Earlier this year Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s opposition leader and the man who appears to be styling himself scaremonger-in-chief, told us: "It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs." Of Ahmadinejad, he said: "He is preparing another Holocaust for the Jewish state."
A few weeks ago, as Israel’s military intelligence claimed as it has been doing regularly since the early 1990s that Iran is only a year or so away from the "point of no return" on developing a nuclear warhead, Netanyahu was at it again. "Iran could be the first undeterrable nuclear power," he warned, adding: "This is a Jewish problem like Hitler was a Jewish problem The future of the Jewish people depends on the future of Israel."
But Netanyahu has been far from alone in making extravagant claims about a looming genocide from Iran. Israel’s new president, Shimon Peres, has compared an Iranian nuclear bomb to a "flying concentration camp." And the prime minister, Ehud Olmert, told a German newspaper last year: "[Ahmadinejad] speaks as Hitler did in his time of the extermination of the entire Jewish nation."
There is an interesting problem with selling the "Iran as Nazi Germany" line. If Ahmadinejad really is Hitler, ready to commit genocide against Israel’s Jews as soon as he can get his hands on a nuclear weapon, why are some 25,000 Jews living peacefully in Iran and more than reluctant to leave despite repeated enticements from Israel and American Jews?
What is the basis for Israel’s dire forecasts the ideological scaffolding being erected, presumably, to justify an attack on Iran? Helpfully, as George Bush defended his Iraq policies last month, he reminded us yet again of the menace Iran supposedly poses: it is "threatening to wipe Israel off the map."
This myth has been endlessly recycled since a translating error was made of a speech Ahmadinejad delivered nearly two years ago. Farsi experts have verified that the Iranian president, far from threatening to destroy Israel, was quoting from an earlier speech by the late Ayatollah Khomeini in which he reassured supporters of the Palestinians that "the Zionist regime in Jerusalem" would "vanish from the page of time."
He was not threatening to exterminate Jews or even Israel. He was comparing Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians with other illegitimate systems of rule whose time had passed, including the Shahs who once ruled Iran, apartheid South Africa and the Soviet empire. Nonetheless, this erroneous translation has survived and prospered because Israel and her supporters have exploited it for their own crude propaganda purposes.
In the meantime, the 25,000-strong Iranian Jewish community is the largest in the Middle East outside Israel and traces its roots back 3,000 years. As one of several non-Muslim minorities in Iran, Jews there suffer discrimination, but they are certainly no worse off than the one million Palestinian citizens of Israel and far better off than Palestinians under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.
Iranian Jews have little influence on decision-making and are not allowed to hold senior posts in the army or bureaucracy. But they enjoy many freedoms. They have an elected representative in parliament, they practice their religion openly in synagogues, their charities are funded by the Jewish diaspora, and they can travel freely, including to Israel. In Tehran there are six kosher butchers and about 30 synagogues. Ahmadinejad’s office recently made a donation to a Jewish hospital in Tehran.
As Ciamak Moresadegh, an Iranian Jewish leader, observed: "If you think Judaism and Zionism are one, it is like thinking Islam and the Taliban are the same, and they are not." Iran’s leaders denounce Zionism, which they blame for fueling discrimination against the Palestinians, but they have also repeatedly avowed that they have no problem with Jews, Judaism or even the state of Israel. Ahmadinejad, caricatured as a merchant of genocide, has in fact called for "regime change" and then only in the sense that he believes a referendum should be held of all inhabitants of Israel and the occupied territories, including refugees from war, on the nature of the government.
Despite the absence of any threat to Iran’s Jews, the Israeli media recently reported that the Israeli government has been trying to find new ways to entice Iranian Jews to Israel. The Ma’ariv newspaper pointed out that previous schemes had found few takers. There was, noted the report, "a lack of desire on the part of thousands of Iranian Jews to leave." According to the New York-based Forward newspaper, a campaign to convince Iranian Jews to emigrate to Israel caused only 152 out of these 25,000 Jews to leave Iran between October 2005 and September 2006, and most of them were said to have emigrated for economic reasons, not political ones.
To step up these efforts and presumably to avoid the embarrassing incongruence of claiming an imminent second Holocaust while thousands of Jews live happily in Tehran Israel is now backing a move by Jewish donors to guarantee every Iranian Jewish family $60,000 to settle in Israel, in addition to a host of existing financial incentives that are offered to Jewish immigrants, including loans and cheap mortgages.
The announcement was met with scorn by the Society of Iranian Jews, which issued a statement that their national identity was not for sale. "The identity of Iranian Jews is not tradeable for any amount of money. Iranian Jews are among the most ancient Iranians. Iran’s Jews love their Iranian identity and their culture, so threats and this immature political enticement will not achieve their aim of wiping out the identity of Iranian Jews."
However, this financial gesture may not only be unwelcome but self-fulfilling too, if past experience is the yardstick. Israel introduced a similar scheme a few years ago, when Argentina’s economy plunged into deep recession, broadcasting an offer of $20,000 to every Jew who settled in Israel. Months later the Israeli media reported a rise in anti-Semitic attacks in Argentina, only adding to the pressure on Jews there to leave. Of course, there was no mention of a possible causal connection between the attacks and Israel’s generous offer to Jews to abandon their homeland as other Argentinians sank into poverty.
But if financial enticements and a possible popular backlash fail to move Iranian Jews, there is good reason to fear that Israel may resort to other, more dubious ways of encouraging them to emigrate. That is certainly a path Israel has chosen before with other communities of Arab Jews, whom it has regarded either as a pool of potential spies and agents provocateurs to be used when needed or as "human dust," in the words of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, to be recruited to Israel’s "demographic battle" against the Palestinians.
In "Operation Susannah" of 1954, for example, Israel recklessly recruited a group of Egyptian Jews to stage a series of explosions in Egypt in a bid to discourage Britain from withdrawing from the Suez Canal zone. When the plot came to light, it naturally cast a shadow of disloyalty over Egypt’s wider Jewish community. Following Israel’s invasion and occupation of Sinai two years later, the government of Gamal Abdel Nasser expelled some 25,000 Egyptian Jews and, after others were imprisoned on suspicion of spying, the rest soon left.
Even more notoriously, Israel went to greater lengths to ensure the exit of the Arab world’s largest Jewish population, in Iraq. In 1950 a series of bombs targeted on Jews in Baghdad forced a rapid exodus of some 130,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel, convinced that Arab extremists were behind the attacks. Only later did it emerge that the bombs had been planted by members of the Zionist underground, supported by the Israeli government.
Now, Iran’s Jews may find themselves treated in much the same manner as simple human fodder. Stories are growing of Israel exploiting the free movement between Iran and Israel enjoyed by Iranian Jews and their Israeli relatives to carry out spying operations on Iran’s nuclear program. Such reports have come from reliable sources such as the American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, citing US government officials.
The fallout from such actions is not difficult to predict. Besieged by the US and the international community, Tehran is cracking down on dissent and minority groups, fearful that its own grip on power is shaky and that the well-publicized subversion being carried out by US and Israeli agents is likely only to be stepped up. So far most officials in Tehran have been careful to avoid suggesting that Iran’s Jews have double loyalties, as has the local Jewish community itself, both of them aware of Israel’s interests in provoking such a confrontation. But as the strains increase, and Israel’s need to prove Tehran’s genocidal intent grows ever stronger, that policy may end up being forfeited and with it the future of Iran’s Jews.
More important than the welfare of Iranian Jewish families, it seems, is the value of Iranian Jews as a propaganda tool in Israel’s battle to persuade the world that coexistence with the Muslim world is impossible. For those who want to engineer a clash of civilizations, the 3,000-year-old Jewish legacy in Iran is not something to be treasured, only another obstacle to war.