Monday, February 23, 2009

Iran's Jews

Roger Cohen's op-ed on Iran in the New York Times today is an insult to journalism. He made himself the perfect tool of the Iranian government. Is it too much to expect just a little bit of skepticism? 
Accepting, I inquired how he felt about the chants of “Death to Israel” — “Marg bar Esraeel” — that punctuate life in Iran.

“Let them say ‘Death to Israel,’ ” he said. “I’ve been in this store 43 years and never had a problem. I’ve visited my relatives in Israel, but when I see something like the attack on Gaza, I demonstrate, too, as an Iranian.”

This was the kicker:
Perhaps I have a bias toward facts over words, but I say the reality of Iranian civility toward Jews tells us more about Iran — its sophistication and culture — than all the inflammatory rhetoric.

That may be because I’m a Jew and have seldom been treated with such consistent warmth as in Iran. Or perhaps I was impressed that the fury over Gaza, trumpeted on posters and Iranian TV, never spilled over into insults or violence toward Jews. Or perhaps it’s because I’m convinced the “Mad Mullah” caricature of Iran and likening of any compromise with it to Munich 1938 — a position popular in some American Jewish circles — is misleading and dangerous.
Oh, I'm sure the fact that Roger Cohen is an internationally-known, Western journalist has nothing to do with the civility accorded to him. As for that pithy sentence about facts and words, it would be better applied to Iran's denial of its nuclear ambitions. And do bombing Jewish community centers and arming Hizbullah also amount to "mere words"?


Anonymous said...

dead right. he's a disgrace

Noah S. said...

Amos, your reaction to Cohen's op-ed strikes me as fairly extreme. "An insult to journalism"? Should we not welcome differentiated pictures of daily life in Iran to counteract the terrible simplifiers who identify that country's ugly regime with its entire population?

Noah K said...

You have to start somewhere with pluralism in the Middle East...The parting shot, "They have their prophet, we have ours," seems like an extremely rosy view, sure, but why does the story have to amount to propaganda for the regime? These people obviously don't mind living there, despite the despicable regime. So isn't that a problematic that warrants discussion and explanation?

Amos said...

Hey guys,

The problem is that Cohen doesn't seriously consider the question of why someone might be resigned to hearing shouts of "Death to Israel" outside his window on a regular basis, and why he might feel compelled to demonstrate his support for the regime line. I think the case of the Jews in Shiraz, which Cohen acknowledges but does not take anywhere, provides some insights.

When I said that the op-ed was an insult to journalism, I meant that it fails to examine the statements of the interviewees critically. Roger Cohen seems very willing indeed to take literally the line that the Jews of Iran are compelled to produce to visiting foreigners. I am not saying that this is a totalitarian state, but I do think that he underestimates the pressures that are brought to bear on the small Jewish community.

I also have a problem with Cohen dismissing Holocaust denial as an "anti-Israel tirade." It goes much further than that. Cohen comes perilously close to excusing Ahmadinejad - after all, these are "just" provocations, and perfectly justified ones at that, given the usual list of complaints against Israel.

As for calling Palestine Square "ecumenical" - isn't this jumping the gun a bit?

I talked to an Armenian friend a year ago who grew up in Iran and whose parents still live there. She came to the U.S. for college, and her parents come to visit occasionally. I was surprised when she told me, without prompting, that anti-Jewish feelings run very deep in the country. I know she is just one person, but I do trust her observations and those of her parents. To my surprise (I had not expected her to be concerned with the issue) she insisted that it would take a long time for people to change their prejudices against Jews. This is why I'm extremely hesitant to embrace Roger Cohen's naive view of Iranian Jewish life today. I think the article might have been served by some frank acknowledgment of the persecution that its Jewish population endured before and after the Shah. My friend Daniel Tsadik has an excellent book on the subject, called Between Foreigners and Shi`is: Nineteenth-Century Iran and its Jewish Minority.

I think Cohen's piece is a disgrace to journalism because it ends up sanitizing the Iranian regime's attitude towards its minorities by failing to examine the sources critically.

Finally, I quote in entirety the remarks of a friend whose parents left Tehran after the revolution. I came across the comments of this friend,whom Noah S. knows, after putting up my post:

Mr. Cohen's account of Jewish life in Iran is a skewed presentation of a miserable reality.

There are a few things he left out, because of ignorance or otherwise. First of all, the 25,000 Jews left in Tehran are the battered remains of a civilization that predated Islam in Iran. One of the main reasons these people are still there, and why they are unrepresentative of Iranian Jews in general, is that they are by and large very old; they were too old or stubborn or poor to leave in 1979. Yes, Mr. Cohen found a 22 year old to speak to, but he failed to mention the very significant demographic landscape.

"Jews in Iran, like many other minorities, also have a skewed sense of freedom and tolerance. He failed to mention that a generation ago (in my father's youth, for example), Jews would not be allowed to go to school on rainy days, lest a drop of water would bounce off a Jews body and hit a Muslim before he went to pray, making him unclean and unfit to worship in a Mosque.

Jews in Iran say they don't mind the chants of Death to Israel. That is largely because if they did mind, they would be arrested as spies for the Zionist Satan. So in order to experience relative calm, they must be ok with calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. Some, like the elderly shop-keeper, have learned showing even more fervor by going to the protests "as an Iranian" will certainly keep people from bothering him. I say, the fact that Iranians have to put on this show is reminiscent of a time when forced conversions were rampant. Iran's Jews, like many Europeans centuries before, although they converted, would continue practicing Judaism secretly.

I wonder what the Synagogue in Palestinian square looks like, compared to the mosque across the street. Mr. Cohen didn't bother to look at the laws requiring no Synagogue to be built taller than Mosques in Iran.

About the Arab Jews' exodus... he failed to mention that Israel arranged for countries like Iraq to export their 185,000 Jews. They were happy to be rid of them at a time when Israel was happy to take them. Iran's Jews were in a better position financially at the time of their exodus, so they did not need such arrangements. Although, it is this success that made them targets of the Revolution, because the Islamists saw anyone who was successful at the time as walking the line with the Shah, and automatically criminal.

The treatment of Jews in Iran is Medieval. In fact, they got rid of us much the way European countries did, except for the actual expulsion.

Mr. Cohen's account is a shameful excuse for journalism with his opportunistic tactics of injecting his anti-Israeli rhetoric in a context that frames a country who soon will have destroyed a 3000 year old civilization as something even near tolerant is ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

this might be of interest

Johny said...

Just wanted to say, Daniel Tsadik's summer course on Iranian History at the Hebrew University is excellent, so I have no doubt his book will be the same.

Rebecca said...

Thank you, I also agree that this article was a disgrace. He did not do his journalistic job of checking whether the people he spoke to were free to speak as they wished. He quoted them giving their full names - if he had wanted some more truthful opinions he would not have given names or descriptions of where people lived. I have read a number of accounts by Jewish Iranian emigres from the Islamic republic who have also reported on anti-Jewish experiences. Roya Hakakian, who left Iran with her family in the early 1980s, reports that the Jewish school she used to go to was taken over by the state, and was given a Muslim headmistress. Water fountains were labeled as being for Muslims and non-Muslims (this is based on Shi'ite purity regulations to separate Muslims from non-Muslims; water is thought to transmit impurity). I don't know if this kind of thing still goes on - I've only read it in accounts of the early 1980s - but it did happen in the early years of the Islamic revolution.

I am in favor of continued dialogue with Iran and its people, but I don't think this dialogue is furthered b ignoring the realities of Iranian life.

Another thing that he should have paid much more attention to is the situation of the Bahais in Iran, who are openly persecuted by the state. Their situation is much worse than that of Jews, who at least fit into the traditional Muslim category of the dhimmi which allows them some protection in Muslim law. Bahais do not receive such protection at all. Roya Hakakian has also recently written a great article about the Bahais in Iran - check out her website to read it.

Noah S. said...


the reality of Jewish life in Iran should be discussed in all its complexity. This means addressing the regime's brutality toward minorities in general and discrimination against Jews in particular, gauging the amount of anti-Jewish sentiment among the population through social scientific evidence (not through the memories of émigrés), and deciphering between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. It also means letting the Jewish subjects speak for themselves and examining their statements closely, which you say Cohen fails to do.

The op-ed is a terrible genre for nuance. It is designed for authors to make pithy points. Cohen's goals here seem relatively clear, especially in light of his recent New York Review of Books piece - he is fed up both with recent Israeli war policy and with the American Jewish fear-mongers who compare Iran with Nazi Germany and identify Iran's entire population with its regime (a mistake American Jews, especially, should know better than to make given the experience of the past eight years here). Personally, I think we should welcome interventions from those who take the time to put a human face on the monstrous image of Iran generally presented in the American press, provided, of course, that they offer their own image only as a nuance, not as a replacement. Cohen does point to hostility in Iran; you argue he plays it down. Perhaps. But the point of the piece is not to play up anti-Jewish sentiment--we know about that already--but to present a counter-image of daily life and to explain why 25,000 Jews remain there at all.

I agree that Cohen should have at least hinted at the possibility of his subjects' fear of reprisal when he examined their remarks. But I am suspicious of your immediate instinct to dismiss Cohen's decision to take his subjects at their word. Emigration is possible there (large sums of money offered to Iranian Jews to emigrate have been turned down in the past), and so is protest (Motamed, the Jewish member of parliament, is anything but shy about criticizing Ahmadinejad's Holocaust-denial and "Death to Israel" rhetoric). Furthermore, there is no logical reason why criticism of Israeli policy, non-Zionism or indeed active anti-Zionism among Iranian Jews cannot co-exist with criticism of Ahmadinejad's inflammatory rhetoric or material support of Hizbullah/Hamas. Of course, on the other hand, the risk Iranian Jews always run is that of being regarded as a fifth column, much as Arab Israelis often are. But no one is forcing people like Sedighpoor to demonstrate against the Gaza incursion. It is, as you say, not a totalitarian state.

How much implicit or explicit pressure is exerted upon Iranian Jews to conform to the regime's expectations? We don't really know. Behavior is complicated by many factors. My cousins in Turkey do not dare wear skullcaps in the street, so as not to draw attention to themselves in a country where the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is almost a best-seller and bombs periodically explode in synagogues, but in the privacy of their own voting booth they choose to support the Islamist party, not the secular nationalists. They have no interest in Israel and might even march in anti-Israeli policy demonstrations for all I know. Go figure. No community has more portraits of Ataturk in their members' homes as the Jews do.

Amos said...

I wish Cohen had made his point without Iran's Jewish population. He ran the risk of trivializing the difficulties that the Jews do face, which would be hard for them to talk about. To present Iran as "ecumenical" is a disservice to the minorities and liberal democratic forces in that country.

If the subject is minorities in Iran, there has to be a real critique involved. What Cohen ended up doing was to reinforce those regime propagandists who claim that things are just rosy. It also soothes the conscience of those who insist that there is no problem with the Jews in Iran and that the state and society distinguish easily between (supposedly acceptable) anti-Zionism and antisemitism. As the Turkish case shows, many people do not make these kinds of distinctions.

If overseas Chinese in Malaysia faced calls for the "Death of China" on a daily basis, I would imagine that they would also feel threatened. Especially given the history of anti-Chinese riots in that country. I think it shows a real failure of imagination on Cohen's part to downplay these "mere words."

I think emigre memories are one part of the story, though I do realize that they also cannot be taken literally. However, I fail to see why statements made by the interviewed merchant, for example, are more credible. I think the comments of the Iranian friend whom I mentioned (whose parents still live in the country and who visits there frequently) are far more likely to be accurate.

You are angry at "the American Jewish fear-mongers who compare Iran with Nazi Germany." It does not surprise me that some American Jews are taking an aggressive public stance against the Iranian regime. But I also want to point out that the last survey, from the fall of 2008, showed that 47% of American Jews OPPOSE "the United States taking military action against Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons," with 42% supporting it. I highly doubt that more than 47% of Americans overall oppose the military option.

As for the 5th column issue, let's not kid ourselves. The Shiraz trials showed clearly that the Iranian government monitors its Jewish citizens very carefully, and is not afraid to charge them with treason in secret trials. If people are going to complain about the situation of Arab Israelis, then, a fortiori, they should be very wary about sanitizing the Iranian regime's treatment of its Jewish, Bahai and Kurdish minorities.

Noah S. said...


I take your points but I believe there is more to say on this issue.

1) I can only guess at Cohen's motivations, but I believe he chose to write about Iranian Jews to make his point about Iran because his audience is primarily American Jews.

2) If we really want to get into the issue of anti-Jewish sentiment in Iran, we'll obviously come up against some questions of method and definition. How do we measure it? We should not dismiss émigré memories nor the accumulated impressions of your friend and her family, nor of Cohen's subjects, but what of the more scientifically measurable expressions? Sales of antisemitic literature? Desecrations, graffiti? Physical attacks on Jews and Jewish property? Legal discrimination specifically aimed against Jews? Of this there is fairly little, I think, after Khatami, in comparison to the early part of the Revolution, but I could be wrong. I am not clear on what evidence your friend has in mind when he says that people who complain about "Death to Israel" chants are systematically arrested. If Shiraz is the primary evidence, then surely it is a thin case to suggest it reflects Iranian sentiment as a whole. Governments monitor/wrongly accuse and convict groups who are suspected fifth columns as a matter of course. We (Americans) did it here to German Americans, Japanese Americans, Jewish Americans, and now Arab Americans.

I simply think we shouldn't play fast and loose with a diagnosis of anti-Jewish sentiment among a very large population. The official stance of the government toward Israel is another story altogether.

2) Cohen does not present the situation as "just rosy." Come, now. "Ecumenical," however, definitely an unfortunate exaggeration. There is very little ecumenicalism in the Middle East to my knowledge, except for the Baha'i's, who have not fared so well.

3) I am not sure that the case of ethnically Chinese Malays is a perfect analogy. However, OF COURSE "Death to Israel" chants are going to concern Jews in Iran. But all this Cohen acknowledges. Only, he contrasts it with the "relative tranquility" (his words) in which Jews there live. Hence the paradox.

4) A majority of American Jews may oppose military action against a potentially nuclear Iran, but America's major Jewish organizations generally take a tougher stance.

I am assuming our readers know I am not saying all this as an apologist. I simply don't think Cohen's article was so offensive to merit such an emotional attack.