Iranians.
“Iran has put so many limitations on us that our only hope would be to leave and relocate elsewhere… but many of us do not wish to leave our homes and our communities. Iran has been home for generations and we are waiting for things to get better. Only it’s not getting any better and the regime has systematically hardened its tone towards us, we live under a cloud of suspicion.
“Things have gotten increasingly difficult since the 2009 unrest. Even though no Jews took part in the protests, the government seems to think that somehow we had a hand in it by financing the Green Movement. Up until 2009 my father had managed to get quite friendly with several notables in Isfahan and that meant that he could trade in relative freedom. After 2009 they had to distance themselves from him. He was told that Tehran had sent a directive that any close contact with dissident groups, including the Jewish community would be looked upon as an act of defiance against the leadership.”
Shirin describes the widespread boycott her community suffers as Jewish businesses and Jewish wealth have become center stage to claims that the Jews of Iran support terrorism abroad and that their actions are designed to harm the economic interests of regular Iranians.
“Schools and universities often call for Iranians to shun Jewish-run businesses by claiming we are financing acts of genocide against Muslim populations abroad. Clerics are describing us as devils and devil-worshippers… and though many people know that to be a lie, they still stay away from us out of fear. Iran is a suffocating country to live in. All we can do is hope to survive the regime.”
I’ve walked the streets of Iran and I attended those very rooms where the “Jewish question” was being addressed. Shirin’s story is typical of that of an Iranian Jew. Cut off from everyday society, Iran’s Jews can only survive by living in seclusion.
*A pseudonym in order to protect her identity.
Feature image: Unsplash.com, Ardalan Hamedani