Iranian Jewry and the dilemma of belonging

The death of Gen Qasem Soleimani has marked a bitter and disturbing beginning of a new decade for the Middle East. The ensuing chain of events, including exchange of threats and missiles between Washington and Tehran, has created a geopolitical hysteria. With US attacking Iran’s second most important man (after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei) on Iraq’s territory, the immediate tensions may appear to be trilateral. However the impact of the event seems to have transcended its geography and major players in the region have tightened their seat belts for another Gulf War.

The friction between Iran and the US goes back to November 4, 1979 when over fifty American diplomats and citizens were taken hostage at the US embassy in Tehran for 444 days. On February 1 same year, Ayatollah Rohullah Khomeini had landed back in Tehran ending 15 years of his exile, and within two weeks he had established provincial government in Iran. The pro-Western monarchy of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was replaced and an Islamic theocratic state was installed. These events marked the beginning of a crisis which soured the bilateral relations permanently and sucked the region into geopolitical disarray. Iran, Israel and the US which were allies under Shah’s rule were now arch enemies, and after 40 years of revolution, the three seem to have made peace with their enmity. The title “Great Satan” was bestowed upon the US, and Washington’s closest ally in the region – Israel came to be seen as the “Little Satan”.  Ever since, Khomeini’s satanic connotations remain tattooed in the collective consciousness of these states. While USA and Iran were miles away, it became overtly difficult for Iran and Israel to tolerate each other in the same continent. Caught in this conundrum were the Iranian Jews.

I remember my interaction with an Iranian Jewish female in Massachusetts in the summer of 2017. An American citizen based in Beverly Hills, she was visiting Brandeis University for her scholastic work while I was there for an academic conference. We ended up sitting next to each other during a session on Iran’s role in the region and decided to continue our discussion over a cup of coffee before the next session. It’s hard to recollect how the conversation got personal but eventually we slipped from Tehran’s geopolitical ambitions to her mother’s younger years in Iran.

PC: Ankita Sanyal

She shared the tales she had heard from her grandparents and relatives: about their lives in Iran, their travels across the country, their fond memories with their non-Jewish friends, Persian music and delicacies, and the rather understated pride of being associated with the world’s richest civilization. Even though as Jews the Aliyah to Israel was always an option, her family chose to stay in Iran.

Iran of yesteryears was different: warm and welcoming. The Shah was tolerant and open to religious and cultural diversity, and the Jews were well-off and well-integrated within the socio-economic fabric. However the 1979 Iranian revolution changed the fate of the 80,000 Jewish citizens of Iran. As she put it, “The distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ became clear” and her family, along with many other people of her faith, decided to leave Iran for good.

The past however, doesn’t fade away so easily. This seemed to be the case with my acquaintance, whose identity was a complex blend of American, Iranian and Jewish. To gauge her feelings, I asked her where she belonged. “For me, America is my home now”, she exclaimed, “…but I belong to more than one place”. Her words were puzzling yet profound. Sitting there, I could read the emotions running through her mind and I told her how I could relate to her. As a third generation Hindu-immigrant from Pakistan, I grew up listening to my grandfather’s stories from his hometown – Lahore, erstwhile capital of Punjab province in undivided India, now a part of Pakistan. Fortunately, in 2012, an academic opportunity came my way and I got a chance to visit Pakistan. For my American friend, her desire to visit and experience Iran first-hand was still a far-fetched project but she was quite hopeful. We both felt connected in that moment. We hardly had anything in common. Nevertheless, two complete strangers – from East and West – bonded over their longing for their roots. Every time there is any major development pertaining to these three countries, I am reminded of her. For me, she is an embodiment of the conflict; American, Iranian and Jewish all at once, yet optimistic and dynamic!

About the Author
Divya Malhotra is a non-resident fellow at Middle East Institute, New Delhi where she documents Pakistan-Middle East relations. She is also a doctoral candidate at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has visited Israel thrice and has also been to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal and USA as a part of academic assignments.
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