A reader writes:
With all the discussion about the Jews of Iran, a few crucial points are in order.
Firstly, a myth that needs correcting: Iran does not have a "large" Jewish population. Current estimates put Iran's Jews as being between 17,000 and 25,000, which means that approximately ten times as many Iranian Jews live in the state of Israel as live in Iran itself! (And we're not even counting here the large Iranian-Jewish populations in the United States.) Just think for a moment how many people we're talking about: You couldn't fill a stadium with Iran's entire Jewish population. The entire Iranian Jewish population would have utterly disappeared had it come out en masse during Tehran's recent pro-democracy protests of hundreds of thousands.
Iran did once have a sizable Jewish population, somewhere between one or two hundred thousand. Half left by 1979, and half again left in the following decades. There were important reasons why they left, but there are also some very important reasons why Iran's current-day Jewish minority has remained. For one thing, even putting aside the cultural shock of leaving, it is very difficult today for an entire Jewish family to emigrate legally from Iran with their possessions. And in Iran, any hint that a Jewish family is considering leaving for America or Israel would be a matter of great danger to them. As a Jew in Iran, professing sympathy for Zionism is a crime harshly punishable by the state.
So why does Iran "tolerate" this tiny Jewish minority anyway? Why do they keep their servile "court Jew" in Parliament? (His walls decorated with Islamic clerics, of course.) That's what seems to have people like Roger Cohen so perplexed. He concludes that the seeming toleration of these Jews is some sort of a sign of good will among the Iranian regime.
Well, the regular people of Iran treat the Jews fairly well, primarily because the Iranians, especially in Tehran, are awesome people. But is the government acting out of good-will?
Hardly. I'm sure you could easily think of good reasons why the Iranian regime permits the existence of its token Jewish minority. For starters, their numbers are so vanishingly tiny (they represent between 0.02% and 0.03% of Iran's total population), they are non-proselytizing, they are forbidden from all sensitive leadership positions, and they are so utterly obsequious to the regime that they simply don't present any kind of a threat. There are simply too few Jews in Iran to be worth persecuting them anymore.
But there's a bigger reason why the regime regards Iran's Jewish minority as being worth maintaining: Iran's Jews are just so damned politically useful! Their very continued existence is a staggering propaganda boon for the regime, and gives them the pretense to claim that they're "not anti-Semitic, just anti-Zionist." Plus, what could the Iranian regime like better than having a pliant Jewish minority that it can march around carrying anti-Zionist placards and shouting pro-Hezbollah chants, as Iran's Jews are forced to do from time to time?
If you want to know how the Iranian regime treats minorities that are either too big for comfort, or are just not politically useful, have a look at the poor Baha'i, who number in the hundreds of thousands in Iran. There are practical reasons why the regime treats its Jews differently from minorities like the Baha'i, and it would do us all well to remember that. Otherwise, we play right into the hands of the Iranian regime's propaganda.
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