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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Iran's contempt for the state of Israel is perhaps the most strident in the world. Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, once described Israel as a rotten, dried tree that will be annihilated in one storm. Yet Iran has the largest Jewish population of any Muslim country and a history that links the two nations. Centuries ago, when the country was part of Babylonia, rabbis debated legal matters with peers who practiced Zoroastrianism, the dominant faith in the region. Today, Jews have an elected deputy in Iran's parliament, and they're recognized as a religious minority under the country's Islamic constitution.

Next weekend, scholars will meet to further explore the history of these men and women and their ancestors. "Iranian Jewry: From Past to Present" is a conference hosted by the University of Maryland and the Library of Congress. We're joined by two professors who've helped organize the event. Hayim Lapin is director of the Jewish studies program at the University. Thanks very much for being with us.

Dr. HAYIM LAPIN (Director, Center for Jewish Studies, University of Maryland): Thank you for having me.

SIMON: And Ahmad Karimi is director of Persian studies. Thank you very much for being with us.

Dr. AHMAD KARIMI (Director, Center for Persian Studies, University of Maryland): Thank you so much.

SIMON: And gentlemen, how far back does a Jewish community go anyway?

Dr. KARIMI: The best dating dates it about 27 centuries ago in the Babylonian age. By the time Cyrus the Great invades Babylon, which is near Baghdad today, he issues a proclamation that Iran is very proud of, in which he recognizes the human rights of all the colonized people as well as their freedom to practice their faith.

SIMON: Why have this conference now? What's the urgency?

Dr. LAPIN: Less urgency than opportunity. Ahmad and I both are the heads of programs that have an interest in expanding knowledge of a long and rich culture. This is a diaspora community that has an identity as Persian. They may be alienated from the present government and the present state, the present republic, but Iranian Jews frequently understand themselves as belonging in a Persian world.

SIMON: Professor Karimi, your background is in Persian literature. I want to ask you about a phrase we noticed: The imagination, a political agency.

Dr. KARIMI: Well, yeah, we have this scholarly jargon. But the process of modernity affected not only the Muslim majority but all religious minorities too. And so the Armenians and Jews, they were not as anchored and steeped in the Muslim tradition as the majority, and so they quickly rose to the position of agents of change. And this imaginary of Iranian agents' movement from the subjects of a king to citizens of a country was aided by Armenians, kinds of Christians, and Jews of Iran.

And so they it was who as a group went much more often than the Muslim majority to places of education in Europe, such as, for example, Istanbul, to Paris, London, Austria, and got back doctors and engineers, and started the process of integrating into society. So the way Iranian modernity was imagined was through the agency of non-Muslim minorities, including Jews.

SIMON: I know that there are religious groups in Iran that are discriminated against plenty. To what degree is the Jewish community tolerated, merely tolerated, or accepted?

Dr. LAPIN: I would say for the most part tolerated. Occasionally there are accusations within Iran at members of the Jewish community. The most recent had to do with accusations of espionage for the state of Israel. But by and large, the community is tolerated.

SIMON: I don't want people to get the impression that this conference is just a group of scholars, however distinguished, yammering away on the topic. There is also some music. Izra Malakov's Bukharian Jewish Folklore Ensemble is going to have a concert. Let's listen to a little of their music.

(Soundbite of song by Izra Malakov's Bukharian Jewish Folklore Ensemble)

SIMON: What is the song about?

Dr. KARIMI: This is a wedding song. It started, like, congratulating the groom and the bride. The dialect is Central Asian Persian. There are some efforts to minimize the use of Persian. So music, because it's committed to memory, and especially in the diaspora places such as New York where these performances are held, are preserved and mingled with local musical tradition.

SIMON: Gentlemen, thank you both very much. Ahmad Karimi is director of the Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute Center for Persian Studies. Hayim Lapin is director of the Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies. They're both professors at the University of Maryland in College Park, and the school is co-hosting the conference November 1st to 3rd.

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