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Iran's Jews Mark Hanukkah in Conference's Shadow
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Iran's Jews Mark Hanukkah in Conference's Shadow



Iran has a Jewish population estimated to be about 20,000 people. Although that's tiny compared to Iran's nearly 70 million Muslims, it's still the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside of Israel. This year, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah began just a few days after the Iranian government held a two-day conference challenging the accepted history of the Holocaust. NPR's Mike Shuster visited one Jewish family in Tehran as it gathered to celebrate Hanukkah. He talked to them about how this controversy affects Iran's Jewish community.

MIKE SHUSTER: Even as the Muslim call to prayer echoed faintly through the narrow alleyways of central Tehran, the Abaie family gathered to light the candles on the second night of Hanukkah.

Mr. ARASH ABAIE (Hebrew Language Teacher): (Speaking foreign language)

SHUSTER: Arash Abaie strikes a match and reads the prayers in Hebrew while his mother, his aunt and his sister look on. Abaie is a religious teacher committed to keeping the traditions of Judaism alive in Tehran's small community of Jews. His sister, Elham, works for the Tehran Jewish Committee.

The ritual of lighting the Hanukkah candles may be ancient, commemorating events that took place in biblical Israel in the second century before the common era, but the talk in the Abaie household is of this week's gathering of Holocaust deniers organized by Iran's government and its controversial president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Elham Abaie says the conference was unacceptable.

Ms. ELHAM ABAIE: I know that Holocaust is a reality, that everybody in the world accepted that, and there are so many documents about it, and there are so many survivors. So holding this conference is, I think, is not a good idea.

Mr. ABAIE: (Speaking foreign language)

Ms. ABAIE: (Speaking foreign language)

SHUSTER: This is now a new issue for the Abaie family. Several years ago, Arash Abaie wrote about the Holocaust in a Jewish publication. At that time, government officials challenged his article and told him to stop writing about the Holocaust. Arash has been to Germany and has met Holocaust survivors who carry their identity numbers from the death camps tattooed on their arms. This issue for Iran did not originate with President Ahmadinejad, Arash says.

Mr. ABAIE: We are familiar with these opinions for many years ago, maybe five or six years ago. But Mr. Ahmadinejad has announced these sentences loudly and internationally. Wiping out Israel from the map of the world and denying the Holocaust is new for the world, not for Iranian Jews.

SHUSTER: Arash points out that Ahmadinejad's remark about wiping Israel off the map was actually a quote taken from remarks by the Islamic Republic's first leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, some 25 years ago. But Ahmadinejad's use of the Holocaust issue and his constant tirades against Israel have a political purpose, Arash believes.

Mr. ABAIE: They want to divert the world opinion about Iranian problems, especially nuclear program, to somewhere else. They want to have an alter-enemy who helps them to forget their internal problems, like economical, social and political. They feel that, okay, we have so many enemies, and we should be united and forget our internal problems and think about Zionism and U.S.A. and so and so.

SHUSTER: For a decade before Ahmadinejad's election, though, the atmosphere for Iran's Jews was much better, Arash says. The reformist administration of Ahmadinejad's predecessor, Mohamed Khatami, engaged in a dialogue of civilizations, internationally and domestically, and that included serious interaction with Iran's Jewish community. Since Ahmadinejad's election last year, Arash says, much of that inter-religious dialogue has stopped.

Mr. ABAIE: But we have seen no direct sign or direct offense or attack against Judaism or against Iranian Jews, but only the situation as we see as these wars and as Holocaust conference and so many other things that make us afraid of the situation. But no practical actions have been done directed to Iranian Jews.

Mr. ABAIE: (Speaking foreign language)

SHUSTER: Among his various activities, Arash teaches the Hebrew language to other Jews. A few months ago, he was called by some government officials who told him to stop teaching Hebrew, so for the time being, he has put his Hebrew classes on hold.

Iran's Jewish community is dwindling. Slowly, Iranian Jews are leaving the country for Israel, or more often for the United States. Those who remain, like Arash Abaie and his sister, Elham, stay because Jews have been in Iran for 2,500 years and because they feel Iranian as well as Jewish.

Ms. ABAIE: We have a long story. We have deep roots here. Although we are minorities, and minorities have so many limitations in many countries, not only in Iran, we feel that here is our home, our real home.

Mr. ABAIE: (Speaking foreign language)

SHUSTER: Mike Shuster, NPR News, Tehran.

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