( The Chukogu Shimbun ) – HIROSHIMA —The elegant art deco building of Ettefagh, Iran’s famous Jewish school, still stands on a leafy avenue adjacent to Tehran University. Originally established by prominent Iraqis who had settled in Iran following Jewish pogroms and expulsions of the 1940s and early 50s in Iraq, Ettefagh started as a religious and cultural center but by the 1960s had become a respected academic institution, and one of Iran’s foremost co-ed schools. In the 1970s, under the leadership of the Iranian physicist, educator and public intellectual Dr. Baroukh Beroukhim, Ettefagh consistently placed top in Iran’s national university exams.
Except for the last year when my family moved to Turkey, my high school years, from 1970 to 1975, were spent at Ettefagh. Of the 2000 or so student body at the time about 20 percent where non-Jewish — Muslim, Zoroastrian, Christian, Baha’i and other faiths. My brother and I were among this minority, even if the only difference between our Jewish classmates and us was exemption from Hebrew class. I still remember vividly our beloved principal Dr. Beroukhim, who had a doctorate in physics from France and an undying passion for his subject, stopping noisy boys racing up and down our school’s central marble staircase, ordering them to instead ‘Go study physics!’.
Though from a practicing Muslim family, I also liked going to the synagogue with my Jewish classmates. My multi-cultural upbringing was not limited to school either — my parents had always honored the place of all of Iran’s religious minorities, and actively encouraged diversity at home. At any rate in those years no one was forced to pray, and no one was prohibited from it, either — religion seemed to matter less than academic and social skills, and education was revered by all. In hindsight Ettefagh was a microcosm of Iranian society then: those early 70s coincided with the golden age of contemporary Iran itself, halcyon days of a nation believing in endless future possibilities, forging its way towards modernity and prosperity — not quite there yet, but definitely on the path.
During high school I had started learning about the Holocaust on my own, devouring books like Leon Uris’ Exodus and Mila 18 — I still remember haunting nightmares of those teenage years, about the Nazi concentration camps. I also remember that when we heard of the death of Yonatan Netanyahu, elder brother of Israel’s current prime minister and leader of the 1976 rescue operation at Entebbe, Uganda, to free the passengers of a hijacked Air France plane headed to Israel, I wept. In those days many Iranians looked admiringly to Israel and its achievements, especially its greening of the Negev Desert — a model for arid Iran, with its own massive interior deserts.
With the 1979 Islamic revolution, the promises of a secular and forward-looking Iran as ‘the Japan of the Middle East’ disintegrated. Almost immediately relations with Israel soured as well. But even after the revolution, among ordinary Iranians admiration for Israel remained strong: while the mollahs, Iran’s new masters, were busy mass executing political prisoners, brutalizing women for not properly covering their hair, and supporting terrorist groups, Israel was building a thriving economy, a diverse society, and proudly asserting itself as a hub of science and technology, and the only democracy in the Middle East — all despite the hostility of the Arab world around it.
Meanwhile most of my Jewish classmates — like vast numbers of Iranians of all faiths and backgrounds — started fleeing the brutality of Iran’s theocratic regime, settling mainly in Israel, New York or Southern California, with pockets in Canada and Europe. We remained connected though, even as our life paths diverged. I joined the United Nations and spent my career working in different countries. Over time I also started learning of the plight of Palestinians, through eyewitness testimonies of colleagues working in the West Bank and Gaza. When I was based at UN headquarters in New York, the lectures of the scholar Edward Said brought home the tragedy of the Palestinians — expelled from their own lands as payment for the sins of the Europeans who had perpetrated the Holocaust. Learning of the daily humiliations endured by the Palestinians, from courageous figures such as the Gaza-born human rights lawyer Raji Sourani or the Israeli-born journalist and author Amira Hass was enlightening, and heartbreaking.
Ettefagh School, h/t Wikimaps
Israel’s forefathers — giants of the calibre of Yitzhak Rabin or Shimon Peres — though unequivocally devoted to protecting their country, were also profoundly human. They fought hard, but never shunned peace. Especially they did not belittle the Palestinian tragedy. Who can forget the speeches of Shimon Peres, or those of the erudite former Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban, defending at the UN the right of Israel to exist? But political and societal changes in Israel over the past years, and more recently the arrogant reign of Benjamin Netanyahu, with his visible disdain for Palestinian life, his inclusion of openly extremist settlers in his governing coalitions, and his ultimately catastrophic cynicism made it increasingly difficult to remain supportive of Israeli policies. With my former classmates we avoided discussing Palestine.
On October 7th this year, after the first shock at Hamas’ macabre murder of 1200 Israelis and kidnapping of hundreds of others, our immediate response as a family was to reach out to our Jewish Iranian circles — we knew many had relatives in Israel. But even before worldwide solidarity with Israel’s nightmare could consolidate, another nightmare began — this one of daily bombings of Palestinians at schools, hospitals, mosques and refugee camps in Gaza. Thousands of children killed, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, already living lives of extreme hardship and indignity on a sliver of land, pushed to move, again. Where could these families go, how many times were they to be uprooted, and what new cycles of violence would their sorrow and rage, at seeing loved ones killed and maimed by Israeli bombs, bring to the region tomorrow?
The questions are complex and endless but my high school years at Ettefagh at least taught me that the tragedies unfolding in Israel and Gaza are far less about religion than they are about fear, loss of dignity, greed and especially lamentable and power-hungry political leaders and their disregard for human rights. Judaism, Christianity or Islam do not cause these tragedies, leaders who use them for their own objectives do. When tyrants of the likes of Syrian president Assad or Iranian president Raisi sit at the podium of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, as they did a few weeks ago, to speak of Palestinian human rights even as they trample, daily, on the most basic rights of their own countrymen and women, they become a stain on Islam, not its representatives. Equally, the violent Israeli settlers and the extremists on Netanyahu’s cabinet can be an insult to Judaism, they certainly do not represent it. I know because I have lived through and experienced far kinder, wiser, inclusive versions of both these religions.
The time has come, on this 75th anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to reclaim the multicultural traditions of our lands, lands that form the cultural and geographic kernel of the world, the meeting place for Asia, Africa and Europe. From the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean to Pakistan and Afghanistan, from Central Asia and the Iranian plateau to the Persian Gulf, Arabian Peninsula and North Africa, in the name of religion our countries have been mired in conflict and violence for far too long. We have experimented with every shape and form of exclusion and hatred, yet if we think carefully, again and again throughout millennia of our collective histories, whenever we have been tolerant of diversity and inclusive of the ‘other’, we have done better.
Persian Jews, globally no more than 350,000, are one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities, having arrived in Iran according to recent scholarship even earlier than during the thus-far assumed Achaemenid Empire, maybe as early as the 8th century BC — roughly 1300 years before the arrival of Islam! The overlaying of Judaic and Persian characteristics has produced a culture more vibrant than the sum of the two — a people with deep respect for learning, great sense of humor, warmth, resilience, subtlety and love of life. Diversity and inclusivity make every community, every country, richer. Why do we keep depriving ourselves of such a treasure bestowed on us?
A few weeks ago walking past the Hiroshima A-Bomb Dome, I came upon a candle-light ceremony for the Israel/Gaza war. A young couple — she Jewish and he Muslim — were chanting prayers in Hebrew and Arabic, holding hands and weeping openly. Seeing the depth of pain ‘leaders’ in our region have caused these young people filled me with anger and shame. We are tired of ruthless despots, tired of their obscurantism and small-mindedness, tired of seeing religion used and abused to unleash so much suffering. As Ettefagh taught me all those decades ago, everyone simply aspires to genuine respect, dignity and a fair and level playing field. That is all. The rest will work itself out. What is the use of thousands of years of culture and history, if we are not even able to grasp the wisdom of this simple and obvious truth?
Nassrine Azimi served most of her career with the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), where she has led numerous initiatives, programs and offices on three continents. She currently coordinates the Green Legacy Hiroshima (GLH) Initiative (http://glh.unitar.org), a global campaign she co-founded in 2011 to disseminate and plant worldwide seeds and saplings of the hibakujumoku, trees that survived the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima. She is an adjunct professor at Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts, a visiting professor at Hiroshima Shudo University and a Research Fellow at the San Diego Botanic Garden, where she has been part of efforts to bring botanic gardens to post-conflict and least developed countries. She chairs the EDEN Seminars — Emerging and Developing Economies Network – in Japan.
Reprinted from The Chukogu Shimbun with the author’s permission.