The Iranian puzzle of decency

A synagogue in Shiraz, Iran (photo by author)
A synagogue in Shiraz, Iran (photo by author)

Under a dictatorship, decency might have other meanings

He justified their decision with these words: “we were so decent so far”. It was weird, because decency wasn’t so appropriate for their condition but sometimes the word, “decent”, could have other meanings! Like when you allegedly represent a minority in a non-liberal country, ruled by a theocratic government, and those who have the power in their hands, consider your people as potential enemies.

In this situation, a state organization might illegally seize properties that belong to your community, but instead of suing and defending your rights in court, you decide to only ask them to return what they steal! Even after 15 years you keep begging without running any trial!
After 15 unsuccessful years in taking back what you lost, a journalist asks you about this issue. He asks you “why don’t you sue them?” your answer is “we were so decent!” But being decent doesn’t seem a good reason for being silent when you are under harassment for 15 years! This “decent” may have another meaning.
As an Iranian journalist dealing with censorship and crazy red lines wasn’t strange for me, but finding an escape plan from the sword of censor was also a daily challenge. Hence, although I knew the Jewish community of Shiraz is a red line, I tried to make a report about them.
My first shot was 2020 Yom Kippur. First I asked my editor if there’s any chance for this report or not. He was a good and helpful guy but he wasn’t responsible about this issue. He gave me the usual response about any controversial subject: I should ask Tehran.
The head office in Tehran only allowed a photographic report without any interview. Back then I worked in the ISNA news agency branch in Shiraz. ISNA used to be an independent news agency in Iran, but time wasn’t kind to them and this press became more conservative day by day.
This permission didn’t work at all. After calling the Shiraz Jewish association, they notice that due to the pandemic they won’t pray at the synagogues this year. I called again in December to arrange a photographic report for Hanukkah in their homes. This time the secretary of the association, Amir Doostan, accepted my request. He said he will call back and tell me the addresses. But he didn’t and also he didn’t answer my calls.
 My editor thought they were afraid of displaying their identity. Shiraz is a sensitive city for Iranian intelligence services. Several domestic and foreign researches in the last decade announced Shiraz as the most secular city of Iran, and last year the tragedy of Navid Afkari happened in this city.
Besides that Shiraz is close to the tomb of Cyrus, it’s the mother city of the Baha’i faith and an old Jewish community lives there. Today Shiraz, with around five thousand Jewish inhabitants, has the second biggest Jewish population in Iran after Tehran. In the 19th century 15 percent of Shiraz inhabitants were Jewish, the largest in the country.
Although Since the 1979 revolution persecuting religious minorities, especially Jews and Bahaies, in Iran increased, the 1999 arrest of 13 Jewish people in Shiraz who were accused for spying without any evidence, made a collective memory that reminds us the Islamic republic always considers Jews as potential enemies.
So I guessed they are extra cautious and forget about this report until June 18 2021, Iran ‘s presidential election day. That day I had a call from the Shiraz Jewish association. They said they were going to vote and asked me to write a report about their participation in the election. It was exactly what the head office in Tehran wanted from us. The election was boycotted by the majority and the vote of the minority may give prestige to that election.
I wonder if the association really belongs to Jews or it’s just a puppet. Anyway I told one of our photographers and he did the report. But this time I had permission for an interview. Hence I asked a few questions of Amir Doostan, the man who ditched me last time.
My question was clear; what do you expect of the next president and the next city council (these two elections were held on the same day).
Doostan said “we will pursue our national wants by the special Jewish member of Iranian parliament. But about our issues in Shiraz we have three requests: Permission to establish new synagogues in Shiraz. Permission to establish a new Jewish cemetery, and reparation for illegal seizure of one of the Jewish community properties in Kaveh street, by Shiraz urban railway organization in order to build a subway station.”
Illegal seizure for more than 15 years, without paying any money, and still hope for reparation without trial! I was also surprised because I had never heard about this case before.
That interview was published on June 18. I tried to write a specific article about this controversial subway station but supervisors disagreed. Only an unpublished interview left for me that Amir Doostan told me that this property was part of the Shiraz old Jewish cemetery. During 15 years they asked different mayors, different governors and different special Jewish members of Iranian parliament to solve this problem but all led to nothing. “We were so decent so far that we didn’t pursue this issue through jurisdiction,” Doostan said.
I can’t say the Jewish MP and the Jewish association actually represent Iranian Jews. And obviously the justice system in Iran isn’t neutral. In fact some articles in Iranian Islamic law are clearly violating equality of all the citizens before the law.
Maybe they don’t have any hope for justice, maybe they are puppets or maybe something else. But Decency doesn’t look like a good reason for accepting repression.
About the Author
Ali was a journalist in Iran, working for ISNA (Iranian Students News Agency) from 2019 to 2021. now, He lives in Milan, Italy.
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