Iran's Jews on life inside Israel's 'enemy state': 'We feel secure and happy'

Despite its often turbulent dealings with Israel, Iran has one of the world's largest and longest-established Jewish communities - and it's growing. Kim Sengupta reports from Tehran on their intriguing relationship with the country's establishment

"Benjamin Netanyahu and the anti-Semites need each other: they supply each other with what they need – intolerance and hatred." This is the vehemently held view of Ciamak Morsadegh, a newly elected Iranian parliamentarian. "It is an unspoken alliance which suits them, but it causes great harm to the rest of us." The MP is Jewish, representing the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside Israel, one that is growing in size while those in almost all other Muslim countries in the region have shrunk severely or disappeared altogether – largely due to persecution.

Israel has long portrayed Iran as an implacable enemy, an existential threat, even. In recent years, Netanyahu's government mobilised its international backers in the US Congress and elsewhere to lobby fiercely against the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers, with dire warnings about a dangerous regime acquiring weapons of mass destruction. The campaign failed. The nuclear agreement was signed. And the resultant easing of international sanctions – providing a road to recovery for the country's ailing economy – was a key factor in the sweeping gains by the reformists and their allies in the recent elections; a victory that should pave the way for great changes in Iranian politics and history.

Morsadegh, a 50-year-old hospital surgeon, is one of the candidates who benefited in the liberal swing to get re-elected. He is the only Jew in the Iranian parliament, the Majlis, winning the seat reserved for the Jewish community against two other candidates. "The fact is, Iran is a place where Jews feel secure and we are happy to be here," he says. "We are proud to be Iranian. I know this doesn't follow the Zionist script, but this is the reality."

But are his expressions of patriotism and castigation of Israel intended to ensure self-preservation in the Islamic Republic? "No one forces the Jews to stay here," says Morsadegh, a large figure, full of energy, at his office in the Sapir Medical Centre in Tehran. "The Israelis offer money to Jewish people to emigrate to Israel, but we choose to stay. My view is that the actions of Netanyahu and his government, the way they behave towards the Palestinians, cause problems for Jews everywhere. I am not the only one holding these views. Am I not allowed to say it because I am a Jew? " He waves his arms amid a haze of smoke from his constant chain of Winston cigarettes.

Is he claiming, then, that there were absolutely no disadvantages faced by Jews in Iran? The MP concedes there are a " few things" under the current law that discriminate against the community – for example, the amount of financial compensation, or "blood money", paid to the families of victims of violence by the perpetrator in lieu of formal prosecutions –but, he adds: " We are working on that."

And working with the government. Morsadegh accompanied Hassan Rouhani, Iran's reformist President, to New York during the negotiations on the country's nuclear programme, and the MP's interests and influence lie beyond the religious field. But why are there no other Jews in the Majlis from non-Jewish constituencies? "Traditionally, the Jewish community here has been in medicine and pharmacy, while in the West they have been a lot in finance. They do very well in these fields and other professions as well; there isn't that much interest in politics," he replies. "We have been left to get on with our lives. We haven't had the terrible pogroms that happened in the West – which were due to Christian intolerance – and even now we can see the situation is dangerous for Jews in Europe. Synagogues need to be guarded there because of attacks. There is no need for any of that here."

There are around 60 synagogues across Iran – six of them in Tehran – for a population that numbers between 10,000 and 20,000. Community members may be quick to state they are not Zionists, but there is pride in the purity of the stock and the fact that it is growing. As Morsadegh says: "Intermarriage to other communities is very low here, just 0.1 per cent of the population; it's 40 per cent in the UK, I think, and 20 per cent even in Israel, so you see the difference. The numbers are going up because the birth rate is quite high among our people, but it is by a very small amount."

The community will also grow, it is believed, when more of the Iranian-Jewish diaspora come back from abroad – people such as Arik's brother. Sitting in Tehran's upmarket Espinas Hotel, Arik is very keen to discuss the security situation at home and abroad, but cautious about revealing his identity. Not because of possible repercussions in Iran, says the 36-year-old electrical-goods supplier, but because of the situation in France and the risks to his brother and his family. "They are in Paris and the situation has become really bad for them," he says. "You have white racists harassing them, but also Muslim gangs, and that's becoming worse and worse.

"These gangs are Sunni Muslims, not Shias, as we have in Iran. They have become extremists because of Wahabi propaganda from Saudi Arabia – look at the attacks on the journalists on that magazine [Charlie Hebdo] and then the terrible massacre a few months ago. My brother is active in the Jewish groups in his area, so I need to disguise his identity. They have to organise security patrols to protect their synagogues, even their homes, every day and night."

Netanyahu visited France after the Charlie Hebdo murders. I watched and listened at the Grand Synagogue in Paris as he urged Jews to emigrate to Israel: France, and Western Europe, he warned, was unsafe for them. The invitation was strongly criticised by the French government. Manuel Valls, the Prime Minister – whose wife, the violinist Anne Gravoin, is Jewish – stated: "France without Jews is not France… If 100,000 Jews leave, the Republic will be judged a failure."

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference (AFP/Getty Images)

Nonetheless, there has been a significant rise in emigration to Israel, sharply accelerated after last November's Paris attacks. Revisiting the Grand Synagogue at the time, I found the mood ever more pessimistic. The general view was that there will be further terrible attacks. On a recent visit to Israel I came across estate agents in Tel Aviv specialising in properties for French and other Western European Jews who are on their way. But Arik wants to point out that Israel is hardly a safe place. "My brother is thinking of leaving France. I ask him: 'Why go to Israel?' They have wars in Gaza regularly, and there are killings every week with the stabbings and shootings. I have asked him to come here. There are good Jewish schools for the children, there are synagogues and there will also be lots of business opportunities with the sanctions being lifted."

Arik, in a shiny grey suit, with his thick black hair slicked back, is at the Espinas to pursue these opportunities, meeting foreign businessmen who are now steadily beating a path to Tehran. (Last month, there were seven foreign commercial delegations at the hotel just in the 10 days I stayed there covering the elections.) His business aims, however, are not in his trade. "I've got some money saved and I'm thinking about investing in tourism. Why not? Foreign tourists aren't going to Egypt, Tunisia or Turkey because of terrorist attacks. Iran is a very safe place, we don't have terrorist attacks. Sure, we need to invest in infrastructure, but there is so much to see here; so much history – Jewish history as well, we have been here for centuries."

There are different chronologies of the Jewish presence in what is now Iran. It began, it is believed, in 722BC, when the Assyrian king Shalmaneser V conquered Israel and sent the 10 "lost tribes" into exile. There was another wave in 586BC, when the people of Judaea were expelled by the Babylonians. An exodus to Israel took place when the Jewish state was created in 1947 – but more than 100,000 were still there during the Shah's rule in the 1970s. At the time, Iran, seen as an anti-Communist bulwark by the West, had close relations with Israel, especially in the field of security, with Mossad helping to set up Savak, the Shah's secret police, which became notorious for human-rights abuses.

Israel sold $75m of weapons to Iran during the war with Iraq. Iran, in turn, supplied Israel with a sizeable portion of its oil needs following the Six Day War: Iranian oil was shipped to European markets through the jointly run Eilat Ashkelon pipeline. El Al flew direct flights between Tel Aviv and Tehran. The Jewish community was secure and prosperous. And while, as discontent spread against the Shah, there were accusations of complicity with the government levelled against some prominent Jewish figures by the opposition, several thousand politically active members of the community took part in the protests – many being arrested by the security forces.

After the 1979 revolution and the return of Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran broke off all diplomatic and commercial ties with Israel. The Israeli embassy building in Tehran was handed over to the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Israel refused to pay back money it owed Iran from the pipeline venture and still refuses to do so. Even though, in May last year, a European court ordered that $1.1bn should be repaid, Netanyahu's government rejected the judgment, saying it considered Iran an enemy state.

Some Jewish activists were arrested after the revolution, this time by the newly founded Islamic Republic. Then an event occurred that sent a shockwave through the community. Habib Elghanian, a well-known Jewish industrialist, was arrested on charges of spying for Israel. He was convicted after a swift trial and placed before a firing squad. An emergency meeting was held by the elders. Two rabbis and four young political activists set off from Tehran for Qom, the centre of Iranian Shia theocracy, to see Ayatollah Khomeini, and there was trepidation about how the Supreme Leader would react. But in the event, after a long meeting followed by dinner, the Ayatollah proclaimed that as a "people of the book" and loyal Iranians rather than Iranian Zionists, the Jews were welcome to stay in the country.

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Iranian Jewish MP Siamak Morsadegh takes part in a protest outside the United Nations headquarters in Tehran (AFP/Getty)

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presidency (2005-13) was another time of anxiety. Early in his term, he questioned the Holocaust and there was apprehension that this would be followed by measures against the community. The head of Iran's Jewish Committee, Haroun Yashayaei, wrote to Ahmadinejad saying that to challenge "one of the most obvious and saddening events of the 20th-century humanity has created astonishment among the people of the world and spread fear among the small Jewish community in Iran". The former President Mohammad Khatami, who sponsored the reformists in the last elections, and Ali Akbar Velayati, the chief foreign-policy adviser to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were among public figures who disowned Ahmadinejad's comments.

The matter, Yashayaei said, was "defused". As it clearly is at the Fatima Masumeh shrine in Qom, where the senior cleric Imam Husseini insists: "There is no question of Jews not belonging here. Look at that" – he points at an edict on the wall – " there are the names of Moses and Jesus in there. You cannot believe in the Prophet Mohamed if you don't believe in the parts played by Moses and Jesus. We don't want to stop the Jewish people here from observing religion; observing religion makes someone a better person. It is lack of knowing about religion which leads people to become like Daesh [Isis]."

Certainly, the congregation at the Abdullah Zadeh synagogue has been growing in numbers over the years – "and this is the case with all the others as well," the caretaker says. "There were a lot more Jews here in the Shah's time, but a much smaller percentage used to pray regularly. I think so many more are praying now because we live in the Islamic Republic, a religious country. Very few focus on politics; they focus on religion – that is safer."

The 65-year-old caretaker, who did not want to be named, used to work in film production. He went on a course to Italy 35 years ago, but returned early when the war with Iraq broke out. "I came back because in case my country needed me," he says. "I haven't been to a foreign country since and I don't feel any need to go. We are settled here, there is no need for change; change is for young people."

Half a mile away at the Tapo restaurant, the 29-year-old manager, David Shoumer, has no plans to leave Iran, but he does have plans for changes. I have my last supper in Tehran there, tasting the house specialities: kebab kubideh, grilled lambs on skewers; and ghormeh sabzi, a stew of dried lemons, kidney beans and herbs. It's fine, but the dishes are mainstream Iranian rather than intrinsically Jewish.

"That's right, it is all Iranian," Shoumer says. "The only difference is that the meat is kosher. My father and uncle started the restaurant 30 years ago and we have been serving similar food without complaint. But we need to change the menu if there are a lot of tourists coming to Iran. I worked in Istanbul in a restaurant 10 years ago, but I have not been away since. Now I think I have to go to a few countries and see what kosher restaurants are doing there. We need to show visitors we are Jews; we need to meet the expectations of the foreigners about our Jewishness."

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