The largest Jewish community in the Middle East...
Jewish people have called Iran home for nearly 3,000 years. The Trump administration and U.S. ally Israel often depict the Iranian government as composed of anti-Semitic radical Islamists bent on destroying Israel. But within Iran, many of the estimated 15,000 Jews say they're safe and happy living in the Islamic Republic.
At Abrishami Synagogue, worshipers recite early morning prayers. They remove the Torah from its ark to read passages from Judaism's most sacred book. Jews practice this ritual the world over every day. But this ceremony is taking place in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the home to what some estimates say is the second largest Jewish population in the Middle East' outside of Israel.
Answering the question about life for Jews in Iran, Siamak Morehsedgh said life's good and 'If I wasn't happy, I can immigrate. Morehsedgh is a Jewish resident of the capital, Tehran. Inside his office, Moses is on one wall, Iran's Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei] on the other. Twenty years ago, Morehsedgh’s wife wanted the couple to move to America. She left. He stayed, choosing Iran's more conservative culture. 'I think that I cannot live without Iranian culture,' Morehsedgh said.
Today, Morehsedgh is a surgeon at a hospital in central Tehran and also an elected member of Iran's Parliament, proof, he says, that Jews here are a respected minority with religious rights. Regarding the mentality of the people out of Iran, he said, 'I cannot convince a man who doesn't want to understand our condition, of course.' Conditions for Jews in Iran have seen many ups and downs. Jews began settling in Iran in the 6th century BC, during the reign of the Persian Empire and its king, Cyrus, who freed Jews from Babylonian captivity.
Homayoon Sameyeh, President of the Tehran Jewish Committee, a 700 year-old organization that works on behalf of Iran's Jews, told the PBS, 'We have been in Iran for 2,700 years.' 'Iranians have given us a lot of good. We are Iranians ourselves. Sure, there are times when things happen. But our community always stands strong and demands our rights.' In the beginning of the revolution, there was pressure on minorities, especially for Jews. There was immigration because people felt insecure. With time, things have improved. Fortunately, right now in Iran, we have complete freedom to carry out our religious duties.
Today, an estimated 15,000 Jews still live here. Most are in the capital, Tehran. There are five Jewish private schools here, several kosher restaurants. And Tehran's oldest charity hospital was founded and is still run by Jews. Tehran is also a city with 13 synagogues. Some were confiscated by the government after the revolution. Jewish leaders say when they sued to get them back, Iran's Revolutionary Court ruled in their favor. Today, all 13 are open, with little or no security measures in place. The awe-inspiring thing about these synagogues is that in the Middle East where almost all synagogues are protected with tight security, metal detectors, even armed guards, the doors to this synagogue are open. Worshipers, or anyone else, for that matter, can walk right in.
Another Iranian Jew, Manouchehr Behravan who used to live in New York City, said one thing he values in Iran is the absence of anti-Semitism. Behravan said, 'I feel safe. I feel safer here than probably the United States, because, in the United States, a lot of people have access to guns.'
Three years ago, the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani recognized Saturday as the Jewish Sabbath and a religious holiday. Parents have permission to stay home from work, and children stay home from school. For Yafa Mahgerefteh, it was a sign, he said, 'It showed that they acknowledge us and our faith, because this is part of our religion. Thank God they accepted it.'
In 2007, the Tehran Jewish Committee rejected an offer by Israel’s government to pay each family of remaining Jews in Iran up to $60,000 to help them leave the country. "I can tell, you are thinking I am afraid," Golshirazi said when USA TODAY pressed him on that point. "But I have been many places visiting Jewish communities. Iran is the best for us."
Iran's Jews say they're also free to travel to Israel, a trip the government bans for all other citizens. Not everything is perfect for Iran's Jews. They're still kept away from senior government and military positions. And they find themselves in a seemingly difficult position. They live in a country whose leaders are sworn enemies of Israel, the homeland of their faith. But Jews here say Iranian policy is strictly against the Israeli government and its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, not Jews or Israeli people. It's a policy many Jews here publicly support.
Morehsedgh, an MP, said, 'my decision about Israel is the — based on the Iranian national interest. Everyone who is enemy of my country is enemy of me.' 'If Israel behaves in such manner that it's behaving until today, of course is enemy of peace in our part of the world.'Jewish Committee leader Homayoon Sameyeh denounces Israeli policies too. But he also rejects fellow Iranians who chant "Death to Israel." It's better to talk about life and peace in the world, instead of wishing someone's death.
Sounding more Iranian than Jewish, Morehsedgh said he disagreed with President Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv because "Trump can’t just change a capital city that according to international law and the United Nations is an occupied city."
Many Jews here hope Tehran and Tel Aviv will one day resolve their differences. But, even if they do, home, they say, will always be Iran.