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Many Jews Choose To Stay in Iran

January 18, 1998

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) _ With his unshaven face, graying moustache and suit worn without a tie, Dr. Manouchehr Eliasi looks much like any other member of the Islamic Republic’s Parliament. He says he feels, too, like any other Iranian.

But Eliasi is the single elected representative in the 270-seat Majlis of the country’s 25,000 Jews, a small minority in overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim Iran, which is an avowed enemy of Israel.

Still, Iran’s Jewish community, although it has dwindled over the decades, remains the Middle East’s largest except Israel’s. Human rights activists and Jews inside and outside the country say Iranian Jews aren’t persecuted for their religion.

Eliasi burst into tears when a reporter asked him why Jews have stayed.

``We love our country,″ he said. ``This is my birthplace. I love its smell.″

Jews are free to leave Iran, and hundreds do each year, but the overall number of Iranian Jews has remained fairly stable in recent years because of births, Eliasi said.

He proudly noted Iran has more Jews than any Arab country, reeling off the experiences of other nations: Iraq’s Jewish population fell from 150,000 in 1951 to 100 today, Morocco’s dropped from 250,000 in the 1940s to 8,000, Tunisia has 2,500 Jews, Yemen 250, Syria about 300, Lebanon only 80 and Libya just five.

At its height, Iran’s Jewish community numbered about 100,000 and was still around 80,000 just before the 1979 Islamic revolution. The strict Islam of the revolution’s religious leaders scared many Jews into leaving.

Most went to the United States, Europe and, to a lesser degree, Israel, Eliasi said. ``We have no contact with these people″ in Israel, he added quickly. In one restriction they face, Iranian Jews are not allowed to visit Israel or write relatives there,

But Eliasi, who traces his ancestry back 2,600 years in Iran, denied Iranian Jews are persecuted, although he said they do face some problems in Iranian society.

He said the major discrimination against Jews is in government jobs. He doesn’t argue with the provision of Iran’s constitution that limits senior jobs to Shiite Muslims, but he said Jews can’t even get junior government positions.

``Our people want social justice,″ he said. ``They want to have the right to participate in all spheres of public life.″

Eliasi also is trying to amend Iran’s Islamic law on ``blood money″ _ compensation paid by a murderer’s family to the victim’s relatives as a way to prevent revenge killings. Under current law, blood money for a slain Jewish man is set at one-eighth that of a Muslim male. That for a Muslim woman is half a Muslim man’s.

``We believe Jewish men and Muslim men should be the same,″ said Eliasi, a father of three.

Other than these problems, Jews are free to go about their lives, he said.

``I don’t see myself separate from the rest,″ he said. ``I live freely with my religion.″

Eliasi, who practices internal medicine at Tehran’s Sapir Jewish Hospital, said 95 percent of his patients are Muslims. ``They like me and I like them.″

Some Jews of Iranian descent outside the country and human rights activists agree Iranian Jews are not persecuted because of their religion. However, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch adds that Iranian Jewish leaders sometimes play down instances of mistreatment.

Menascheh Amir, head of Israel radio’s Persian-language program and an Iran specialist, says the situation of Iranian Jews has actually improved in the past few years.

Amir, who was reached in Jerusalem by telephone from The Associated Press office in Cairo, Egypt, said the main concern was that children at Iran’s Jewish schools cannot be taught in Hebrew and are forced to attend class on the Jewish Sabbath.

The only Jewish newspaper, Tamouz, was banned seven years ago after it criticized the confiscation of Jewish school buildings, Amir said.

But, he added, ``There is no one in jail in Iran for being a Jew. Iranian Jews are part of Iran. Like others, they live with all the good and the bad of the country.″

Yousef Kermani, a Jewish textile dealer in Iran, said his problems were the same as most Iranians _ mainly the high cost of living.

``I have a lot of complaints, but not as a Jew, as an Iranian,″ Kermani said. ``In fact, I think it isn’t easy to differentiate between a Muslim and a Jew in Iran. ... Nobody recognizes us as non-Muslims. Even those who do, don’t care.″

Eliasi said Iranian Jewish leaders are trying to discourage youths from leaving, with some success. ``But we don’t prevent them from leaving,″ he said. ``It’s up to them to stay or leave.″

He said he had never had an urge to go to Israel and condemned ``Zionist aggression″ against the Palestinians.

``In this respect, we agree with the Islamic Republic,″ he said, ``and the Islamic Republic has no unpleasant reaction toward us.″

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