The year 537 BCE marked a historic occasion. It was when Cyrus the Great, the founder of Iran (Persia), allowed more than 40,000 Jews in exile to return to their homeland and rebuild the Temple of Solomon.
But Israel has been a scapegoat in Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Every morning since then, in all of the state schools and most of the private ones, hundreds of thousands of young boys and girls are forced to begin their classes by shouting “Down with Israel!” The regime’s reasoning is that the State of Israel and anyone who has relations with this country (for whatever reason) are enemies of Islam and Muslims.
I am a Muslim, and I personally scream louder than those schoolchildren that this is not the case. A few years ago I was blessed enough to come across the most enchanting experience of my life when I paid a social visit on a Sabbath to a Chabad house.
I was really concerned about etiquette on my first visit. I was worried I might do something wrong or make an uncouth remark. Needless to say, I was as shocked as John Adams upon his first visit to the European courts of the 18th century.
Of course they did not want my blood for baking matzah; they simply wanted to make me feel at home. And “feel at home” was what went straightaway to my mind and soul. There was no conspiracy, secret or so-called Jewish trickery, but simple kindness and respect — the two human concepts that since 1979 gradually have been drained from Iran’s collective psyche.
On the other hand, during my subsequent visits to Chabad, I have discovered something in the Jewish people that Iranian people need to learn: how to be logical, happy and find ways to deal with everyday traumas. There is a will among the Jewish people, including the 1 million Jews exiled from Arab lands, to move on from life’s tragedies.
“To move on” is a quality we need to adopt in Iran. We know how to survive, but we always carry pain in our hearts and let it block our future. I am really impressed at how Jewish people carry on with their lives while using the traumas and tragedies of their ancestors as a light to help them see the future. Unfortunately, in Iran we use our personal tragedies as a lame excuse not to care about the future, and to be overly obsessed with the present.
Chabad is about respecting others, moving on in life, forgiving those who deserve it and, above all, becoming a better person. For Orthodox people it may be about becoming better Jews, but I am a living example of a non-Jew who is blessed by what I encountered in Chabad. I have learned to move on from my pain in part from the teachings of a rabbi and the kindness and advice of Jewish friends. And I intend to teach it to my own friends.
This made me ponder: If a Jewish man away from home were to enter a Muslim community in Iran, would he receive the same treatment I did in a Jewish setting? I am ashamed of the answer, but the truth must be faced: As a Muslim I have not been treated as kindly in a mosque as I was in this Chabad house. The point is that the wisdom of the teachings of Judaism makes many people tolerant of others.
So while 537 BCE marked a historic occasion, the next date I look forward to is when, God willing, the first Chabad house opens in Tehran. I have hope that one day soon Jews, including those from Israel, will be able to visit their holy sites in Iran. This thought gives hope to Iranians like me, who want to see a stable and mature political and cultural relationship between Iran and Israel.
Judaism can help Iran more than you can imagine.
Alireza Vahdani is an Iranian who has been living in England for seven years. He is an associate lecturer in film studies at Oxford Brookes University.