October 17, 1999
By JOHN F. BURNS
TEHERAN, Iran — At the Yousuf Abad synagogue in Teheran, the packed congregation gathered for the Sabbath was approaching the end of Friday prayers. It was the moment one worshiper had been waiting for, when the rise of hundreds of fervent voices made him inaudible to all but a stranger beside him.
Suddenly, urgently, the man spoke, of the chill that has spread through the small Iranian Jewish community since the arrest in March of 13 Jews who have been accused of spying for Israel. Although the United States and dozens of other countries have appealed for the case to be dropped, the Jews, and a group of Muslims arrested with them, face the prospect of trial in a revolutionary court in the southern city of Shiraz, at a date yet to be set.
Human rights groups outside Iran have suggested that the charges have been trumped up for political reasons. In Iran, spokesmen for Jewish organizations have mostly avoided discussing the case, saying that protests from Jews, here or abroad, would only make matters worse. But the man in the synagogue, dapper and bearded, a merchant of about 50, had bottled-up feelings he wanted the stranger to understand.
“This is my country, my Iran,” he said, pressing close, speaking clear English despite years of little use. “When the mullahs made their revolution 20 years ago, I could have left, like many Jews, but I decided not to go. And why? Because my family came here 2,500 years ago.”
The man looked quickly at the rows of small boys and girls, teen-agers in T-shirts and sneakers, men and women, doctors and lawyers and engineers and businessmen and university professors, as well as merchants from the bazaars and janitors and taxi drivers and off-duty soldiers. Filling the balcony and every row of chairs in the hall, they were a cross section of a community that traces its origins to Jewish slaves freed by an ancient Persian ruler, Cyrus the Great, after he conquered Babylon in the sixth century B.C.
Survivors of countless upheavals through the ages, the Jews who remain here have endured an Islamic revolution that gave the country a Government that was, at least until the rise of a powerful reform movement in the last two years, the most militant and anti-Western in the Muslim world. Although recognized as an official minority in the Islamic Constitution, and allowed to observe their religious practices and traditions, the Jews of Iran have rarely known more difficult times.
“Imagine, 2,500 years!” the bearded man in the synagogue continued. “My father, his father, and his father before him, for centuries and centuries we have been here, always loyal to whoever has ruled. And now, because of Shiraz, I know I must take my family, and lock my house, and leave.”
Afterward, as worshipers gathered in tight groups before heading into the Teheran night, the same anxiety found a dozen muffled voices. In English or Persian, the same word, Shiraz, surfaced again and again — shorthand now, among Jews, for events in the city 550 miles south of Teheran where the 13 Jews were arrested, and where they now face a trial that Jews here see as a direct threat to the community’s survival.
Among Jewish scholars outside Iran, the Shiraz case is being compared to the last time any large group of Jews in a Muslim country in the Middle East faced such serious charges. That was in Baghdad, a few months after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when a group of Iraqi Jews were convicted on charges of spying for Israel, then hanged from lampposts in a Baghdad square. That nightmare was the last straw for Iraq’s once-flourishing Jewish community. From 140,000 Jews in 1948, there are fewer than 100 now.
In Iran, fewer than 30,000 Jews, perhaps only 25,000, remain of the 85,000 who were here at the time of the Islamic revolution in 1979. But even after the migration of the last 20 years, mostly to Israel and the United states, Iran’s Jewish population remains by far the largest in any Muslim country in the Middle East, except for Turkey, a country allied to the West. Elsewhere, from Morocco to Iraq, Jewish residents are numbered in the dozens or low hundreds, where there are any Jews left at all.
The Jews arrested in Shiraz included a rabbi, two university professors, several teachers in private Hebrew schools, a Government official, a kosher butcher and a 16-year-old youth. Some, Iranian officials said, were brought to the jail in Shiraz from Isfahan, a city midway between Teheran and Shiraz. At least seven Muslims were arrested, too, a point Iranian officials have emphasized to support the contention that the case has nothing to do with religion. None of the accused have been allowed to see families or lawyers, although some are said to have had contacts by telephone.
Even reformers like Kamal Kharrazi, the Foreign Minister, have said that the origins of the case have “nothing to do” with the defendants’ religion, that it is “closely related to Iran’s national security,” and that Iran will not be pressured by outside powers into abandoning its legal processes. Among Jews in Teheran, there have been many rumors, mostly involving possible actions by the Jews that overzealous investigators might have interpreted as spying.
One is that investigators found that the 16-year-old youth had been sending E-mail messages to Israel. Another is that one of the defendants worked on a secret aircraft project. Still another, that several served as conscripts in Iran’s armed forces, and could have discussed their experiences in international telephone calls. Still another, that several of the accused may have visited Israel secretly, as many Iranian Jews do, despite laws forbidding it. But so little has been divulged about the case by prosecutors that much of this is surmise.
The prosecutors’ initial explanations, before the spying charges were brought, were different — that some of the accused had violated exchange controls, and that others, in Hebrew schools, defied rules requiring separation of male and female students in classrooms. The shift was one reason that led human rights groups abroad to conclude that the arrests were a tactic by clerical hard-liners out to embarrass President Mohammad Khatami, a reformer, and to foster anti-Western feelings among Iran’s population of 62 million ahead of February parliamentary elections that will be a crucial test for his supporters.
In a letter last month to the new head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, a Khatami supporter, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch put the matter bluntly. The letter appealed to Shahroudi not to allow the Jews to become “innocent casualties of political forces.”
It added: “We are particularly concerned that these members of the Jewish minority may have been singled out for persecution to make a political point, as a gambit in what is widely described as a struggle within Iran’s leadership.” After receiving the letter, Shahroudi confirmed that the Shiraz trial would go ahead.
The plight of the 13 has been made grimmer by the fact that their case is to be heard by a revolutionary court. Commonly used in security cases, revolutionary courts are headed by Muslim clerics judging according to Islamic laws — often men who have little or no grounding in ordinary criminal law. Trials are usually brief, often with scant opportunity for defense, and death sentences have been common.
In June, Iran’s Chief Justice, Ayatollah Mohammed Yazdi, pronounced the Jews held in Shiraz guilty, and implied that execution was a foregone conclusion. But Yazdi has since been dismissed, and high-level officials have said in recent weeks that the men will not be hanged. Kharrazi, the Foreign Minister, told reporters in New York on Oct. 2 that Iran does not execute spies in peacetime, and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright has said that the United States has been given similar assurances.
The man to whom many Iranians now look for relief from the arbitrariness of Islamic rule, President Khatami — a moderate Muslim cleric elected 29 months ago on a pledge to make Iran a democratic country, with respect for human rights and law — has also attempted to allay fears. At a meeting two weeks ago with women’s groups, he was asked about the Shiraz case by Farangis Hassidim, the nursing matron of the 102-bed Jewish hospital in Teheran, which uses Jewish charitable donations to help treat a patient load that is more than 90 percent Muslim.
Khatami reproved Mrs. Hassidim for not asking about the Muslims in the case. But he went on: “It’s the court that will decide if the facts are proven. If the facts are not proven, the accused will be acquitted. The court must decide their fate and give its ruling in all fairness.”
A few days earlier, addressing ethnic minorities in the shrine built to the cleric who led the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Khatami said Jews were equal citizens in Iran. “Anti-Semitism and fascism are a Western phenomenon, not an Eastern one,” he said.
Senior Iranian officials say privately that the 53-year-old Khatami is caught in a difficult position, as he is caught in a wider political struggle with the conservatives clerics and his powers are limited by constitutional provisions that leave most authority, including control of the courts, to Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Still, officials close to the President say that he can help the Shiraz Jews, and possibly even assure their acquittal. “The situation is very different from what would have been even two years ago,” a high-ranking official said. “The revolutionary courts can still come up with cases that are politically motivated, but now they know that they at least have to have a case. They can’t just make any allegation and convict. Now, there are people loyal to President Khatami who will hold them to account.”
The situation is full of paradox for Jews here, who, like many other Iranians, had just begun to breathe more easily in the wake of Khatami’s election. Although being a Jew in a militant Islamic state has posed special problems, many Jews say their situation was not much worse during the most zealous years of Islamic rule than that of most other Iranians.
If some Jews have been persecuted in the past, they note, so too were hundreds, even thousands, of Muslim Iranians. Much is made of the fact that Ayatollah Khomeini, although fierce in his condemnations of Israel, met early on after 1979 with Jewish leaders, and promised the community protection.
Since the Islamic revolution, Jews have been a recognized minority, with guaranteed civil rights, freedom to keep Jewish traditions and to run Jewish schools. In Teheran, there are 27 synagogues, several of them modernized with help of donations from American Jewish groups. Like Christians, Zoroastrians and other minority groups, they have a reserved seat in Parliament, currently held by Manucher Eliassi, a 58-year-old Teheran doctor who has been in the forefront of efforts to help the Shiraz Jews.
In an interview, Eliassi appealed to American Jewish groups not to be vociferous.
“I think the case of the Shiraz 13 is just a misunderstanding, and it will be solved soon,” he said. “The American Jewish community should not worry. It is a domestic problem, and we can handle it ourselves.”
For years, Jews speaking formally for the community have been careful to accentuate the positive, praising the ruling clerics for their tolerance and encouraging Jews everywhere in Iran to do likewise, to the point of posting Ayatollah Khomeini’s picture in their offices and clinics and shops. Eliassi is no exception. “From the beginning of the revolution, we have never had any problems with the revolutionary Government,” he said.
“We can listen to our own music, we can wear our traditional clothing, we can even have wine at our weddings and religious ceremonies. There is no problem. We are 100 percent free. ”
He added: “Jews have deep, deep roots in this country, and I am very sure that there will never be an Iran without Jews.”
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company