Karmel Melamed
Iranian American Journalist and Commentator

Presbyterian Church USA’s guide is dead wrong about Iranian Jewry

On a monthly basis I come across dozens of articles from Western news media and even from the Iranian regime’s state-run news outlets claiming that Jews live in supposed peace and total freedom in Iran — or that Jews even enjoy something close to a “paradise” in Iran. While most of these outrageous claims about the supposed “lovely” lives of Jews in Iran are laughable, often times as an Iranian Jewish journalist I feel compelled to set the record straight when a more reputable publication or organization makes blatantly false statements about Iranian Jewry. Such was the case when I was given a January 2014 copy of the Presbyterian Church USA’s recent publication of their booklet “Zionism Unsettled, a Congregational Study Guide”. This booklet not only makes unsupported and completely inaccurate statements about the lives of Jews in Iran today, but it distorts the history of Iran’s Jews just to advance their own anti-Israel agenda.

The “Israel/Palestine Mission Network” of the Presbyterian Church USA goes out of its way in their recent booklet to cite academic sources that claim Zionism was disastrous for world Jewry. Yet on page 48 of their recent booklet they cite no academic or news source when they claim “Jewish life is alive and well (today) in the Islamic Republic of Iran”. The authors of the publication cite no legitimate and trustworthy sources for this statement, because it is a point blank lie! The only individuals on planet earth who claim life is well for Jews in Iran are the Iranian regime’s leadership, the propaganda media outlets of the Iranian regime, or the regime’s Jewish mouthpiece, Dr. Ciamak Moreh Sedgh, the only Jewish member of the Iranian parliament. This man always claims that the Jews are living in “total freedom and face no danger while living in Iran.” Sadly, the Western news media outlets and some Americans are being duped by buying into Iran’s propaganda messages that Jews are supposedly living under the “benevolent” protection and freedom of Iran’s totalitarian Islamic regime. The truth of the matter is that the Iranian regime and its secret police of thugs have a tight grip on the activities of the Jewish community in Iran. As a journalist, I have been following the Iranian regime’s shameful use of the Jews in Iran to advance its own public image for more than a decade. The only reason Jews in Iran claim their lives are well in front of media cameras is because members of Iran’s secret police threaten their lives if they do not say and do what these radical Islamic thugs dictate.

For his part Moreh Sedgh is just a propaganda stooge parroting what the Iranian Intelligence Ministry dictates to him to repeat for the foreign media. Moreh Sedgh, during his public relations tour with Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani last year, shamefully appeared on different U.S. news programs proclaiming everything was “fine for the Jews of Iran who enjoyed the same freedoms and equalities as Muslims.” Unfortunately, U.S. journalists interviewing Moreh Sedgh failed to ask him why Jews in Iran still have a second-class citizenship status under Iran’s constitution, or why the Iranian regime for the last 34 years forces Jews to keep their Jewish day schools open on the Sabbath. Is this Presbyterian Church (USA)’s sick idea of Jewish life being “alive and well” in Iran?

If the Presbyterian Church (USA) thinks “Jewish life is alive and well in Iran” today, then why have Iranian Jews faced more executions, more imprisonments, more torture and been driven out of Iran in large numbers by the current Iranian regime since 1979? According to a 2004 report prepared by Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian Jewish activist who heads the Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, based in Los Angeles, the Jewish community in Iran lives in constant fear for its security amid threats from terrorist Islamic factions. Since 1979, at least 14 Jews have been murdered or assassinated by the regime’s agents, at least two Jews have died while in custody and 11 Jews have been officially executed by the regime. According to the report, Fayzollah Mekhubabt, a 78-year-old cantor in a Tehran synagogue was the last Jew to be executed by the Iranian regime in 1995. He was imprisoned, tortured and his eyes were gouged out before he was executed. Mekhubabt was buried in a Muslim cemetery and his family was forced to disinter his remains in order to bury him in a Jewish cemetery. Moreover the regime’s thugs keep a tight grip on the Jewish community in Iran who live in constant fear for their lives. If the Jews step out of line in Iran their lives are at immediate risk. Such was the case in 2000 when 13 Jews from the city of Shiraz were randomly arrested on trumped up charges of being supposed spies for Israel and the U.S. The penalty for treason by any person, especially a non-Muslim in Iran is death. The intense pressure from the U.S. and Europe on Iran during the case of the Shiraz 13 ultimately forced the regime not to execute the Jews. Now if the Presbyterian Church (USA) is reluctant to believe me, I suggest they speak to the scores of new Iranian Jewish immigrants who have recently resettled in Los Angeles and ask them about life in Iran. Or perhaps they should chat with the hundreds of Iranian Jewish families today who left Iran and are still waiting in Austria for their visas to the U.S. and ask them how life was for them in Iran. I seriously doubt the Presbyterian Church (USA) or anyone else would find a single Jew who would praise the conditions of living for Jews in Iran.

According to Nikbakht’s research of Iran’s Islamic based laws, not only does the current Iranian Constitution clearly indicate that all non-Muslims have inferior status to Muslims, but all non-Muslims must be humiliated and confined to prevent them from gaining any advantage over Muslims. A Jew’s life is worth half of that of a Muslim according to Iran’s current Shari’a law. According to a recent U.S. State Department report, the “Islamization” of Iran has brought about strict control over Jewish educational institutions. Nikbakht’s 2004 report indicates that before the Iranian revolution, there were some 20 Jewish schools functioning throughout Iran, but in recent years most of these have been closed down. In the remaining schools, Jewish principals have been replaced by Muslims. In Tehran there are still three schools in which Jewish pupils constitute a majority, but the curriculum is Islamic and Persian is forbidden as the language of instruction for Jewish studies. Again how on earth can the Presbyterian Church (USA) or anyone in their right mind consider living under such an unjust system of laws for Jews in Iran as humane and fair environments to live in?

Additionally, if “life is alive and well” for Jews in Iran, then why between 1994 and 1996, were 12 Jews who were trying to flee Iran via Pakistan arrested by the Iranian secret police and not been heard from since? Likewise, if things are so happy and rosy for the Jews of Iran, why was Toobah Nehdaran, a 57-year-old married Jewish woman, brutally murdered and her body mutilated by radical Islamic thugs in the Iranian city of Isfahan in November 2012? Why have Nehdaran’s killers not been brought to justice yet by the Iranian authorities? On a regular basis, as a journalist covering Iranian Jewry, I am reminded by countless Iranian-American Jewish leaders to “watch” what I might be writing about the Iranian regime for fear that what I might report on may have negative repercussions on the Jews of Iran. So my question to the Presbyterian Church (USA) is: Why on earth are Iranian-American Jews so concerned about my words and the safety of their brethren in Iran if everything is supposedly so fine and dandy for Jews in Iran? These are unanswered questions that should leave serious doubts in the minds of all individuals about the supposed “fantastic” lives of the Jews of Iran.

Additionally in their booklet, the Presbyterian Church (USA) claims that Iran is still home to 10,000 to 30,00 Jews but they fail to look at the bigger historical picture of Iran’s Jewish population. According to the “Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran” (Mazda Publications 1999) written by the late Iranian Jewish historian, Dr. Habib Levy, since the 1979 Iranian revolution, some 80,000 Jews lived in Iran as compared to the supposed 20,000 or less who have remained. This mass exodus of Jews would be enough proof to anyone in their right mind that Iran must obviously not be a welcoming place and Jewish life is not “alive and well” in Iran for Jews if 60,000 Jews have fled the country! Likewise Presbyterian Church (USA)’s booklet does not cite any source for their numbers of 10,000 to 30,000 Jews living in Iran. According to Iranian Jewish leaders in the U.S. that I have interviewed over the years, the Jewish community’s population in Iran is unknown because no census has ever been made since the 1979 revolution. Some argue that the 30,000 figure is also inaccurate because thousands of Jews have quietly left or illegally fled Iran in the last ten years. Others argue that the 30,000 figure is inaccurate because a small but considerable portion of these Iranian Jews have converted to Islam or Christianity in order to survive but are still counted as Jews because they are living within their family structures and attend synagogue to their continued beliefs in Judaism. The children of these Jews are now growing up as Muslims or Christians but not as Jews. It should be noted that it is much safer to live in Iran as a Christian than as a Jew. Therefore for the Presbyterian Church to include a few thousand hidden coverts with the population of Jews in Iran is flawed.

Lastly, in their booklet Presbyterian Church (USA) claims that “Middle Eastern Jews share a history of largely harmonious integration and acculturation in their host countries. Sadly this model of coexistence was destabilized by the regional penetration of Zionism beginning in the late 19th century”. This statement by Presbyterian Church (USA) is also totally incorrect because Dr. Daniel Tsadik, an Iranian Jewish historian, outlines in his book “Between Foreigners and Shi’is” (Stanford University Press, 2007) the countless episodes of Jews throughout Iran being subjected to constant pogroms, forced conversions to Islam and even killings during the 19th century. Presbyterian Church (USA)’s booklet again fails to cite any source for their claim that the Jews of Iran “lived harmoniously” with Muslims in Iran. Yet in his book, which focuses on the lives of Jews in 19th century Iran, Tsadik cites numerous Islamic Shiite laws in Iran at that time that not only restricted Jews to living in certain parts of towns or cities away from Muslims, but Islamic laws that gave Jews inferior social and religious status in Iran. Jews in 19th century Iran were not only considered “ritually unclean” by Iran’s population and therefore segregated from the larger Muslim society, but Jews were not permitted to partake in many professions or retain any government posts in Iran according to Tsadik’s book. Likewise Jews in 19th century Iran were subject to random and higher taxation by Iranian government authorities or Islamic clerics. Also Jews often restricted from taking their inheritances in Iran if they failed to convert to Islam and Jews throughout Iran were attacked frequently by violent zealot mobs of Islamic thugs for no reason. Again if the very real and horrible conditions for 19th century Jews living in Iran were “harmonious integration and acculturation of Jews”, then the authors of the Presbyterian Church’s booklet are living in fantasy land of make-believe! Moreover, Presbyterian Church (USA) fails to take into account the painful history of Iran’s Jews who were numbering in the hundreds of thousands 500 years ago before the Shiite religious cleansing of Iran began. Since then and over the centuries forced massive conversions, mass killings and pogroms force thousands of Jews to convert to Islam. Those hundreds of thousands of Jews in Iran should have been numbering in the millions today had it not been for the ruthless and irrational activities of Iran’s clerics and monarchs over the centuries. Presbyterian Church (USA)’s ridiculous portrait of Jews now living in Iran is not only an insult to those who appreciate common sense, but an insult to Iranian Jewry for ignoring our tragic history in Iran.

Finally, I am utterly baffled at why the Presbyterian Church (USA), which claims in their booklet to be champions of “human rights”, has failed to document and educate their congregations nationwide about the heinous human rights abuses of Christians in Iran at the hands of the Iranian regime today! Why hasn’t the Presbyterian Church used the same zeal and passion for attacking Zionism, in also attacking the truly shameful and inhumane treatment of their fellow Christian brethren in Iran? Why has the Presbyterian Church failed to make a very vocal campaign in the media about the scores of Christian pastors imprisoned in Iran for preaching the gospel of Christ or the hundreds of Iranian coverts to Christianity who have been imprisoned, tortured and even killed for converting out of Islam by the Iranian regime? Is not the tragic plight of innocent Christians in Iran facing imminent death by execution and torture not important and urgent enough for the leadership of the Presbyterian Church of America to prepare a booklet on? It seems hypocritical that the Presbyterian Church has only focused on Israel’s supposed transgressions but failed to undertake a similar mission about the transgressions of the Islamic Republic of Iran against religious minorities living in Iran today.

If Presbyterian Church (USA) and its leadership are indeed interested in setting the record straight about Jews in Iran today or the history of 19th century Iranian Jewry, then as an Iranian Jew, I welcome that honest dialogue with their congregations. If they are not interested in such a dialogue, then their leadership should issue an immediate retraction and apology for their totally false statements about Iranian Jews in their recently published booklet. Those of us who live in the free world cannot allow the Iranian regime or any other entity to claim that the Iranian regime gives freedoms and equality to non-Muslims living in Iran. We must call out such ridiculous propaganda and expose the truth about the Iranian regime’s brutality not only to Jews living in Iran but toward Baha’is, Christians, Zoroastrians, Sunni Muslims, Kurds, LGBT, women, labor movement leaders, journalists and others in Iran who have been randomly imprisoned, tortured and executed by the Iranian regime’s leadership for no reason at all.

About the Author
Karmel Melamed is an award-winning internationally published Iranian American journalist based in Southern California; He is a member of the Speakers Bureau of JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa