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Iran, Jews and the Holocaust

The beneficent legacy of Persia remembered

These days, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's intentionally incendiary words about the Holocaust and Israel, as well as the mischievous shenanigans of his cabal -- from organizing a "scholarly" conference on the Holocaust to a cartoon competition on that same theme -- the question of Iran's relationship to Israel, to Jews, and to the Holocaust has, understandably, become an international concern.

Surely Ahmadinejad's dangerous words and deeds deserve to be thoroughly condemned. The regime in Iran, and leaders like Ahmadinejad, must be made to understand that the world community has zero tolerance for such anti-Semitic ranting. But it would also be tragic to hold Iran, as a nation, and Iranians around the world responsible for these rants or assume they reflect the reality and soul of Iranian history and attitude.

Iran's history, like the history of many other nations, is not free of the blemish of anti-Semitism. But for every anti-Semitic blight, there are many more bright spots where Iranians have shown the wisdom to swim against the dark tide of rancor.

The Old Testament begins with a celebration of these bright spots, and the unequivocal condemnation of the dark side. The Bible is replete with profuse praise for Persia (the much-maligned Iran of today) and its rulers. In the book of Ezra, the Lord speaks through the proclamations of Cyrus, the king of Persia, who declares, "The Lord God of Heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the Earth, and he has charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem." Cyrus acceded to this divine command, and thus was the second Temple in Jerusalem built. In other parts of the Old Testament, there is hearty praise of Cyrus as God's "Anointed" and the "Chosen" ruler, who freed Jews from their Babylonian captivity.

Scholars of history and exegetes of the Bible concur that ancient Persia was exemplary for its willingness to help the Jews fight the age-old curse of anti-Semitism. The Jewish feast of Purim celebrates the fact that Esther, queen to a Persian king, saved the Jews of the kingdom from annihilation. But along with the benevolence of Cyrus there lurked on the Iranian horizon the race of Haman, whose mind and heart was darkened by rancor and hate.

Today, Ahmadinejad has altogether forfeited the magnanimity of Cyrus, and opted instead to embrace the poisoned malice of Haman. The duality of the approach to Jews evident in the dawn of Iranian civilization can easily be seen in the troubled history of 20th century as well.

As early signs of the murderous Final Solution became visible in Europe, the Iranian government of the time convinced the Nazi race experts in Germany that Iranian Jews had lived in Iran for over 2,500 years, and were thus fully assimilated citizens of the Iran and must be afforded all the rights of such citizens. The Nazis accepted this argument and the lives of all Iranian Jews living under the Nazi yoke were saved. An account of this episode can be found in the "History of Contemporary Iranian Jews," published by Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History.

Moreover, as I have recounted in my book "Persian Sphinx," Iranian diplomats in Europe and elsewhere offered hundreds of Iranian passports to European Jews, thus saving their lives. And when the Nazi killing machines began their slaughter of innocent Polish Jews, 1,388 Jews, including 871 children were moved to Tehran where they lived in relative safety till they moved to Israel. Again the "History of Contemporary Iranian Jews" has provided an account of what are called "Tehran Children."

Iran's attitude toward Iranian and Arab Jews leaving their countries for Israel was no less commendable. The man responsible for the transfer of Jewish refugees in Iran, Moir Ezry -- who became Israel's ambassador to Iran -- writes in Yadnameh, "As the Shah of Iran [who ruled from 1941-1979] had particular affinity for the Jews, the military and bureaucratic institutions of the country spared no effort in helping refugees reach Israel."

He goes on to say, "Countries like Bulgaria, and Rumania asked for great sums of money from Israel in order to set their Jewish population free. But the Iranian government never asked for any money."

The facts of history during the second half of that murderous century are also a credit to Iran and its people. Iran was the first Muslim country in the world to establish diplomatic and economic ties with Israel. Throughout the '50s, '60s and '70s, Iran supplied oil to Israel, and after the rise of Nasser's Pan-Arab nationalism in the Middle East, Israel, along with Iran's secret police, operated a radio station in the Southern provinces of Iran and beamed their anti-Nasser message to the entire Arab world. David Menashri, one of the most eminent Israeli scholars of modern Iran, calls the '60s and '70s "the Golden Age of Iranian Jewry when Jews enjoyed almost total cultural and religious autonomy, experienced economic progress and had no less political freedom than their Muslim counterparts."

He adds, "On per capita terms, they may well have been the richest community in the world.'' To overlook this history and instead only focus our gaze on the deplorable words of irresponsible leaders like Ahmadinejad is to forget the Esthers of Iran and focus our angry gaze only the rancorous Hamans.

Abbas Milani is the director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University and the co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at Hoover Institution. Contact us at


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