Anti-Semitism in Iran: Continuities and Changes by Meir Litvak

Meir Litvak (Ph.D, Harvard 1991). Associate Professor at the Department of Middle Eastern History; and Acting Director the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University. Fields of expertise: Modern Shi‘i and Iranian History and modern Islamic movements. Author of Shici Scholars of Nineteenth Century Iraq: The Ulama’ of  Najaf and Karbala’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Co-author, From Empathy to Denial: Arab Responses to the Holocaust (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009); Editor, Democracy and Islam in the Arab World (Tel Aviv: Ha-Qibbutz ha-Meuchad, 2998, Hebrew); Co-author, Iran: from a Persian Empire to an Islamic Republic (Tel Aviv: Open University of Israel Press, 2009, Hebrew); Editor, Middle Eastern Societies and the West: Accommodation or Clash of Civilizations? (Tel Aviv: Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies, 2007); Co-editor, Religious Fanaticism (Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center, 2007, in Hebrew); Editor, Palestinian Collective Memory and National Identity (New York: Palgrave-McMillan). Published articles on modern Shi‘i and Iranian history as well as on modern Islamic movements. 

Anti-Semitism in Iran: Continuities and Changes.

Meir Litvak

In recent years Iran has taken the lead among Middle Eastern countries in its calls for the elimination of the State of Israel and in espousing anti-Semitism as an official state policy.  Iranian spokesmen as well as Western apologists of the Islamic regime often claim that Iran distinguishes between Zionism or Israel and between Jews or Judaism, and that such statements are merely anti-Zionist, and are therefore perfectly legitimate. However, as I intend to show, Iran does not differentiate between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, nor is this animosity confined to one eccentric or particularly hard-line president. Rather, it is a much broader phenomenon shared by Iran’s political, religious and parts of its cultural elites. Moreover, it has acquired in recent years several new and disturbing attributes.

I want to start with a very brief historical survey of antisemitism in Iran in order to highlight the new situation. The Jewish community in Iran is one of the oldest in the Middle East and many Iranians point to the famous declaration by Cyrus the Great in the Sixth Century BCE to demonstrate Iran’s openness to minorities and to Jews in particular. Yet, ever since Iran has become a Shii state following its unification by the Safavids in 1501, it has been the most intolerant Muslim state towards the Jews. Iran was the only Muslim country that experienced mass forced conversions of Jews, although some scholars argue that these forced conversions did not target solely the Jews, but other religious minorities as well as part of Safavid effort to consolidate the cohesion of Iranian society. However, the Safavids, who practiced a vicious anti-Jewish policy, adopted a very different attitude towards the Armenian minority, in view of their importance for advancing Iranian trade.

These anti-Jewish traits continued well into the 19th Century under the Qajar dynasty, and have been superbly analyzed by Daniel Tsadik in his book, Between Shiis and Foreigners. The root cause for the precarious situation of Iranian Jews was Shii religious intolerance, which greatly exceeded the common practice towards “protected minorities” (ahl al-dhimma) in Sunni countries. Most conspicuous was the doctrine of Jewish ritual impurity (najasat), which perceived that anything touched by Jews to be ritually unclean and, and, therefore, untouchable by Muslims.

A new element that appeared in the late 19th Century Iran was the influence of European racism and the myths of Aryan racial superiority on some westernized Iranians. Such ideas continued to have some influence during the reign of Reza Shah, who had great admiration toward Nazi Germany. However, the reign of his son, Mohamad Reza Shah was the “Golden era” of Iranian Jewry which reached unprecedented achievements both intellectually and materially. It was also a period of extensive Iranian-Israeli economic, military and strategic cooperation.

The 1960s marked a turning point in rise of antisemitism in Iran due to the growing rift between the Shah and the Islamic opposition which exacerbated Iranian Islamic animosity towards Israel for its alliance with the Shah, and for its perceived essence as a western imperialist base set up to oppress the Muslims. It was Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini, who emerged then as the leader of the Islamist opposition to the shah, who incorporated anti-Semitism with his overall political doctrine. Therefore, following the 1979 Revolution and the emergence of the clergy under Khomeini’s leadership, as the new rulers of Iran, antisemitism became an integral component of the regime’s ideology and political discourse. 

What then are the new salient features of Iranian antisemitism’? In the time left, I want to focus on four elements:

  1. Its modern nature, and the fusion of traditional and modern elements
  2. Official state-sponsorship
  3. Efforts at pseudo-academization
  4. The central role of H’ denial

1. The modern nature of present-day Iranian anti’s is apparent both in media and message.

Pre-modern anti-Judaism was led by a powerful and confident clerical establishment against the small and defenseless Jewish minority in Iran with the intention of eventually converting them to Islam. It was manifested by various legal and social restrictions against the Jews, and was disseminated through anti-Jewish statements and interpretations in Islamic legal writings as well as in religious polemics against Judaism. Nowadays, Iranian Jews are not the target. In fact they enjoy tolerance, though not full legal equality, in order to show that under the benevolent rule of Islam Jews can live in peace as a protected subordinated minority, and therefore there is no justification for the aspiration of Jewish sovereignty, i.e. Zionism. The targets today are the Jewish people as a group as well as Jewish culture and history, and in particular the political manifestation of Judaism, that is Zionism. 

In the past, anti-Jewish attitudes carried a distinct Shii nature, manifested in the emphasis if not obsession with the impurity (Nejasat) of the Jews.

Khomeini himself in his earlier book, Touzih al-Masa’el (Clarification of the Questions), emphasized the Shi‘i doctrine of the ritual impurity of unbelievers. Today, the scope of activities may be unique to Iran, but the content is shared by all Islamic movements in the region and is clearly influenced by Sunni movements and by Arab countries, and the issue of Nejasat has been dropped completely as current leader Khamenei has stated.

This new approach fuses anti-Jewish elements from the Quran and early Islamic tradition together with those of modern Western anti-Semitism.

It is based on the belief in Jewish enmity towards Islam from its inception and in the association of the Jews and Zionism with the Western cultural challenge and threat to Islam as a religion, identity and culture. In other words, it reflects the anger of the Muslim world vis-à-vis the West and the crisis of Islam in the modern period. It stems from widespread feelings of a threatened Islam which is subject to Western economic and political domination and whose identity and culture are under attack by Western civilization. 

Islamic fundamentalism requires the existence of a conspiracy in order to find some external reason for Muslim weakness and dependence. Thus according to Khomeini  the Jews and Christians conspired against Islam in the modern period. The Jews joined hands with other groups that were “more satanic than they” in order to facilitate the imperialist penetration of the Muslim countries. Their main goal was the “extirpation of Islam” since “Islam and its ordinances” were the “main obstacle in the path of their materialistic ambitions.” In addition, the West, consisting of Jewish and Christian elements, resists the righteous cause of Islam to expand to the “four corners of the globe.”[1] Linking Judaism and Zionism, Khomeini maintained that the most overt manifestation of the Jewish-Christian conspiracy against Islam was the establishment of Israel by Western imperialism in order to oppress the Muslims. Both Khomeini and his successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah cAli Khamene’i, stated that “the occupation of Palestine [by the Jews] is part of a satanic design by the world domineering powers, perpetrated by the British in the past and being carried out today by the United States, to weaken the solidarity of the Islamic world and to sow the seeds of disunity among Muslims.”

One of the major features of Islamism is the quest for authenticity or the redefinition of Muslim identity, which intensified the uncritical and totalistic reading or earlier Islamic history.  Such a reading led to the reopening, and the need to settle, various so-called “historical accounts” which Islam had with other religions and ideologies. This reading revived medieval polemics with the Jews and highlighted the sins and evil the Jews had committed against Muslims since the early days of Islam.

Khomeini, for instance, charges in the first page of his major book, Velayat-e Faqih: Hukumat-e Eslami (The governance of the jurist: Islamic government), that “from the very beginning” Islam “was afflicted by the Jews, for it was they who established anti-Islamic propaganda and engaged in various stratagems,” against the Muslims. Following this lead Iranian religious and scholarly journals have published in recent years dozens of articles which discuss various aspects of supposed Jewish animosity and activities against the Prophet Muhammad.

Typical of Islamic polemics in general, the past and the present are inextricably linked. Thus Ayatollah Emami Kashani, member of the powerful Council of Guardians, created a direct link between present-day Israeli policies and “Jewish atrocities” against the Muslims carried out since the first century of Islam.[2] Likewise, Grand Ayatollah Nuri-Hamadani referred to the Jews of Medina at the time of the Prophet as “the center of Zionists” that is, he emphasized the historical continuity between past Jewish communities and present-day Zionists and, one is almost tempted to say, adopted the Zionist argument of the unity of Jewish history. He further described the massacre of seven hundred of the Jews of Medina in a single day as a “step toward strengthening Islam, in order to crush the bastion of the global arrogance,” again linking 7th Century Jews with the present-day West or “global arrogance” in Iranian terminology. [3]

Another expression of the fusion between past and present, apparently under inspiration from Arab countries, is the resort to Iranian or even pre-Islamic Persian history. Thus, a certain Dr. Hasan Abbasi modifies in a TV lecture the story in the Biblical book of Esther by claiming that the Jews had massacred more than 70,000 Persians following the fall of Haman, as an example of Jewish brutality and enmity towards Iran, which continues to the present day.

A major modern feature of Iranian antisemitism is the borrowing of Western motifs. While the Islamic regime in Iran usually rejects Western cultural influence as anathema to authentic Islamic culture, it has not hesitated to borrow anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish themes from the same West in the service of its causes. The most blatant example of such borrowing, which also demonstrates the fusion between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism was the serial publication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, in more than 150 installments by the establishment newspapers Ettelacat and Jomhuri-ye Eslami.[4] The Iranian government also published a special edition of the Protocols in 2000.[5] Another example is the usage of the blood libel, which had originated in Europe, and of course  Holocaust denial, to which I will refer later.

The second new feature of Iranian antisemitism is the central role of the state in promoting it through its various organs. Popular view in the West focuses on Ahmadinejad’s declarations, but in reality all Iranian leaders take part in disseminating anti-Semitism. To cite just one example, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, the man widely regarded as the grey eminence behind the ultraconservative faction in Iranian politics stated that: “The majority of centers of corruption in the world belong to Jews and Zionists.” They try to corrupt the others and thus rule the world and added that “the Jews are the most corrupt in the world. You don’t find such a tribe in any other nation, country or region.” Jews are the most seditious group among all human beings and they will not leave Muslims alone until they destroy Islam”.[6]

The official state media is of course a major instrument in the dissemination of anti-Semitism. Iranian TV, for instance, regularly broadcasts documentaries and drama shows based on the Protocols of Elders of Zion.[7] It also accused the Jews of being involved in the September 11 attack on the US,[8] and I can go on and on with more examples.

The Iranian govt has also mobilized academics to the anti-Jewish agenda in order to endow it with pseudo-scholarly weight and respectability. Abdollah Shahbazi, former head of the state run Political Studies and Research Institute (PSRI) and a well-known historian in Iran, has published over the last decade a five-volume study, titled The Jew and Parsi Plutocrats, British Imperialism and Iran, which contains conspiratorial anti-Jewish themes and has been uploaded to his website.The The Historical Studies Quarterly (Faslnamah Motale`at Ta’rikhi) published by the Institute devoted the entire fall 2006 edition to Holocaust denial, including articles such as “Did 6 Million Really Die?” and “Truth Burning Furnaces.” Since 2007 more than ten books have been published in Iran engaging in Holocaust denial, while other pseudo-scholarly books, articles and studies continuously “uncover” and analyze the history of Jews and Zionism in anti-Semitic fashion.

Iranian academics have also appeared on state TV explaining in detail how Jewish rabbis in Europe used to kill children and take their blood for use during the Passover holidays. A certain Professor Heshmatollah Qanbari characterized in a TV interview the Jews as a “subversive element in human history” and as “satanic ” and ” anti-human,” He further described the Jews as the source of “all corrupt traits in humanity.”[9]  The political goal behind this pseudo- scholarly effort is indicated in one of Shahbazi’s new books, which is called: The Beginnings and End of the Children of Israel

Finally, H’ denial brings together all the themes I have talked about.

Iranian leaders have viewed the Holocaust as a myth invented to create a guilt complex in the West and forge a sympathetic public opinion in support of the establishment of the State of Israel. They argue that without the Holocaust Israel might not have exited at all. Supreme Leader Khamene’i set this line in a speech made in April 2001, which maintained that the “Zionists had exaggerated Nazi crimes against European Jewry in order to solicit international support for the establishment of the Zionist entity in 1948.” Hence the premise which stood behind denial was that refutation of the “lie” would undermine Israel’s legitimacy. The instrumentalist usage of Iranian Holocaust was also evident in the frequent comparisons by Iranian official spokesmen and media between Zionism and Nazism, and between the “Gestapo-like” policies of Israel and those of Hitler.

Holocaust denial is in fact anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Zionism. To cite just one example, former president and current Head of Iran’s Assembly of Experts, ‘Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was the second most powerful person in the Iranian regime and is often hailed in the West as a “moderate” explained in a speech commemorating Jerusalem Day in October 2007, that the Nazis’ “first objective was to free Europe from the evils of Zionism,” and that this was justifiable because “the Zionists who constituted a strong political party in Europe, caused much disorder there. Since the Zionists had a lot of property and controlled an empire of propaganda, they made the European governments helpless. What Hitler and the Nazis did to the Jews of Europe, he added, “was partly due to these circumstances with the Jews. They wanted to expel the Zionists from Europe because they always were a great irritant to the governments there.” “The first goal was to save Europe from the evil of Zionism, and in this, they have been relatively successful,” he concluded.[10]

In using the pretext of Zionist fabrication of the Holocaust, Iran distorts and denies Jewish history and deprives the Jews of their human dignity by presenting their worst tragedy as a scam, even though both have nothing to do with Zionism per se. The very claim of Zionist invention of the Holocaust appeals to strong sentiments existing both in European and Middle Eastern anti-Semitism that emphasizes Jewish unscrupulous machinations in order to advance illegitimate and immoral goals, mainly financial extortion. It aims at demolishing the legitimacy of the Jewish state, which they claim is based on the Holocaust myth. As such it is in tune with anti Jewish and anti-Zionist sentiments in Europe, which argue that the Jews forfeited their status as victims by victimizing the Palestinians and that Israel does not have the right to exist, because the human price it requires is too high.

While Iran professes to be anti-Nazi both Holocaust denial and the equation of Zionism with the Nazis minimizes the extent and depth of Nazi evil and brutality, thereby serving the cause of Western neo-Nazis and other anti-Semites. In a similar vein the vilification of the Zionists as Nazis is intended to humiliate the Jews at their most sensitive and painful feelings by equating them with their worst tormentors. Moreover, not only does it deprive the Jews of their dignity and transforms the victims into perpetrators of crimes, but it threaten them with the ultimate fate of the Nazis that is destruction. To conclude, anti-Semitism in Iran has undergone significant changes in recent decades, but unfortunately to the wrong ends. 


[2] Tehran Times, 14 March 1998.

[3][3] MEMRI [The Middle East Media Research Institute] Special Dispatch Series, no. 897, 22 April

2005 (http://www.yahoodi.com/ peace/antizionism.html).

25 Menashri, “Iran,” in Anti-Semitism World Wide 1995/6, 198.

26 “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, An Iranian Perspective,” MEMRI 

 Special Dispatch Series, no. 98 (7 June 2000), http://www.Memri.org.

[6] Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center , January 25, 2010

 http://www.terrorism info.org.il/malam_multimedia/English/eng_n/html/iran_e048.htm

[7]  Memri Special Dispatch No.1975, July 2, 2008; Memri,  Special Dispatch No.855,

January 28, 2005.

[8] Memri, Special Dispatch No.735 June 29, 2004 

[9] Memri, Special Dispatch No.1053, December 22, 2005; Memri,  Special Dispatch

 No.855, January 28, 2005

[10]  Iranian TV Channel 1, October 5, 2007 – memritv.org clip. No 1575, 5 October

 2007.

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