The Jewish Community in Iran: Interview with Anti Defamation League’s Sharon Nazarian

By Natasha Phillips

Sharon Nazarian. Source: Jewish Journal

Sharon Nazarian is an Iranian-American-Jewish academic and philanthropist, and Senior Vice President for International Affairs at the Anti Defamation League, which works to combat anti-Semitism worldwide, as well as hate crimes, extremism and the delegitimization of Israel. 

Sharon has worked with the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University, and has sat on several boards including HIAS, a nonprofit organization that protects refugees, as well as the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. She is also the founder of the Younes & Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at UCLA.

The following is a Kayhan Life interview with Nazarian.

Q: Sharon, you’ve just taken up your role at the Anti Defamation League as Senior Vice President for International Affairs. What is the scope of your role at ADL?

A: The unit that I’m in charge of deals with international affairs.  As an anti-hate organization, we do advocacy work, advocating on issues we care about, and programmatic work, which involves training across internal departments. We also work to share these programs with communities around the world, because of their focus on anti-bias, anti-bullying, and gender diversity. We also have a strong law enforcement community engagement unit, which helps law enforcement agencies in the US and around the world better understand hate crime and extremism, what hate groups look like and how they behave. 

Q: You recently visited Europe to engage EU officials on human rights issues in Iran, asking them to help protect Iranians’ human rights inside the country. You were part of the first ever delegation from the US to ask the EU to do this. Can you tell us about your trip?

A: We started in Brussels and from there we went to Paris. It was a unique experience for ADL, as the first trip of its kind, to advocate on minority issues around the world, which has been our core mission at ADL. However, we felt that at this time it was of the utmost importance to look at those issues within Iran. Although we have always advocated for minority issues and specifically the Jewish community in Iran, we felt that right now, given what’s going on, there was a need for ADL to have a strong voice in Europe. 

As an American organization that fights against anti-Semitism, we have a unique identity which we can bring to the table. However, our focus on Iran is down to our civil rights credentials rather anything else. The reason we went to Brussels and the European Parliament was because we take the view that the EU has significant leverage today in light of the sanctions and the JCPOA. At this point, it appears to be Iran’s only lifeline, and we wanted to make the EU aware of this, and to look at Iran’s human rights issues while they were discussing the nuclear deal and the sanctions — as elements that needed to be looked at together. So we urged European politicians to look at human rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights at the same time that they were discussing ongoing issues around finance and the JCPOA. 

Q: You’ve been in the news recently talking about the rise of anti-Semitism in America, but of course Iran has its own Jewish population, too. What is life like for Jews living in Iran, a country which its government defines as an Islamic Republic?

A: At ADL, we have a label for Jewish communities like the one in Iran: we call them captive communities. These are communities that are limited and confined to what the government allows them to do on a daily basis. On the surface, the Iranian government appears to allow Jews in Iran the right to pray, have synagogues and participate in Jewish daily life, including drinking wine during religious ceremonies. 

The government does a good job of publicizing that perceived tolerance as well. However, we do know that this community can be, and has been, targeted in all kinds of political matters, which makes them feel enormously vulnerable. In our conversations with Jews in Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz, we know that their level of comfort is the same as that of other Iranians, which of course is not comfortable at all due to the economic situation in Iran, but they also feel constantly under threat. 

While we were in Brussels, we also advocated for the many ethnic and religious minorities in Iran. We were deeply concerned by the death of a Sufi gentleman who was executed in Iran the day we arrived in Brussels, under very questionable charges and without due process. We also raised the issue of the plight of the Sunni minority in Iran, who are treated as second-class citizens.  So we go beyond the Jewish community as well. 

The water issues in Iran also involve a minority group called the Baluchis. So we advocated in Brussels for this group as well. Many EU officials asked us for more information, as our delegation were all human rights activists with connections on the ground. Our mission at ADL was to stem that knowledge gap and to elevate all of these issues.

Sharon Nazarian: Source: YouTube

Q: Iran’s population is also made up of several other ethnic minorities who are believed to be persecuted through violent crackdowns, imprisonment and economic disadvantage – do you see any distinctions in the way Jews as a minority are treated compared to, for example, dervishes and the Bahá’í community? 

A: There are some artificial differences which the regime has created through its own constitution, for example designating Jews and Christians as accepted religious groups, whereas  Bahá’ís are not recognized in this way. Even within Shia denominations we see discrimination. The regime has a sense of Shiite supremacy imprinted into its DNA, which was constructed and formed with this notion of ‘anotherism.’  That permeates the legal foundation of the Islamic Republic and its day to day operations. When you have this philosophy at the heart of a government, how could you not have discrimination as a symptom? 

Q: Anti-semitism goes back thousands of years around the world – do you think what we’re seeing today is part of the same narrative?

A: Historically, anti-Semitism has been intertwined with politics, and it’s always been there. As part of the Iranian Jewish diaspora myself, I have heard stories from my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents about the trials and tribulations of being a Jewish minority in Iran going back 2,700 years. There were periods of discrimination through clothing. My father, for example, remembered a time in Tehran where there were Jewish ghettos, where Jews were confined to those living quarters.

Today, the complexity of being a Jewish minority is tied to the regional politics and rivalry between Iran and Israel.  That adds another layer of complexity faced by this particular minority in Iran, who can be accused of being spies for Israel. That’s a vulnerability that deeply affects the community. They can find themselves being questioned about their Iranian-ness, their loyalty, and can be sent to jail at a moment’s notice. This kind of fear is what the Jewish-Iranian community live with on a daily basis. 

The regime also engages in Holocaust denial, and its actions and messaging around this leaves Jews in Iran feeling as if they could be attacked and wiped out at any time. It makes me sad to think that there might be an end to the Jewish community in Iran. There are now only 10,000 or 15,000 Jews in Iran, and to think that this long history of existence in Iran can be broken now because of this regime’s behavior is not only saddening but also devastating to our history as a people. 

Q: Which human rights abuses in Iran concern you the most at the moment, and why?

A: The people of Iran have had an Islamic regime imposed on them for 40 years, which is not an organic part of our culture. This imposed values system is one that does not go along with the history of our people. The ADL feels that it has a duty and a responsibility to bring these issues to the attention of the rest of the world. The people in Iran who are asking for a better life deserve to be heard. 

Unfortunately, what we found in Europe was a situation where the French were really pushing for investment in the reformists, and were bent on the idea that bolstering the economy would have a trickle-down effect and reach the people of Iran. It was a clear misunderstanding of what the people of Iran had been saying to Europe for quite some time. We also found a lack of interest in engaging on human rights issues on our trip, with a strong focus on maintaining the nuclear deal, and untimely maintaining their investments. It was disheartening to see where their priorities lay. However, we felt it was important for us to keep the focus on minorities in Iran, and elevate those issues so that those men, women and children were not forgotten. 

Q: You advocate for support from the international community for people in Iran who are experiencing those abuses – what would you like to see governments around the world do to help?

A: Iran’s government tends to respond when one of own its interests is affected.  That’s why we felt that European officials were the right people to reach out to, given their engagement with Iran. We hoped that they would combine human rights issues with their discussions about these interests, and that’s what I think should happen at the UN and in every international forum. There’s so much leverage within Europe at the moment. Despite concerns that Iran might step out of the nuclear deal, Europe does have the ability to maintain pressure on Iran and say: ‘we’re watching you and what you’re doing to your people.’ All of these issues have to be kept in play and kept on the table: that’s the only way to get a response from the regime.

Q: Iran’s politics and its people have become a growing source of interest and concern for Westerners. What can citizens around the world do to support Iranians at home?

A: Elevating their voices, connecting with them through social media. The people of Iran are tremendous in this way. They are a unique population compared to the rest of the Middle East because of their education and sophistication and their activism on social media sites like Twitter, so we have an avenue now, a direct link with them, to show them that we’re listening to them, that they’re seen, and that the Islamic regime is no longer repressing their voices. Each of us as individuals can help with that, by following them on social platforms, by connecting with them, by amplifying the issues that they’re raising. We live in a world where politicians are very important, but so are citizens — and individuals can play a role in these global issues and challenges.