By GIDEON KUTS / MA’ARIV \10/30/2016
Some dubbed him “Rouhani’s Jew,” and before that, “Ahmedinejad’s Jew,” but Siamak Morsadegh (Moreh Tzadek – righteous teacher in Hebrew), is an impressive, stout man who is much more than this: he’s “the number one Jew” in Iran.
He was recently sent to Paris as part of a delegation led by the chairman of the Iranian Parliament’s Foreign Policy and National Security Committee, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, who introduced him during his speech to the Diplomatic Academy in Paris as Iran’s only Jewish MP, emphasizing how honored he was by his presence.
This is Morsadegh’s third term as an Iranian MP, totaling nine years. Last year he was re-elected with 70% of the Jewish population’s vote, which he says numbers some 25,000 people. Like other religious groups in Iran, the Jewish community has a reserved seat in parliament.
“As the representatives of the religions, we are not so involved in political life,” Morsadegh explained, as we sat in the comfortable lounge chairs of the International Diplomatic Academy. “Our main role is regulating minority life through the government and improving the situation of our coreligionists. Generally, we are in the Center, not Left or Right. As a small community, we are not interested in factions and political disagreements. Religious minorities have different political activity. I was chosen by a heterogeneous political group, and I should have a moderate stance and deal mainly with cultural and social issues. Not as a political representative.”
He was born in Shiraz to a family which produced many of the Jewish community’s leaders. As a medical student, he was active in the socialist youth movement that supported the revolution and served for a long while as the editor in chief of a Jewish newspaper. Later he served as a medical professor and was appointed the head of the Jewish Committee of Tehran and the director of the Jewish hospital, Sapir. “I am a Jew and an Iranian,” he says of himself. “I pray in Hebrew, but think in Farsi. I am religious and observe the Sabbath like most of Iran’s Jews.”
In 2013, when he accompanied Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during his first trip to the UN General Assembly, his presence was a sensation and it raised suspicions. The media quoted his harsh condemnations of Israel and its policies, as well as what seemed like exaggerated praise for freedom of religion and the ideal conditions for Jews in Iran. Today, with Iran being welcomed back in by the family of nations, in his first conversation with an Israeli journalist, his comments seem far from the cliches that were attributed to him back then. Perhaps there are signals here of a desire to start a new more peaceful era in the relations between Iran, the world Jewish community and Israel.
In my visit to Iran I was struck by the involvement of Jews in religious life, by the high attendance at prayers at the central synagogue in Tehran and by the worshipers’ feeling of relative security. Just a single soldier guarded the synagogue and therefore I was not surprised when Morsadegh said that “Iran is much safer for Jews than France and there is no need for security at synagogues.” The small difference is, of course, in freedom of expression and in fear of the watchful eye of the government.
“In the history of Iran, Jews have never been forbidden from being in any city, not even in the holiest cities, like Mashhad (a holy Shi’ite city in which Jews were forced to convert to Islam in the nineteenth century – G.K.). Until this day, Jews live in Mashhad and Shiraz, in Tehran and in Isfahan. We have full freedom of religion. We have no problem with religious freedoms. We have a synagogue, school, kosher butcher, kosher restaurants. There are many Jewish organizations which deal with preserving the Jewish cultural legacy, cemeteries and special sites for ceremonies. However, we are a minority in a religious Muslim state, and that creates a few problems.
“Some of them have been solved. For example, up until five years ago Jewish schools were open on Saturday and the general day of rest was the Muslim day of rest, Friday. I said to President Rouhani that a school that is opened on Saturday is not a Jewish school, but rather it is a school attended by Jewish students. Since then, there are no more studies on Saturdays. Jewish children can go to a public school or to a Jewish school. Those who go to public school can attend the Jewish schools and synagogues on holidays, learn the Torah, Mishnah, Gemara and Talmud.”
However, he admits that there are other problems. “As a Jew in Iran, the highest position that can be attained is member of Parliament, and there is only one such position. A Jew cannot be president, a minister or deputy minister and cannot have an official role in the army. In order to hold these positions, you must be Muslim, but you can, for example, get the highest degree possible from the university and teach. Many Jews learn at the university, and there are some Jews who lecture there.
Do tensions between Iran and Israel influence the treatment of the Jewish community?
“Always, even before the revolution, the Iranian government distinguished between Jews and Zionists. And to be a Jew does not mean that you agree with everything Israel does. When there is criticism of Israel, it does not constitute a problem for us. True, there may be people who start to ask questions about Jews during a bad crisis with Israel, but in our daily life, we see Judaism and Zionism as separate entities.”
There were serious allegations of spying against Jews in Shiraz.
“There were all kinds of affairs, but now the situation is better, and I think that it will continue to improve everyday. There are a few more legal problems. Up until a few years ago there was a difference between compensation payments for the death of Muslims and non-Muslims, but following a fatwa (religious edict) from the Ayatollah Khamenei, today they are the same. Or, for example, inheritance law, which favors Muslims or Muslim converts. If the other beneficiaries belong to another religion, they will be disinherited. It is a law from one hundred years ago and we are making efforts to change it. But in general, the situation of the minorities in Iran is better today than in many western nations.”
Holocaust denial was especially dear to President Ahmedinejad – Holocaust caricature contests exist in Iran until this day. How do you in the Jewish community deal with this?
“The Holocaust is reality. I am a Jew, and I believe that everyone knows that the Holocaust is a real historic event. Anybody who wants to deny the Holocaust – it’s as if they are denying life, denying that the sun exists.”
Could you protest and oppose this, then and today, without endangering yourselves?
“Yes. We protested. We sent a letter to Ahmedinejad in which we said that this was unacceptable behavior. Holocaust denial is not a national interest of the Iranian people. Holocaust denial will only serve to help, for example, the extreme Right in Israel and it increased Islamophobia and Iranophobia in Israel. Holocaust denial is politically worthless. It did not even contribute anything to the Palestinians. I recently read a book by Abu Iyad (a PLO leader who was killed in an Israeli raid in Tunis – G.K.), in which he said that Palestinians who cooperated with Hitler during World War II did damage to the Palestinian people.”
From the lessons of the Holocaust, Morsadegh moves to an analysis of Israel’s diplomatic situation, an area in which he shows great knowledge. Among other things, he doesn’t necessarily sympathize with those formally supported by Iran. “I think that all of the Jews and all of the Muslims can live in complete peace, if the extremism ends. For example, if Israel would have reached a good agreement with the PLO during the time of the Rabin government, it would not be facing Hamas today. Whenever you fail to negotiate with a moderate enemy, you have to deal with an extremist enemy. The extremists on each side need each other. The Muslim extremists in the world need Netanyahu, and Netanyahu needs them. They are supposedly against one another, but in my opinion they help each other in their election campaigns and in sustaining the balance of power.”
At the same time as I’m speaking with Morsadegh, next door, chairman Boroujerdi declares that Iran will continue to develop its missile capabilities, because “this is the only way to defend against the 200 nuclear bombs in the hands of the Zionists.” I ask Morsadegh if despite the aggressive declarations there is, in his estimation, a chance for a future understanding between Iran and Israel.
Morsadegh is optimistic: “Politically speaking, anything is possible, but clearly, until all of the peoples of the Middle East have their full rights respected by the government of Israel, it will not be ready for peace. I think that a two-state solution, or any solution that ensures Middle East peace, will be supported by all nations. It has already been stated many times that Iran is not interested in starting a war with Israel, because it knows that anyone starting a war in the Middle East is committing an act of suicide. It is a crowded part of the world and anyone starting a war here is ending his life. I think that Iran’s leaders are sane enough and smart enough to prevent a war with Israel. I admit that a few years ago, I was suspicious of Netanyahu and I thought that he was crazy enough to start a war. Today I think that the situation has improved somewhat after the nuclear deal, and a war between Israel and Iran is an unacceptable possibility.
Do you have family in Israel?
“I do not have family in Israel. In Iran I have a father, mother, sister and wife. We have four children. My wife is writing her doctoral thesis on genetics at Tehran University. Most of my family lives in Iran. A few cousins live in the US.”
Morsadegh, and this is an important reason for his status, is known as one of the senior surgeons in Iran, and he is the director of Sapir hospital in Tehran, which belongs to the Jewish community. However, he treats the entire population and is known for his high level and low prices. Many come to him and get treatment that raises the stock of the Jewish community in public opinion.
“I studied general surgery at the university in Shiraz. Today I work at Sapir, which is a charity hospital and gives free treatment to the needy. It opened up more than 70 years ago, during World War II, and I think that it is one of the only charity hospitals left in the world. I take all patients, regardless of religion, on a charity basis. For some eight years we have received help from the government, because, due to the high inflation, the Jewish resources in Iran are not sufficient to support a charity institution. The government funds half of our costs, and we would not be able to fund the hospital without the government.”
The Iranian Parliament leaves the Academy building and Siamak Morsadegh rushes to catch up. I bid him goodbye with a greeting of “Chag Sameach” (Happy Holiday in Hebrew).
“Thank you. I wish you a happy Succot and a good and happy new year. And may God hear your prayers on Simhat Torah, and may all of the people of the world live together in absolute peace,” he says.
“Love your neighbor as you love yourself,” he adds in Hebrew. “Even in our region, Jews and Muslims can be together and respect each other, if all the extremists are silenced.”