In our discussions about Iran, whether regarding its nuclear program, its quest for regional hegemony or its funding of anti-Israeli terrorism, we don’t focus that much on the fact that the Islamic republic continues to be home to a small Jewish community. Prior to the 1979 revolution, the country had upward of 100,000 Jews, but today just 8,500 remain, primarily in the capital of Tehran, but also in the southern cities of Isfahan and Shiraz.
Despite their super-minority status, the official line has always been that the Jews who remain in Iran were safe. Indeed, Iran’s ruling clerics were quick to point out that their brand of militant Islamism, despite being anti-Israel, was not anti-Jewish. So news last week that two synagogues in Shiraz were vandalized left us wondering who didn’t get the memo.
Just a day after leaders in Tehran declared Jerusalem as the “capital of Palestine” — an apparent response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize the holy city as the capital of Israel — vandals entered Shiraz’s Kashi and Hadash synagogues, ripping up several Torah scrolls and defacing hundreds of prayer books, some of which they threw in the toilet.
Sam Kermanian, a senior adviser to the Iranian-American Jewish Federation, was quoted in news reports as saying that the Shiraz community is “scared.” “They’re not comfortable speaking freely,” he said, “but overall, life goes on.”
Life in Iran, though, appears far from normal. Protesters angry about government cuts to food subsidies have spent days disrupting life in the capital, with the ensuing crackdown by authorities turning violent and taking several lives. And though anti-Semitism was reported to be on the decline in Iran, the synagogue attacks seem to prove that while hatred of Israel has always been explicit, hatred of Jews in general continues to exist in the background.
Should another revolution take hold in Iran, there is little to suggest that life will get any easier for the country’s Jewish community. So what is the future of this population?
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations called on Iranian authorities “to take all necessary steps to protect the community and bring the perpetrators to swift justice,” but we doubt that such officials will prove to be trustworthy protectors. We believe instead that the Trump administration should heed the recommendation of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which called for Iran’s Jews, as well as the country’s other religious minorities, to continue to be granted special refugee status for the purposes of immigrating here. The so-called Lautenberg Amendment had granted such protections to Iran’s would-be religious refugees since 2004, but because Congress failed to reauthorize it, those protections expired last October.
The president and Congress focus regularly on Iran. Now is the time for both to turn some of their attention to the country’s persecuted minorities, especially its Jewish population.