Former U.S. officials have pointed to the treatment of Jews in Iran as proof that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not quite as terrible as people think he is. Such statements wrongly downplay the plight of a beleaguered Jewish community.
Former State Department official Martin Indyk was recently quoted on Israel Radio as saying that Israel’s ambassador to the United States was wrong to compare Ahmadinejad to Adolf Hitler. According to Indyk, “the fact that 25,000 Jews live largely unharmed in Iran means Nazi parallels are inappropriate.”
Last month, former Pentagon official Dov Zakheim spoke in similar terms. In a Sept. 12 New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof, arguing against any U.S. military strike on Iran, Zakheim was quoted as saying “that Iran doesn’t treat its 20,000 Jews as wretchedly as its rhetoric would suggest.” Kristof then added: “Iran continues to be home to more Jews than any Middle Eastern country save Israel.”
These commentators are wrong. The size of the community in Iran is not proof that the Jews are well-treated.
Sometimes factors such as family ties, poverty or hope for a change in government are sufficient to persuade people to stay in a country where they are mistreated. Recall that in 1937 — fully four years after Hitler’s rise to power — Germany was still home to more Jews than any other West European country. That wasn’t because they enjoyed Hitler’s rule.
In the case of Iran, one must also consider the extent to which emigration is even possible. The State Department’s 2006 report on international religious freedom found that Jews “often are denied the multiple-exit permits normally issued to other citizens. With the exception of certain business travelers, the authorities require Jews to obtain clearance and pay additional fees before each trip abroad. The government appears concerned about the emigration of Jewish citizens and permission generally is not granted for all members of a Jewish family to travel outside the country at the same time.”
By contrast, Nazi Germany in the 1930s actively encouraged Jews to emigrate. The problem was that other countries were unwilling to open their doors to Jewish refugees. As World Zionist Organization president Chaim Weizmann once put it: “The world is divided into countries in which the Jews cannot live and countries which they must not enter.”
Are the Jews in Iran “relatively unharmed,” as Martin Indyk claims? Perhaps that depends on what he means by “relatively.” The State Department’s report states that during the past year, “there was a further deterioration of the extremely poor status of respect for religious freedom” in Iran. Jews and other minorities were “targets of government harassment” and victims of “the government’s harsh and oppressive treatment.” They “suffer varying degrees of officially sanctioned discrimination, particularly in the areas of employment, education and housing.”
“Every Iranian Jew who had the financial possibility or courage has already left,” and those who remain behind are living in fear, according to Iranian-born Menashe Amir, the host of a Persian-language radio show that Israel beams to Iran. In a recent interview, Amir said that “While there are Jewish schools, the principals and most of the teachers are Muslim, the Bible is taught in Farsi [Persian], not in Hebrew, and the schools are forced to open on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. So while the regime declares that there is freedom of religion, it is all just for the sake of appearances.”
The interviewer added: “Jewish leaders are reluctant to draw attention to incidences of mistreatment of their community, due to fear of government reprisal, along with fear of being arrested or accused of being spies.” They have not forgotten how 13 Iranian Jews were jailed in 1999 on trumped-up espionage charges. It was only after an intense international protest campaign that they were finally freed after several years of brutal incarceration.
Amir pointed out that local Jews are often compelled by the regime to issue statements supporting Iran’s nuclear policy or denouncing Israeli actions. In many ways, then, Iranian Jewry is a captive community.
Of course, Iran in 2006 is not exactly the same as Germany in 1936. And it is important to be cautious about comparing one’s opponent to Hitler or the Nazis. Such analogies usually have the unintended effect of minimizing the horrors of the Nazi regime and grossly exaggerating the misdeeds of the person who is the subject of the comparison. They have been invoked too often in recent political debates in the United States.
But in the case of an anti-Semitic dictator who sponsors suicide-bomb massacres of Israelis and threatens to wipe the Jewish state off the face of the earth, one need not rush to give him the benefit of the doubt. Besides, why assume that President Ahmadinejad objects to being compared to Hitler? He might even consider it a compliment.
Rafael Medoff is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, www.WymanInstitute.org