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US Jews get candid account of Jewish life under Iran regime

In US, Iran’s head rabbi says he condemned Soleimani killing to protect Jews

Yehuda Gerami, speaking in Fairfax, VA, says he visited family of assassinated Quds Force general to relieve pressure on local community: ‘We have to use our wisdom, we are guests’

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Rabbi Yehuda Gerami, chief rabbi of Iran, speaks at Chabad of NoVa, November 14, 2021 (screenshot)
Rabbi Yehuda Gerami, chief rabbi of Iran, speaks at Chabad of NoVa, November 14, 2021 (screenshot)

Iran’s chief rabbi said on Sunday evening that the country’s Jewish community feared physical attacks from some Muslim neighbors in the wake of the January 2020 killing of Iranian al-Quds Force commander General Qassem Soleimani by the United States.

“The situation was very sensitive,” said Rabbi Yehuda Gerami, speaking at Chabad of Northern Virginia in Fairfax, Virginia. “We felt that sensitivity, not from the government, from the people. They talked about revenge.”

At the same time, Gerami stressed, “Iran is the only place where synagogues don’t need any security. But we have to use our wisdom, we are guests and we have to be diplomatic.”

Then-US president Donald Trump sent shock waves through the region with the targeted killing of Soleimani, a revered general in Iran, and his Iraqi lieutenant, which infuriated the Islamic Republic and its allies.

Trump said the strike came in response to a hail of attacks on US interests in Iraq. Some reports said Israel had provided the US with the intelligence needed to carry out the strike.

Gerami said that he decided to condemn the strike publicly on the news and to pay his condolences to Soleimani’s family in order to calm the situation, which was effective.

“We felt there could be danger,” he explained. “Then we had to go give interviews and say we were not for it, that we don’t agree with this war.”

Gerami spoke primarily in Persian during his surprisingly frank speech, but opened with a talk on the weekly Torah portion in Hebrew.

Pedestrians walk past banners of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in Iraq in a US drone attack on Friday, in Tajrish square in northern Tehran, Iran, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020 (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Gerami said that he tells Iranian officials that the Land of Israel is and will always be holy to Jews, irrespective of who governs it.

“The Holy Land is the land. That’s what is written in the Torah,” he said. “I say to them, for example, that Saudi Arabia is holy, your prophet was there, the Kaaba was there. But you don’t have any connection to the government of Saudi Arabia. You are even against the government.”

Gerami also spoke at length about daily life in Iran as a Jew. He acknowledged that the government blocks websites, but “almost everyone has a VPN, and the government itself knows it too.”

“You can even read the news from Israel.”

He admitted that there are some positions in the military and senior management roles that are closed to Jews. “Maybe they can’t learn atomic energy,” he added with a smile.

Iranian head rabbi Yehuda Gerami, in an interview with Iranian TV broadcast on Quds Day, May 22, 2020. (Screenshot/ Twitter)

Gerami stressed repeatedly that the Jews stay away from politics, and focus instead on keeping Jewish commandments.

Turning to economic sanctions on the country, he said that the economic situation is extremely difficult and that Jews are hit by the effects of the sanctions as well.

At the same time, according to Gerami, there are also encouraging signs, and Jewish communal life is healthy. Under his tenure, Jewish schools have been reopened, as has a yeshiva meant to train rabbis. There are kosher restaurants in Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz, he noted.

“We must always emphasize that we are not involved in politics,” he said. “We always must stress that. Sometimes it’s very hard.”

Gerami said he lived and learned in Jerusalem a decade ago, and the Iranian government did not care back then. Parliament has since stiffened penalties for visiting Israel.

Jewish Iranian women are seen at a polling station in the capital Tehran on February 21, 2020. – Electoral authorities in Iran extended voting for two hours in the Islamic republic’s parliamentary election on Friday, state television reported. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

“It’s a limitation we don’t like, but we have to follow the law,” he said.

Prior to the Islamic Revolution in 1979, there were some 100,000 Jews in Iran; by 2016, according to an Iranian census, that number had fallen to below 10,000.

Gerami’s tone in Fairfax was markedly more measured than some of his recent statements about Israel.

In 2020, Germani lashed out at then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jewish Israelis as Iran marked its annual anti-Israel Quds Day, saying to Israelis in Hebrew: “You don’t represent Judaism.”

Prominent figures in the Jewish community of Iran intermittently issue anti-Israel statements that match the regime’s agenda.

Iran is openly sworn to Israel’s destruction and financially supports terrorist groups, like Hezbollah and Hamas, that are also committed to this aim.

On his US trip, Gerami has also visited Persian Jewish communities in Los Angeles and New York and is slated to fly back to Iran on Monday.

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