'We need to speak to Iranians in their own language'

Expat Iranian joins with US Holocaust Museum to teach Jewish genocide in Persian

Journalist Maziar Bahari and his ‘IranWire’ website are leveraging scholars from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to stamp out Holocaust denial at its roots

Maziar Bahari at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (courtesy)
Maziar Bahari at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (courtesy)

For decades, Iran’s government has denied the Holocaust took place while threatening to annihilate the state of Israel. Now, acclaimed expat filmmaker and journalist Maziar Bahari is bringing Holocaust education to Iranians in their own language.

This fall, Bahari and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) launched “The Sardari Project,” an initiative to teach Iranians about the genocide in Persian. A series of 13 articles and videos are being released on topics including Holocaust history; Iranians fighting anti-Semitism, and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories.

“I really think the world has to learn about the Holocaust because of the enormity of the tragedy,” said Bahari. “Every aspect of the Holocaust has a lesson for us now,” he told The Times of Israel in a recent conversation.

Growing up in Tehran during the 1970s, Bahari lived as a minority Muslim in a largely Jewish neighborhood. He immigrated to Canada in 1988 to study communications, but his Iranian chapter was still ahead of him.

In 2009, while visiting family in Tehran, Bahari was incarcerated by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards for allegedly collaborating with foreign intelligence services. After 118 days of interrogation and torture, he was released on $300,000 bail and allowed to leave for London — just in time for the birth of his daughter.

Not long after gaining freedom, Bahari began to envision what became “IranWire,” a rare independent Persian-language news site aimed at young Iranians. The site focuses heavily on expats who now contribute to their adopted countries, including Iranian Jews. According to Bahari, some of these expats could have used their talents in Iran under a different regime.

“The cost of discrimination frustrates me,” said Bahari. “This discrimination has hurt Iran as a whole. It not only hurts those [minority] communities, but the nation as a whole,” said Bahari, whose experience in prison was documented in Jon Stewart’s film “Rosewater.”

‘A critical step’

Bahari’s fascination with the Holocaust grew roots in Canada, where the journalist is a citizen. Living in Montreal, he learned more about the genocide from survivors and — in 1994 — he became the first Muslim to direct a film on the subject — “The Voyage of the St. Louis.

Regarding this new effort to bring Holocaust education to Iran, Bahari is hopeful the Sardari Project’s line-up of high-quality content in Persian will resonate with Iranians looking to learn about the genocide.

Almost everything about the Holocaust in Persian is translated from other languages without thinking about the audience

“We need to speak to Iranians in their own language,” said Bahari. “Right now, almost everything about the Holocaust in Persian is translated from other languages without thinking about the audience,” he said.

Among the history suppressed by Iran’s leaders, said Bahari, is the Muslim country’s role as a haven for up to 6,000 Jewish refugees during World War II. Among 20,000 Polish refugees admitted into Iran during the war, there were 1,000 Jewish children, according to USHMM.

The Sardari Project is named for an Iranian diplomat —  Abdol Hossein Sardari — who saved the lives of more than 2,000 Iranian Jews. Posted in France, Sardari issued Iranian Jews fake passports that falsely claimed they were “Djougouten” — an Aryan minority acceptable to the Nazis.

Abdol Hossein Sardari, the ‘Iranian Schindler’ (photo credit: Fariborz Mokhtari)

According to USHMM, the collaboration with Bahari will help counter the Iranian regime’s “relentless” propaganda denying the Holocaust took place.

Education is a critical step in countering the Iranian government’s Holocaust denial, anti-Semitic rhetoric, and suppression of information,” said Tad Stahnke, director of international education outreach at USHMM.

“Through this project, Holocaust history will be in front of the eyes and ears of Iranian audiences, who are exposed to relentless propaganda from the regime,” Stahnke told The Times of Israel. In recent years, the museum has expanded content into several languages, including Arabic and Urdu.

“For many, it will be the first time they will have had access to accurate and relevant information on the subject for themselves and to share with others,” said Stahnke.

‘Shooting itself in the foot’

On the prospect of Iran’s regime altering its hostility toward Israel or the West in the near future, Bahari is not hopeful.

“The Islamic republic was a terrorist revolutionary and corrupt regime during [US presidents Ronald] Reagan, and [George] H.W. Bush, and [Bill] Clinton, and [George] W. Bush,” said Bahari. “It will be the same thing during the Biden administration. The nature of the [Iranian] regime is not going to change based on who people vote for in the US.”

The nature of the [Iranian] regime is not going to change based on who people vote for in the US

When asked about the recent government execution of Iranian journalist Ruhollah Zam, Bahari called the hanging “a criminal act, a personal tragedy.” Zam had been living in France with refugee status when he was lured to Iraq and kidnapped. On December 12, the journalist was executed for “sowing corruption on Earth,” according to an Iranian judiciary spokesperson.

Ruhollah Zam during his trial at Iran’s Revolutionary Court in Tehran, June 30, 2020. (Ali Shirband/Mizan News Agency/AFP)

“Whenever I read about Zam’s confession, I think about what I went through and what many other people went through and what could happen to any of us,” said Bahari.

In Bahari’s assessment, Iran’s government has overplayed itself when it comes to propaganda against Israel and Jews.

The Iranian regime is “the master of shooting itself in the foot,” said Bahari. “The young people are attracted to what the government is against, so the regime is counter-productive in its propaganda, because most young Iranians do not believe it,” he said.

“Not everyone in Iran is as stupid as former president [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad,” said Bahari. “There are many Iranians who care about other people and what happened in the Holocaust. There is great hunger in Iran for learning more about the Holocaust, Israel, and Jewish issues.”

Bahari does not believe that countries should sever diplomatic ties with Iran. The journalist is also against “blanket sanctions,” he said.

Likewise, Israel should show a bit more diplomacy, he said. In terms of how Israel’s current government relates to Iran, Bahari said that “Israeli rhetoric toward Iran has to be a little more nuanced and a little less cartoonish — a more granular approach,” he said.

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