iran, the jews and the
During the last two centuries, Iranian
politics have oscillated between extremes as the country has searched for a
viable path to confront the challenges of modernity. Since the late eighteenth
century, it has gradually undergone a phase of Westernization—a process that
was intensified prior to the collapse of the Pahlavi Monarchy (1925−79)
− only to reverse direction under the Islamic Republic.
The dichotomy that has
characterized recent Iranian politics is best exemplified by the distinctive
visions of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. By all
accounts, Khomeini’s worldview was the complete antithesis of that of the Shah.
The latter’s attachment to the legacy of Cyrus the Great gave way to a return
to the traditions of the Imam ‘Ali. While the Shah sought to generate loyalty
to the monarchy and to Iran’s pre-Islamic heritage, the Islamic Republic’s
policies are based on strict adherence to Islamic dogma and values. While the
previous regime made a determined drive for Westernization, the Islamic
Republic views Western influence as a major threat.
Evidently, such vastly opposing views invariably subsume
the two regimes’ respective attitudes toward minority religions as well. As part of Iranian society, the Jews were
inevitably influenced by the revolutionary change;
as members of a religious minority, this cataclysm had distinctive
ramifications for them. The revolution’s virulently anti-Israel and
anti-Zionist stance, too, was bound
to arouse feeling against world Jewry and affect attitudes toward the Jews in Iran.
This essay will analyze
the evolution of Iran’s position toward its Jewish minority and toward Jewish
issues worldwide, as well as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s harsh rhetoric
regarding world Jewry and the Holocaust. In order to better comprehend the
magnitude of the change, it will begin by tracing the historical legacy of Iran’s treatment of its Jews and discuss policy vis-à-vis Iranian Jewry since the
Islamic Revolution. It will then examine in greater depth attempts in Iran to cast doubt on the validity of the Holocaust by focusing on the views of leading
officials, scholars and media publications.
Iranian Jewry: Past Legacy and
The history of Iranian Jewry has
known periods of suppression, persecution, and harassment as well as intervals
of tolerance and peaceful coexistence. All in all, however, their experience
was even more trying than that of Jews in other Muslim communities. “Compared
to the Jews of Iran,” Bernard Lewis wrote, “the Jews of the Ottoman Empire were
living in paradise.” Growing contact
with the West, mainly since the early nineteenth century, and the liberal
movement that gave birth to the Constitutional Revolution in Iran (1905−11), helped to ameliorate their situation somewhat. As Habib Levy stated, these
events brought the Jews the “precious gift” of an opportunity to break “the
invisible chains which had bound them hand and foot,” even if they “did not
suddenly erase the toxic impurity of anti-Semitism” from peoples’ minds.
However, it was primarily during the Pahlavi monarchy, that Iranian Jews were
able to improve their position in Iranian society.
The two decades under
Reza Shah’s rule “brought temporary relief to the Jews and other non-Muslims.”
While the Jews experienced significant advances in their social and economic
situation during Reza Shah’s reign, it changed even more substantially under
Mohammad Reza Shah (1941-1979), reaching its zenith during the reform movement
of the White Revolution (from 1963) − marking the Golden Era of Iranian
Jewry. At that time, Jews enjoyed almost complete cultural and religious
autonomy, unprecedented economic progress, and had political rights that were
close to those of their Muslim compatriots. Even then, however, progress was
often interrupted by difficult periods. Antisemitic literature continued to be
published throughout the Pahlavi monarchy, and anti-Jewish
propaganda became more visible in Iran during the early 1950s, following the
establishment of the State of Israel, and under Prime
Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq. Yet, in comparison to earlier periods, the Jews’
status improved considerably under the Pahlavis.
The Islamic Revolution
turned assets into obvious liabilities for Iran’s Jews. Their prominent
socio-economic standing under the monarchy, their identification with the Shah
and his policies, and their attachment to Israel, Zionism, and ‘American
imperialism’ were all held against them. Iran’s
historical mistreatment of the Jews had left its mark on popular attitudes. The
short interval of Jewish freedom under the last shah was too brief to cause a
significant shift in societal attitudes toward the Jews. The basic principles
of the revolutionary regime were based on radical interpretations of Islamic
dogma, and Ayatollah Khomeini’s own doctrine (see below) would only exacerbate anti-Jewish
sentiment. The economic challenges following the change of regime and the
pressure on Iran from the outside world were also attributed, at least in part,
to Israel and the Jews, who were believed to be ‘moving the wheels’ of the
world economy. Moreover, the Islamic regime’s decision to become the bearer of
the anti-Zionist and anti-Israel flag fuelled this feeling. Less than three decades after the
revolution, approximately two-thirds of the Jewish community (including most of
the religious and social leadership) have left Iran. In 2007, an estimated
25,000 Jews remain there. Although there has been no actual governmental
incitement or systematic harassment, “the Iranian Jews have received harsher
treatment” than other recognized religious minorities − excluding the
Khomeini’s doctrine, as
formulated prior to the Islamic Revolution, contained distinct anti-Jewish elements,
combining Shi‘i ideology with typical elements of European antisemitism. On the
first page of his book Al-Hukumah al-Islamiyyah (Islamic Governance), Khomeini
pointed out: “Since its inception, the Islamic movement has been afflicted with
the Jews,” who “established anti-Islamic propaganda and joined in various
stratagems, and as you can see, this activity continues down to our present
day.” The Prophet Muhammad “eliminated” the Jews of the Bani Qurayza, Khomeini
recalled, because they were a troublesome group, corrupting Muslim society and
“damaging Islam and the Islamic state.” In his earlier
book, Touzih al-Masa'el (Clarification of the Questions), he emphasized
the Shi‘i doctrine of the ritual impurity of unbelievers (nejasat),
listing “eleven things that contaminated,” including sperm, dogs, pigs, carrion
and unbelievers: the latter’s entire body is unclean; even their “hair and
fingernails and [bodily] secretion.” Products which cannot be purified (such
as food) should not be bought from infidels. A school
textbook on Islamic culture and religion from the early years of the revolution
which discussed “impure things [chizhaye napak],” similarly refers to
causes of disease (microbes and viruses) and then lists the impure things,
including dog, pig, alcohol, excrement, and infidels. In contrast to
the nationalistic Pahlavi rule, which held the Jews as equals, Khomeini’s
Islamic doctrine inevitably led to the Jews being treated as inferior to the
Khomeini’s triumphant return from exile, prominent leaders of the Jewish
community, headed by Chief Rabbi Yedidya Shofet, visited him to convey loyalty
to the new regime. They argued that Judaism and Zionism were wholly distinct
issues. Khomeini adopted this formula. Vague as it often appears, this
distinction is still generally endorsed in official statements.
Once the Islamic
Revolution had stabilized, venomous attacks gave way to more balanced and
tolerant statements with regard to Iranian Jewry. Religious minorities (with
the exception of the Baha’is) came to rely on a measure of tolerance and
protection. The Jews received official recognition as a minority group, and
representation in the Majlis (parliament). Freedom of worship was not
substantially restricted and numerous synagogues have remained active; as small
as the Jewish community is, it is still the largest in any Muslim country.
The Islamic regime’s
relatively tolerant approach was noticeable on the surface, but at a deeper
level matters were often more complex. Anti-Jewish sentiments abounded among segments
of the population and occasionally found expression in official statements. To
begin with, the distinction between Jews, Israel and Zionism was often blurred,
much as it is in the Arab world. There were numerous references to Israel as a ‘bunch of Jews’, and occasional allusions to seventh century Jews as ‘the
Zionists of [Prophet] Muhammad’s time’. Khomeini himself − often careful
not to incite against the Jews − made a revealing slip. In 1982, he began
one of his speeches by saying that those who followed in the path of Jesus
Christ were even worse than the Jews, although it was perhaps “impossible to
say that there is anything worse than the Jews.” He then retracted: “I mean the
Jews of Israel.” Over time,
negative references to Jews became commonplace in Iranian parlance. According
to a series of articles published on the eve of the 1998 International Day of
Jerusalem in the newspaper Kar va Kargar, all Jews, regardless of where
they reside, are Zionists, and retain the same basic unflattering features.
An article in Ettela‘at quoted the Qur’an to prove Jewish animosity to
Islam: “Cursed were the unbelievers of the Children of Israel” for “their
rebellion and their transgression.” During the
Iran-Iraq war, an Iranian military operation was given the codename Khaybar,
after the Jewish oasis besieged and conquered by the Prophet. President ‘Ali
Khamene’i explained that the name was in memory of the glorious victories of
Islam over the Jews: Since “the front opposing us today is a Zionist front,” he
continued, “this will serve as a reminder for us of the struggle of Islam
against the Jews of Khaybar.” The Protocols
of the Elders of Zion, as well as virulently antisemitic
caricatures, were published repeatedly throughout this period.
For most Arab states, the
conflict with Israel is chiefly a national and territorial dispute, but for
Islamic Iran (much like Islamist movements, such as Hizballah and Hamas in the
Arab world) it is a religious crusade. As one Iranian intellectual put it,
since Israel is “by nature” the enemy of Islam and the Qur’an, it is “the
religious duty [taklif-e shar‘i]” of every Muslim to confront it. According to this logic, while
in the past the West wished to achieve its goals through the Church, it now
promoted its interests indirectly − by setting the Jews against the
Muslims in order to divide the Muslim world and eventually wage war against
them. Former Foreign Minister ‘Ali Akbar Velayati claimed that the creation of
Israel was a “diabolical action” aimed at “creat[ing] a Zionist and
anti-Islamic fracture in the heart of the political geography of Islam,” and at
transplanting “the historical crisis between Christians and Jews of Europe to
the Islamic world and converting it into a crisis between Jews and Muslims in
Palestine.” This, he added, was a “historical deal” which in part “absolved
Jews of the death of Jesus Christ” and led to the “materialization of the
aspiration of extremist and racist Jews in setting up a Jewish state.” All in all, Iranian policy was a
instigation and restraint; sowing the seeds of hatred − whether consciously or unconsciously
− while preventing that hatred from being translated into violence.
The circumstances that
led to the election of President Mohammad Khatami in 1997, his relatively
pragmatic policy, and the more moderate statements following his election,
inevitably led to some relaxation with regard to the Jews, too. Khatami’s
emphasis on inter-faith dialogue and civil society and the need to defuse
tension (with the West, for example), revealed a greater commitment to Iranian
national interests than to doctrinaire religious convictions, and had a
soothing effect on Iran’s religious minorities.
statements emerged, primarily from liberal thinkers. Hojjat ul-Islam (and
Professor) Mohsen Kadivar − a devout adherent in the early days of the
revolution and later one of the symbols of Iranian liberalism −
maintained that the “truth of Islam does not mean the absolute falsehood of
Judaism and Christianity.” While “complete salvation and reward” belongs to
Muslims, he agreed, “we can both believe in one supreme truth and also not
consider other religions and followers of other religions as completely false.”
He reminded his co-religionists that even the Prophet and Imam ‘Ali “conducted
talks with Jews” and signed treaties with them.
Another leading Iranian intellectual, Hojjat ul-Islam Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari, further
maintained that the principles of religion and human rights were not
necessarily identical. The latter, he noted, derive from a philosophical
concept of equality, based on the idea that “the humanism of an individual has
priority over his belief,” unlike religious principles in which equality is
based on faith. Based on such premises, Shabestari stressed the need for
dialogue between faiths, which in his view was not only recommended (mostahab)
but essential (zarurat). For his part,
Khatami rejected antisemitism as a Western phenomenon with “no precedent” in
Islam, where Jews and Muslims have long “lived harmoniously together.” In the
East, he said, “we have had despotism and dictatorship, but never fascism or
Nazism,” which were Western phenomena.
conservative press maintained its critical tone, even when discussing general
Jewish issues. An article in Jomhuri-ye Islami rejected as incorrect
Khatami’s suggestion that “anti-Judaism was a Western phenomenon with no
precedent in Islam;” Islamic history, it stated, was rife with “Jewish plots
against the Noble Prophet,” and the Holy Book warned against the Jews’ “enmity [‘adavat]”
and “rancor (kineh]” toward Muslims. Another article
in Kayhan castigated Jews for viewing Muslims as “inferior peoples,” who
were born only to slavery [bardagi] and doomed to remain thus forever.
Iranian sources further argued that the “Talmudic mentality” approved “the
logic of force,” advocating “the
annihilation of the Muslims and legitimiz[ing] the shedding of their blood.”
While Islam forbade terrorism, another article continued, their “misleading
Torah” explicitly commanded them: “Kill their [enemy’s] men, women, and
children; kill even their cattle and sheep; burn their farmlands and destroy
their abode.” The “thought process” of the Zionists and of Hitler, the article
concluded, was similar.
Casting Doubt on the Holocaust
In recent years Iran has become a major center for disseminating radical views regarding the Holocaust.
Such views combine typical Western denial claims with Middle Eastern arguments
(see below), and some distinctive Iranian revolutionary assertions. It should
be stressed that while most Iranian sources do not openly deny the Holocaust
altogether, they attempt to distort it, belittle its historical significance,
or trivialize Holocaust atrocities. To
begin with, Iranian sources stressed that obsessive Jewish references to the
Holocaust were part of an orchestrated conspiracy to attract sympathy for
Zionism and win international support for the establishment of Israel. Further, they argued, the Jews used Holocaust references to lend legitimacy to
Zionist policies, further suppress the Palestinians and advance Zionist
As Middle East scholars Meir
Litvak and Esther Webman demonstrate, representations of the Holocaust in the
Muslim World − ranging from condemnation to justification or denial
− have become criteria according to which Jews in general, and the State
of Israel, in particular, are judged. While treatment of the Holocaust has
never been monolithic, one early assertion has remained relatively constant:
The Jews cultivated a compelling sense of sympathy following World War II,
which was consequently exploited to mobilize support for the establishment of
their state. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi antisemitism was justified, such arguments go,
in light of Jewish sedition, financial dominance of the West, and currently,
Israeli policy. The difficulty of reconciling the Jews’ weakness and
vulnerability in Europe with their newfound strength in the Middle East led a
growing number of Muslims to highlight elements of Holocaust denial, as opposed
to merely justifying this genocide. Holocaust denial in Iran, Litvak continues, is one manifestation of a broader fusion between Iran's vehemently anti-Zionist position and traditional anti-Jewish themes. Ahmadinejad’s portrayal of the Holocaust as a legend or myth is
thus neither a new nor uniquely personal obsession but an intensification of
themes prevalent in Islamic Iran’s ideological discourse.
In line with the Arab Middle East, Iranian emphasis on Holocaust denial gained
momentum in the late 1990s, even when Khatami’s pro-reform camp was reaching the
peak of its power.
The following commentary,
published in Tehran Times, six months after Khatami’s election, reflects
the multi-dimensional charges, as well as the harsh language, often used to
cast doubt on the Holocaust. It denounces the so-called Kosher brotherhood, as
a group “too long intent on Goebbels-style propaganda, acting helpless and
crying wolf as the occasion required, picking random targets for destruction
and annihilation throughout the Middle East.” They behave as an “American envoy
at one time, as plenipotentiaries for some European states” at others and
sometimes as “trained henchmen and paid killers, becoming pimps and tarts.”
Oddly, Iranian sources at times stress the harm done to Jews in World War II in
a fairly objective way, but this is mainly to emphasize that such atrocities
occurred in the West; or to draw a comparison with ‘the holocaust of our days’
− that of the Palestinians.
Iran’s representative in the UN Geneva office further argued that because Europe “wished to get rid” of the Jews, it rushed to establish a state for them. The
Palestinians were thus called to “pay the price of Europeans’ crimes in Auschwitz and Treblinka.”
Moreover, just as the Europeans were right to fight Hitler, the Palestinians are
justified in confronting “the Zionist invaders.”
Rafsanjani typically added that Israel was “illegal, just as the Nazis’
presence in France was.”
The trial of Roger
Garaudy, who was convicted in a Paris court for contesting crimes against
humanity, was exploited by Iran in order to establish a link to Iranian claims against Israel, Zionism, and world Jewry.
Following his trial, Garaudy was invited to Tehran where he was received by top
officials. The visit was used to expose Iranians to his views and express
support for his ‘scientific studies’, but also as an opportunity to add their
own particular charges. They condemned Israel for bringing about a ‘Palestinian
holocaust’ and denounced the West for establishing Israel and for bringing
Garaudy to trial while at the same time defending British author Salman Rushdie
who was accused of defaming Islam. Meeting Garaudy (20 April 1998), Iran's
Supreme Leader ‘Ali Khamene’i pointed to the similarities between Zionism and
Nazism, and castigated the West, which on the one hand deplored “the racist
behavior of the Nazis,” but at the same time supported the Zionists’ “Nazi-like
Mohammad Khatami grieved that “a thinker” and “a believer” like Garaudy was
brought to trial merely for publishing research which was “displeasing to the
Addressing an international
conference on Palestine in Tehran (April 2001), Khamene’i further argued that
there was “evidence on hand that a large number of non-Jewish hooligans and
thugs of Eastern Europe were forced to migrate to Palestine as Jews.” The
purpose, he said, was “to install in the heart of the Islamic world an
anti-Islamic state under the guise of supporting the victims of racism.”
Khamene’i added that historical documents attested to “close collaboration of
the Zionists with Nazi Germany,” and that the “exaggerated numbers” of Jews
killed in the Holocaust, were “fabricated to solicit the sympathy of world
public opinion, lay the ground for the occupation of Palestine and justify the
atrocities of the Zionists.” An article in Tehran
Times added that during the war, some poor non-Zionist Jews were
deliberately sacrificed to further the hideous goal of establishing a Jewish
state. According to the writer, “historical documents” proved that the massacre
of Jews was “limited to the working class”—indicating collaboration between the
Nazi regime and the Zionist lobby in purging Jews who were considered
The hard-line press
adopted an extremely radical tone. An article in Jomhuri-ye Islami
maintained that “the false slogan of the murder of millions of Jews” was a
“ridiculous pretext” through which the Zionists managed to convince world
public opinion of the need to establish a Jewish state. Every writer,
researcher and historian, who sought to refute “this historical allegation on
the basis of reliable evidence,” as did Roger Garaudy, was silenced.
Garaudy was brought to trial even though his claim was “not far from the truth”
and many scholars considered the events of Auschwitz to be a “big lie,” a Resalat
article claimed, suggesting that it was quite possible, that instead of
“writing the history” of the Nazi gas chambers, Western thinkers had “invented
history.” A Tehran Times
article defended the rights of scholars to doubt the “so-called Holocaust”
which was the “brainchild of the Zionists,” designed to “seek sympathies from
the West” and “grab billions of dollars annually” from them. To keep their
“weapon of blackmail vibrant,” the article continued, they make innocent people
like Garaudy the “targets of their irrational attacks.”
Referring to Garaudy’s
trial, an article in Kayhan International typically termed it a
“judicial holocaust” and the “trial of freedom of speech.” It claimed that the
West had become “an obvious hostage” to the theory of “original sin,” to the
point that countries such as France did not mind even violating their own
founding principles just to appease the Zionists. Garaudy was only guilty “of
not blindly towing the Zionist line” of “six million Jews killed.” By bringing
such people to trial, the article added, “Europe wants to atone for its [own]
periodic persecution of Jews,” while Jews “enjoyed every basic right and rose
to prominent positions in the Muslim world.” Oddly, in France, “one can say anything against [French] national interests,” but a single word “against the
preposterous fables of Israel and its vocal lobbies” was considered a crime.
This was the result of “the Semitic myth” that had been “blown out of
proportion” by the Zionists who controlled “the American state apparatus and
economy.” This “anti-Semitic bug” has “so horrifyingly bitten the West” that
many seem to consider the Jews as the only Semites, and to turn a blind eye to oppression
of the Palestinians. Garaudy was put
on trial merely for expressing an “expert judgment,” that the gas chambers were
among “the founding myths of the usurper state known as Israel.” Trying him was “tantamount to the dawn of a dark era of witch hunting,” the article
Tehran Times seemed especially obsessed with the
Holocaust. Perhaps “the biggest lie in history,” one article maintained, took
shape during the Nuremberg trials, where confessions “obtained by means of
torture” became “the cornerstone of the official Auschwitz version.”
No one has ever asked the “gas chamber witnesses” any critical questions and,
thus, “the terrible accusation” of genocide, remained based upon “the lies of a
handful of Jewish swindlers like Rudolf Vrba, Filip Mueller and Elie Wiesel,”
and “the confessions of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss who was tortured
for three days before signing the statement his tormentors had prepared for
him.” There is no
evidence on record for the gassing “of even one human being in a German camp,”
it added, and German documents “directly refute” the “Holocaust story.”
According to an article published in Tehran Times, about 150,000
prisoners died in Auschwitz, “mostly from diseases.” There were also
executions, it admitted, but this was only “for acts of resistance and
sabotage.” Yet, it complained, the “massive reductions” of the Auschwitz death toll do not affect the “sacrosanct figure” of six million Jewish victims,
which “remains as solid as the pyramids.” Had Auschwitz
been an extermination camp, another article in the Tehran Times suggested, “virtually no Jew would have survived
it,” yet memoirs of former Auschwitz inmates filled entire libraries. Such
“professional survivors” who present themselves as witnesses of the Holocaust
are themselves “living proof that the alleged extermination of the Jews did not
Another Tehran Times
article reiterated that the Holocaust, “one of the biggest frauds of the
outgoing century,” was a story “made up by Zionists to blackmail the West.” It
regretted that those who dared to reveal ‘the truth’ were persecuted. One such
case was the Swiss Gaston-Armand Amaudruz, who “proved with logic and evidence”
that the Zionists’ claim was “false and unsubstantiated,” and was consequently
sentenced to one year in prison under the Swiss anti-racism law. Similarly, in Britain, David Irving lost his libel battle in a British court to defend his views on the
Holocaust. Yet, while the West paid reparations for “baseless claims,” it
turned a blind eye to the Palestinians’ suffering. Their attitude, the article
declared, was “a token of their subservience to Zionist circles, particularly
their submission to the pro-Zionist US administration.”
The Jews claimed a
“right to be paranoid,” another
because they felt that the world was “after them.” Yet, not only governments,
but all major publishing houses, newspapers and the entertainment industry in
the US were headed by Jews. However, did being “historically persecuted,” give
them the right to rule the world, to “occupy it, usurp it, control it?”
financial institutions in the world, another article continued, were controlled
and run by Zionists. Zionists prepared the ground through propaganda
bombardment and brainwashing public opinion. They could even prevent scientific
research if its conclusions did not fit their line. Thus, it asserted, Roger
Garaudy wrote a book, “based purely on research,” which challenged the
Holocaust and other notions exaggerating the number of Jews killed, but due to
Zionist influence in the French judicial system, he was “fined for revealing
While Garaudy was the
main guest of honor in Iran in 1998, other figures known for Holocaust
distortion were also welcomed. German-born Fredrick Toben (who lives in Australia) arrived in December 1999.
According to Kayhan
International article, Toben was sentenced to jail in Germany (but subsequently released) in November 1999 for having exposed the fabrications of the gas
chambers. Hitler was criminal, the article agreed, but why distort facts “to
magnify the killings of a few thousand Jews into the preposterous figure of six
million.” In the Christian West, it noted, one could insult Jesus Christ and
the fundamentals of the faith, but it was “a crime to question the holocaust.”
Any research on the number of Jews killed, brought on “the wrath of Zion.”
The link between events
in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Holocaust was made even more
frequently following the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000. Reporting
from the West Bank, IRNA stated on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, 2001, that
that year the commemoration had occurred in the midst of “a genocidal war”
launched by the Jews against the Palestinians. Indeed, the report went on, the
brutality and utter callousness of Israeli repression had prompted the analogy
between “the German holocaust” against Jews and “the Jewish holocaust” against
the Palestinians. The siege and encirclement of the Palestinian population,
which had effectively turned these towns and villages into “concentration
camps,” IRNA maintained, was hardly an un-Nazi practice.
The Ahmadinejad Factor
Radical views regarding the Holocaust, as
noted above, were pronounced clearly long before Ahmadinejad’s presidency.
However, Ahmadinejad’s critical tone, his frequent and inflammatory statements,
and the fact that he is the incumbent head of state, have combined to further
such attitudes in Iran and attract worldwide attention. Moreover, Ahmadinejad’s
public support for such a position has encouraged a series of initiatives in Iran − conferences, a caricature contest, widespread media coverage and books.
One might have thought that
Ahmadinejad, whose election was due largely to his promise to improve the lot
of the underprivileged, would have concentrated on domestic (socio-economic)
issues rather than on the Holocaust. Moreover, while Iran’s central objective
seems to be buying time until it acquires a nuclear capability, such
declarations and the consequent attention to Iranian radicalism would seem to
be detrimental to its nuclear ambitions. The presence of American forces
stationed close to Iranian borders and US influence encircling Iran, too, might
be considered further inducement for Ahmadinejad to pay more attention to the ‘near
abroad’ than to threaten to eradicate Israel or question the Holocaust. Yet,
Ahmadinejad has taken every opportunity to voice his radical views.
On 26 October 2005, he presented his vision of a world without Israel or the US, urging that Israel be wiped off the face of the map.
On 8 December, during the Islamic Conference Organization in Mecca, he made
headlines by calling the Holocaust into question. Some European countries
maintain that Hitler “burned millions of oppressed Jews in crematoria,” he
said, and “if someone proves the opposite, they convict him and throw him into
prison.” Although he did not accept this claim of the annihilation of European
Jewry, even assuming it was true: “Does the killing of oppressed Jews by
Hitler” justify support for the Zionist regime? On 13 December,
responding to the international uproar caused by his statements, he added: The
Holocaust “has never been presented for a free scientific debate, and has
become a red line and a myth that cannot be discussed.” On 15 December,
he went even further. They have invented “a legend” under the name “Massacre of
the Jews,” he said, which they hold higher than God, religion and the prophets.
“Why are you using those killings as a pretext to come to the heart of the
Islamic world and dear Palestine and impose a phony Zionist regime?” he asked.
He then appealed to Europe: “If you have committed a crime, it’s good if you
allocate a part of your country or Europe, America, Canada, or Alaska to them so that they can establish [there] a country for themselves.”
In January 2006, following
the Danish cartoon imbroglio, Ahmadinejad announced a Holocaust cartoon contest
and an ‘academic’ conference to be held later in the year. Why, he asked, was
it acceptable to defame the Prophet of Islam but not simply to question the
veracity of an historical event? On 11 February 2006, in a televised address to a rally, he referred to Western scorn for Holocaust denial as “a medieval way
Ahmadinejad often frames the issue around the identity of his interlocutor,
such as his open letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and interview with Der
Spiegel, in which he emphasized the supposed injustice of blaming innocent
young Germans and hinted at a global conspiracy propagating this myth to
further Zionist and Israeli interests.
Since early 2006, however, Ahmadinejad has focused on his purported desire for
an honest intellectual examination of the issue and its historical
Thus, a consistent feature of his position is that regardless of the historical
facts surrounding the Holocaust, the “real holocaust” is that which the
Israelis are perpetrating against the Palestinians.
Ahmadinejad’s announcement of
a conference on the Holocaust spawned worldwide condemnation and the meeting
was postponed on numerous occasions. However, the “Review of the Holocaust:
Global Vision” conference ultimately took place on 11−12 December 2006.
Rasoul Mousavi, head of the Foreign Ministry’s Institute for Political and
International Studies (IPIS), which organized the event, explained the need for
the conference as an opportunity for scholars to discuss the subject “away from
Western taboos and the restriction imposed on them in Europe.” Thus, the alleged
lack of academic freedom of inquiry regarding the Holocaust became the premise
for holding such a conference. This notion is reflected in the IPIS call for
Recently, ‘the Holocaust’ turned into a main factor to
influence the history and even the destiny of certain nations. The Institute
for Political and International Studies (IPIS) believes that a suitable
scientific and research opportunity and space shall be provided for researchers
and for those interested in order to clarify the hidden and open corners of
this issue, which is considered as the very important preoccupation of our
The participation of six
delegates from the Jewish ultra-Orthodox and anti-Zionist Neturei Karta
received particular attention. While this group does not deny the Holocaust or
challenge the validity of accepted death toll figures, they deemed their
front-row presence at the event important “to lessen the hatred present in the
entire Arab people against Jews,” according to Jerusalem representative of the
group, Israel Hirsch.
However, their attendance can better be explained by the features common to
both Neturei Karta’s ideology and Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israel rhetoric.
Acknowledging the veracity of the Holocaust, Neturei Karta’s Rabbi Yisroel
Feldman stated in his address prepared for the conference (and read there by
Rabbi Aharon Cohen): “There is also no moral justification for using these
events to dispossess and occupy another people who have nothing whatsoever to
do with what was done in Europe. Let Europe make amends for what took place if
they so desire, not the Palestinians.”
The remainder of the
conference participants can be classified loosely into two groups: pseudo-academics
and leaders of extremist groups from the West, who are alienated in their
respective countries due to their radical views; and individuals from Arab and
Muslim countries. Those belonging to the first group − including ex-Ku
Klux Klan leader David Duke and prominent revisionist thinkers such as
Frederick Toben, director of Australia’s Adelaide Institute, American Bradley
R. Smith, and French Professor Robert Faurisson − appeared to have
dominated the floor at the conference, easily overshadowing Iranian and Muslim representatives.
Reflecting the notions
discussed at the conference, the leading submissions to the Iranian Holocaust
cartoon contest were also on display. Using traditional antisemitic
stereotypes, the cartoons portrayed Israel’s exploitation of the Holocaust, to
justify brutality in the Middle East and oppression of Palestinians. The
winning entry, submitted by a Moroccan, ‘Abdallah Derkaoui, depicted an Israeli
crane piling large cement blocks on Israel’s security wall, gradually obscuring
al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem; an image of a Nazi concentration camp covered the
Such attitudes towards the
Holocaust by top Iranian officials, obsessive media treatment of the issue, and
the lack of alternative sources of information, combined with a negative image
of the Jews and denunciations of Israeli politics, gave such contentions
Recently, there has been a
proliferation of pseudo-academic and objective studies in Iran. In a way, the IPIS conference was an example of an attempt to conduct a supposedly fair
academic review. Individual studies or collective works quickly followed. One
such book authored by Mohammad Taghi Taghipour, Beyond the Holocaust Scene,
was published by the Tehran-based Political Science & Research Institute
In the preface, PSRI states that its aim is to expose the legendary nature and
historical distortion of the Holocaust. Contrary to the efforts of the
Zionists’ propaganda machinery, it maintained, free thinkers were now casting
doubts on such claims. The book promises to expose in a “comprehensive, but
precise, academic, and documented” study the Zionists’ false claims about the
issue (pp. 7−8). It contends that there was no Nazi scheme to eliminate
Jews, although there were − as in any other war − prisoner camps
where people from all nationalities were held. It also maintains that in 1942
typhoid broke out in some German camps, including Auschwitz, which led to some
casualties (pp. 88−90). According to the study, recent documents show
that there were no gas chambers in the Third Reich (pp. 95−6). In short,
according to Taghipour, all available documentation confirmed that the Holocaust
was “one big historical lie” created by world Zionism to advance their
political goal of a Jewish state. Further, Europeans and Americans − to
compensate for a crime that never took place − agreed to this scheme for
which the Palestinians have to pay the price (pp. 117−118, 126).
The Historical Studies
Quarterly published by PSRI devoted its fall 2006 edition to the Holocaust.
Among the titles were: “Did 6 Million Really Die?” and “Truth Burning
Another new book on the Holocaust, The Place of the Holocaust in the Zionist
Project (Myth or Reality), by Sayyed Mohammad Tarahi, was published by the
Center for Islamic Revolution Documents.
The book maintains that the Holocaust was an instrument, or a legend (afsaneh),
created to justify the establishment of the Jewish state. The book promises to
prove scientifically the various dimensions of the Holocaust myth (Ostureh)
(pp. 17−21). In its five chapters the book explores the so-called historical,
cultural, religious, political, and economic aspects of the Holocaust. Accordingly,
the promotion of this myth was instrumental in achieving the Zionists’
political goals and making it a symbol of their sufferings (mazlumiyyat)
in order to extract reparations. It concludes that no nation should be rebuked
for emphasizing its sufferings, yet propagating and profiting unjustly from
them should be admonished (pp. 261−7).
Additionally, Iranian TV
programming has increasingly broadcast content that denigrates Jews and
distorts the historical significance of the Holocaust. Under the guise of
scholarly and learned discussion they transmit venomous views about the Jews and
the Holocaust, which are disseminated to the wider population.
Criticism of Ahmadinejad’s
Holocaust rhetoric has not been limited to Western figures; opposition has also
emerged from among intellectuals and members of the Iranian Jewish community.
Referring to the Tehran conference, Sadegh Zibakalam, a political science
professor at Tehran University and one of the most vociferous opponents of Ahmadinejad’s
Holocaust arguments, stated:
As an Iranian, I’m perplexed and astonished by the
actions of our Foreign Ministry. I don't know what is the honor of gathering a
group of anti-Semites, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, and racists—and bring
them to Iran, for what?… And this is happening at a time when our nuclear case
is at the UN and we have to do our best to gain the trust of the international
asserted that the Foreign Ministry was trying “to please the president,” and in
so doing failed to properly inform him of the ramifications of his declarations.
Other like-minded individuals joined in slamming Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric for its
negative impact on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its reputation in the
international community. ‘Abbas ‘Abdi, one of the student leaders of the 1979 US embassy siege, warned of the “political and economic price” that would accompany
Ahmadinejad’s initiatives. “What do we gain by denying the Holocaust,” he asked
in an interview with E‘temad-e Melli. “It is best for us as humans to
condemn the Holocaust and even participate in its memorials in order to
confront Zionist crimes.”
The exiled Iranian cartoonist Nikahang Kosar viewed the Holocaust cartoon
exhibition as “disrespect to
the survivors” of the Holocaust and those who suffered during the war,
adding: “I don’t think it’s very humane to use this tool to loathe Israel or to question the legitimacy of the Israeli regime.” Haroun Yahaya’i,
head of Iran’s Jewish community, also spoke out. Unlike the political and
economic concerns of intellectuals and cartoonists, Yahaya’i’s remarks stemmed
from personal offense and a sense of betrayal. He described the Holocaust as
one of the 20th century's “most obvious and saddest events” and asked: “How is
it possible to ignore all the undeniable evidence existing for the killing and
exile of the Jews in Europe during World War II?” Holding a “Holocaust denial
seminar” in Iran would not achieve anything for the Iranians, merely soothe “the
complexes of racists.”
What then are Iran’s reasons for
promulgating such views? The immediate explanation may simply be a sincere
belief in the need to eliminate Israel and a conviction that the Holocaust was
a primary tool used to establish the Jewish state and justify the suppression
of the Palestinians. America’s involvement in Iraq and growing Iranian oil
income may have contributed to a perceived sense of strength. In addition, Ahmadinejad
may hope to consolidate his political position at home by giving voice to
extremist views against Israel. With Iran’s domestic problems continuing to multiply,
he may also be trying to divert attention away from economic issues and toward
an external enemy in order to mollify public opinion. Finally, voicing such
opinions and taking the lead in supporting the Palestinian cause may be Ahmadinejad’s
way of promoting Iranian leadership in the Islamic world. Regardless of the
reasons for his frequent harangues on the Holocaust, the strong sentiments held
against Jews (although not necessarily against the Jews of Iran) by the president and the media serve to further radicalize such views in Iranian society.
 For a detailed analysis on the developments discussed here in
a broader historical perspective, see David Menashri, Post-Revolutionary
Politics in Iran: Religion, Society and Power (London, 2000). For a discussion
of the Jews in Iran, see David Menashri, “The Jews of Iran: Between the Shah
and Khomeini,” in Sander Gilman and Steven Katz (eds.), Anti-Semitism in Times of Crisis (New York University Press, 1991), pp. 353−71; idem, “The Pahlavi Monarchy and the Islamic
Revolution,” in Houman Sarshar (ed.),
Esther's Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews (Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History, 2002), pp.
381−402; see also Antisemitism Worldwide,
1994-2001, Stephen Roth Institute, Tel Aviv University.
I wish to thank the research assistants in the Center for
Iranian Studies − Brandon Friedman, Rachel Kantz and Michael Maze −
for their help in research for this paper.
 Bernard Lewis, The Jews of Islam (Princeton University
Press, 1984), p. 166.
 Habib Levy, Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran (Costa Mesa, CA, 1999), pp. 483, 495.
 Eliz Sanasarian, Religious Minorities in Iran (Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 46.
 Amnon Netzer, “Anti-Semitism in Iran: 1925-1950,” and Michael Zand, “The Image of the Jew among Iranians during the Second Half of the Twentieth
Century: 1945-1979,” Pe‘amim 29 (1986), pp. 5−31 and 109−39,
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 Ruhollah Khomeini, Al-Hukumah al-Islamiyyah (1970), pp. 7, 83,
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 Ruhollah Khomeini, Towzih al-Masa'el (Tehran, 1962),
pp. 15, 18.
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 Jomhuri-ye Islami, 20 Sept. 1982.
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 Kayhan, 25 Feb. 1984 (all references to Kayhan
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26 Feb. 1984.
 ‘Ali Akbar Behbudikhwah, “Naqd Toujihat-e Ta`rikhi-ye
Sahionism dar moured-e Mashru‘iyyat-e Rejim-e Qods,” Siyasat-e
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 `Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran va Masa’leh-e Felastin
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 Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari, “Islam va Masihiyat-e Orupa’i” (Islam
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 Jomhuri-ye Islami, 10 Jan. 1998.
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 Kayhan al-‘Arabi, 27 Feb. – DR, 7 March 1994.
 Kayhan, 11 March – DR, 18 March. Another article
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of Wrath: Kayhan, 21 April 1996.
 Meir Litvak and Esther Webman, “The Representation of the
Holocaust in the Arab World,” Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Studies; Tel Aviv University, 2006; in Hebrew; idem, “The Representation of the Holocaust in the
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 Meir Litvak, IranPulse, Center for Iranian Studies, Tel Aviv University, 3 (11 Sept. 2006).
 Tehran Times, 28 Dec. 1997.
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. Ettela‘at, 24 Feb.; Kayhan, 1 March 1994.
 Radio Tehran, 20 Oct. – DR, 21 Oct. 1994. Similarly, Kayhan, 1 March 1994.
 Le Figaro, 12 Sept. – DR, 13 Sept. 1994.
 IRNA, 20 April 1998 − DR.
 Tehran TV, 19 Jan. 1998 − DR.
 IRNA, 24 April 2001. Palestinian President, Mahmud ‘Abbas
accused the Zionist Movement, in his doctoral thesis, of cooperating with the
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 Tehran Times, 7 May 2000.
 Jomhuri-ye Islami, 14 Jan. 1999.
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 Tehran Times, 4 April 1998.
 Kayhan International, 20 April 1998.
 Kayhan International, 19 Jan. 1998.
 Tehran Times, 25 Jan. 2001.
 Tehran Times, 17 Feb. 2001.
 Tehran Times, 1 Feb. 2001.
 Tehran Times, 29 Jan. 2001.
 Tehran Times,19 Feb. 2001.
 Tehran Times, 10, 11, 12 April 2000.
 Tehran Times, 28 Sept. 2000.
 Tehran Times, 4 July 1999.
 Kayhan International, 6 Dec. 1999.
 IRNA, 19 April 2001.
 MEMRI, “The Role of Holocaust Denial in the Ideology and
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 Mohammad Taghi Taghipour, Pas Pardeh-e Holocaust (Tehran, 2006\7).
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 Sayyed Mohammad Tarahi, Jaigah-e Holocaust dar Projeh-e
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 Radio Free Europe\Radio Liberty, 11 Dec. 2006.
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 RFE\RL, 18 Aug. 2006.
 RFE\RL, 13 Feb. 2006.