We enter parliament in order to supply ourselves, in the arsenal of democracy, with its own weapons. If democracy is so stupid as to give us free tickets and salaries for this bear’s work, that is its affair. We do not come as friends, nor even as neutrals. We come as enemies. As the wolf bursts into the flock, so we come. — Joseph Goebbels, on Democracy
A few weeks ago, my country of Sweden got a new government. Or, it’s not so much a new government, but a return to a past I had hoped was long forgotten. Chances are most outsiders wouldn’t have heard of this electoral upheaval, had it not been for one of the new government’s first forays into foreign policy: recognizing the state of Palestine, making it the first major European country to do so. But for those of familiar with Sweden’s the political landscape, this has been a long time coming.
The Social Democrats are a party with a long pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli tradition and a seemingly never-ending flexibility toward anti-Semitic attitudes within the flock; from former Prime Minister Olof Palme’s close friendship with Yasser Arafat and his comparisons between Nazi Germany and Israel, to the infamous anti-Zionist policies of Malmö mayor Ilmar Reepalu. More recently, the popular politician Adrian Kaba publicly claimed that Mossad trained ISIS to kill Muslims and that the Islamic State is a pawn in a Jewish-European right-wing conspiracy.
One might think that such outlandish statements would cause national outrage, but they don’t. One might also draw the conclusion that spreading anti-Semitic myths might lead to Adrian Kaba leaving the Social Democratic party in disgrace, but one would by sadly mistaken. Instead, Kaba is heading up the Malmö Taskforce Against Anti-Semitism and Islamofobia. No, that’s not a typo; that’s the political environment of the country I live in.
As a proud, public, and outspoken Swedish Jew, I am often asked if I worry about getting attacked on the street for wearing my Star of David, or having my home vandalized for flying a large Israeli flag. My answer is always the same: as much as I fear violent anti-Semitic individuals, it doesn’t compare to how much I fear the systemic anti-Semitism eating its way into our political system.
The Swedish decision to recognize the State of Palestine may seem like a thoughtless stunt from a small country, but it speaks to a larger trend with grave consequences for us all. As the anti-Semitism of yesterday dresses up as the anti-Zionism of tomorrow, the latter gains political momentum to do what the former never could. The coalition of the Social Democrats, the Left, and the Environmental Party was elected not in spite of these policies, but because of them. They are not attempting a coup; they are fulfilling a promise.
One of the newly appointed ministers in the new coalition government is Mehmet Kaplan of the Environmental Party (MP). Mr. Kaplan is no longer allowed entry into Israel after his active and repeated involvement in Ship to Gaza. He has compared Swedish Muslims going overseas to fight global jihad with Swedish freedom fighters during the Finnish Winter War and he is often a prominent speaker at anti-Israel rallies across the country. During one of these rallies Mehmet Kaplan said his dream was to one day see Jerusalem “liberated,” without caring to specify whom the capitol of Israel needed to be liberated from. This former head of the Swedish Muslim council and current member of the Free Gaza movement has now been appointed the Swedish Minister of housing and development, making him one of the most powerful people in our land.
This is what keeps me up at night. If I get attacked for wearing my Magen David, I turn to the police who can correct the wrong that was done to me. But what to I do when my attacker is appointed to one of the highest offices in the land? Who will protect me when I am no longer considered the victim, but the criminal?
In 1933, they cast their votes for death and ruin, but they did so claiming ignorance of what was yet to come. Those who are now putting hatred in power all over Europe do so to the backdrop of the Holocaust; as the last witnesses draw breath, history is allowed to repeat itself by ballot and popular vote.
However expected, this latest turn in Swedish foreign policy is chilling in all its calm deliberation. Because this is how it starts and how it ends. Not by committing illegal acts toward us, but by making us illegal, and by going after the home we flee to once we have no place left to go.
In 2014, they cast their votes for hate and ruin. And as the wolf bursts into the flock, so they have come.
This article was first published on Ricochet
Some issues are harder to write about than others.
Some touches of the keyboard are preceded by doubt and confliction, juggling the impulses of the heart alongside the knowledge of the mind. Nothing sums up this battle more than the sorrowful saga of the Israeli soldier Sgt. Elor Azaria, and as I follow the news of the verdict in his case, I gather that little resolution or healing will come of it. Azaria has come to be a symbol of whatever either side of this argument thinks is right, and that is a form of emotional argumentation that is perhaps understandable but potentially harmful to the fabric of the Israeli nation.
Three judges convicted Azaria of manslaughter for shooting Palestinian terrorist Abdel-Fattah al-Sharif in the head, 15 minutes after al-Sharif had already been incapacitated after he had attempted to kill a soldier in the town of Hebron. There was video of the event used as evidence in the highly publicized case — and despite several attempts by politicians on all sides to influence the case or use it to further their own careers — the 97-page verdict shows that the proceedings were surprisingly straightforward. The aftermath, however, proved to be anything but.
The judges presiding over the case have had their lives threatened, and similar threats have been made at IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot. This comes as many, particularly on the right, are calling for Azaria to be pardoned. The reasons for this are that he is “the nation’s son,” “a child,” and that his actions are understandable given the enormous pressures he was under. Saying otherwise is now referred to as “breaking ranks,” and I guess that is what I am about to do. As a right-winger and a Diaspora Jew, I will surely travel well beyond my purview.
The men and women who serve Israel and ensure its defense are not children. They are somebody’s child but they are not children, and saying they are infantilizes them individually and undermines their heroic efforts collectively. Furthermore, the IDF, like any army, is dependent on the chain of command, and breaching it endangers the entire army, including many parents’ children. Pardoning one soldier sends a very mixed and confused message to all those who serve alongside him. However understandable Azaria’s actions were on a human level, we ask the superhuman of our IDF soldiers, and in an overwhelming majority of cases, they live up to that steep expectation.
If we pardon Azaria, a soldier who broke the chain of command and acted of his own volition, what does that then say about all those who go against their own hearts and wishes while following orders to evict Jewish residents from illegal outposts, hold fire when feeling both fear and threat or go into the lion’s den when every bone in their body tells them to retreat? The soldiers of the IDF do the impossible and unthinkable time and time again, and despite the horrors presented by their enemies, they remain the world’s most ethical army — or is it perhaps because of this very fact?
I learn Torah weekly with a study partner, and the lessons we learn leak into events throughout the following seven days. Last week, as I saw the reactions to the verdict, I recalled the conversation we had about the massacre of Shechem, in which Simeon and Levi avenged the rape of their sister Dinah by killing all the newly circumcised men and looting the city. I instinctively sided with the brothers against their father, Jacob. Jacob’s level-headedness angered me, knowing full well how I would react if, God forbid, something of that caliber happened to a child of mine. But my study partner quite rightly pointed out the burden of leadership and the importance of not making strategic decisions based on impulse or emotion. The pain Jacob felt must have been doubled by the fact that he was forced by his role as leader to keep his emotions in check.
The IDF is lucky I am not in charge, for I would have rushed into Shechem on heart and anger. And I am lucky that others are willing to hang that heavy crown on their heads, facing many awful choices. Our enemies care little for honor, regulations, or accountability, but we are not like them; we couldn’t be if we tried. We Jews are defended by the most accused and least guilty army, and there is great pride in being able to speak those words, perhaps not knowing but sensing the sacrifices that they entail. I feel for Azaria and I cannot say I would act differently in his shoes or even that I, on an emotional level, condemn him. But I also see his place in a larger entity, and we cannot act out of compassion in one case if it endangers the welfare of all others.
Many have said that the IDF is betraying Azaria by charging and convicting him and that parents no longer can be expected to give their children to this potentially life-threatening service if the IDF does not have their backs. But the IDF does, by honoring the code under which they serve, and we owe it to the IDF to honor them right back. This is not a left- or right-wing issue; it is a matter of trust in the eye of the storm and faith when the heart fails us. That is what we ask of the soldiers, and we should ask it of ourselves, to trust the leadership and the code, knowing it is there to protect us from human emotion, no matter how hard that may be.
They call it “fondlegate,”
the scandal that is now shaking Swedish society. After learning about the horrible mass sexual assaults during a New Year’s celebration in Cologne, Germany, the truth seemed to take on a life of its own, and other stories followed. The first to be told was from the small Swedish town of Kalmar, where organized groups of young immigrant men from the Middle East and North Africa had sexually violated at least 11 women, according to police reports, and many more are believed to have gone unreported. The second account came out of Malmo, a city having become infamous for anti-Semitism and racial tension, where young women had been targeted for so called Taharrush-attacks, Taharrush being a “rape-game” with its origin in the Arab world.
However, the third news-story to come out after Cologne put the two former to shame, as it involves both media and politics, and reveals a culture of silence when it comes to systematic sexual abuse.
The allegations that are surfacing say that the Swedish police along with the media are guilty of covering up a mass sexual assault that took place at the youth festival We Are Sthlm, two years ago. Witness statements and police reports are now being uncovered that tell the story of a scene similar to that in Cologne, where gangs of young men from Afghanistan molested girls as young as 11 or 12, some of the assaults even resulting in rape, and that 200 men had been removed from the area by police during the course of one evening.
Despite knowing what had happened, and who the perpetrators were, internal memos from the police now show that they deliberately chose not to mention the sexual assaults, the fact that the perpetrators where exclusively, and I quote “so called refugee youth predominantly from Afghanistan” or that this was the second year these assaults had taken place.
Police chief Peter Agren said to the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter “This is a sensitive topic. We are afraid to tell the truth because it may play into the Sweden Democrat narrative.” When the information finally leaked, the story was pitched to one of Sweden’s largest daily papers, but it was nixed for the very same reason that the police initially decided to shut it down.
So not only did the Swedish police and media cover up a large-scale sexual assault on underage girls, but it also took it upon itself to choose which political parties are acceptable, and which are not. Through their silence they hoped not to bolster the far-right Sweden Democrat’s poll numbers, and through that silence, they accomplished the exact opposite.
There is a reason why after a trauma, we are told to talk about it. Not only do we need to speak, but we ache to be heard. When the story of trauma is heard it is also acknowledged, and the victim feels as if she matters in the eyes of the world.
Both the Swedish police and media are choosing their victims, who are deemed “kosher” and who are not, and they are doing so led by a political agenda. The irony of all this, however, is that not speaking the truth about Muslim men raping European women out of fear of being racist is a racist choice in and of itself, because in that silence lies a false assumption that all Muslims are rapists or would condone such a heinous act. This is a crime of abuse, and so is the cover-up. They both represent a massive failure of what is said to be a progressive state.
Every victim of a crime, be it a group or an individual, should be allowed to speak their pain and be heard. By ignoring the crisis of extremism that is upon us, they are creating a culture of silence, and in that silence there is no healing to be done.
This article was first published in Washington Examiner
Dear Mr. Gurfinkiel,
On April 26 of this year, I was on a train with my five-year-old son Charlie. We were on our way to spend shabbat with friends in the city. You see, our town, significant in the history of Swedish Jewry, shut its synagogue in the late 90s. All that remains now is a plaque stating that there was once Jewish life here, while we are left with an hour-long train ride every weekend to attend services.
My son was wearing his kippah as we got on the train. He loves his kippah. He is not yet old enough to know the dangers entailed in wearing it, for this is a fact from which I have tried to protect him. But April 26 would change all that.
There was a gentleman sitting in our reserved seat. An Arab, maybe fifty years old, listening to music. Apologizing for the inconvenience, I asked him politely for our seat. He got up, inspected my son, and then leaned over me, saying:
You people always take what you want. You need to learn.
He then walked straight into my son, causing him to fall over, and took the seat behind us.
We sat. Hiding my trembling hands from my son’s sight, I picked up Shabbes for Kids and started to review the week’s Torah portion with him. We hadn’t progressed as far as a page before the man stood up and screamed:
Quiet! I don’t want to hear that! You take what you want and never think of others! Shut up!
He stamped his feet, grunting and glaring at my son. Fighting tears of rage, I assured Charlie that the man was just grumpy and tried to turned the episode into a game, one that required us to remain super quiet for as long as possible. I even managed to coax a conspiratorial smile out of him.
But even this failed to appease our tormentor, who spent the rest of the trip repeatedly kicking the back of my son’s seat. At one point I glanced around our compartment: there were four other people there, four adults witnessing a single mother and her five-year-old child being attacked by a grown man. They did nothing. I tried forcing them to meet my gaze; but they just turned away, put on their headphones, stared at their screens, ignored what was happening in front of them.
I did not summon the railway police. I did not scream back at the man. I know better. I know that the only way to survive as a Jew in my country is not to be seen as one. Not to be exposed but to shut up and fade into the woodwork. I’ve known this for quite some time. Unfortunately, my son knows it now, too.
In your fascinating and informative article you mention that ritual slaughter, kosher as well as hallal, is under threat in Europe. Well, in Sweden kosher butchering was outlawed in 1937 and has been illegal ever since. The threat is not a threat but a reality—for me as, on a much graver scale, it had been for my grandparents, forced into hiding in a Sweden silently collaborating with the Nazis throughout the world war. The next threat on the horizon is a ban on even importing kosher products, compelling me and many of my friends to smuggle kosher meat from Israel on our return trips from that land.
By contrast, hallal slaughter is not banned in Sweden. My government, when asked about the disparity, replies that the methods of slaughter in Judaism are uniquely barbaric.
“Barbaric” is also what I was called just this past June. As a political adviser to a Swedish party, I was debating the anti-circumcision bill that had just been proposed by another, right-wing party in our parliament, and things got heated. The bill called for a general ban on all circumcision unless medically prescribed, and it enjoyed much bipartisan support. During the debate, I outed myself as a Jew, only to be informed that what “we” were doing to our children was inhumane and barbaric, and should be summarily outlawed. I did my best to maintain my composure, but ended up crying in the courtyard—not for the first time, or for the last.
In your essay you mention that Jewish religious and cultural activities in Western Europe are everywhere on the rise. This, too, is not my reality. What I see is that the Holocaust wing at the Jewish Museum is crowded with visitors, while the synagogues are empty. I see cute Woody Allen-ish activities being promoted, and actual Jewish life being banned. The dead, suffering Jew is glorified; the healthy, active Jew is vilified.
There are 20,000 Jews in Sweden, a country of close to nine million. As for Muslim immigrants and their children, they, as you point out in your article, amount to 10 percent or more of the population: perhaps as many as a million people, fifty times the number of Jews. Still, I would not say that demography is the only threat to Jewish life in Western Europe, and maybe not even the biggest one. What frightens me most is that my government is proscribing Jewish life. Yes, by outlawing circumcision, banning kosher slaughter, and telling us forthrightly that the only way to avoid being harassed in the streets is to distance ourselves from Israel, they are reinventing the conditions of the Eastern Europe past that brought our community to this country in the first place. This is what is driving us out: one by one, bill by bill.
In the “Comments” section following your essay, I noticed a debate among readers over the perceived harshness of your article. I am writing to you because I do not believe it was harsh enough. I value Jewish thought, but I crave Jewish action. More than I need eloquent eulogies, I need people—the same people who so passionately debate our future in Mosaic and elsewhere—to help me fight.
We in Sweden are still here, but we are feeling lonely and forgotten. We want a strong Jewish community in the Diaspora. We want to live. We are fighting every day against the pressure to turn us into plaques on the wall of former synagogues or into exhibits in guilt-wallowing museums. We need the help of our kinsmen.
My son no longer wears his kippah in public. Now he does what the men at my shul have done for years. He carries it in his pocket, donning it only when we are safely within the iron gates. Guarded and hidden from the world.
With kind regards,
This article was first published in Mosaic Magazine
It’s 4:00 AM, and the departure hall in Istanbul is crowded and humid, bustling with activity despite the hour, and I’ve resigned myself to sitting on the floor with my cup of hot tea, bought mostly to occupy my hands, which are shaking with nervous excitement.
Three months prior to my midnight arrival at Ataturk Airport, I made the decision to apply for a journalist visa to go to Iran, without ever thinking it would really come to pass. I dreamed of visiting one of the most elusive Jewish communities in the world, of getting behind the veil of this ancient culture, but through all the arduous paperwork and embassy interviews that pushed the process forward, I kept the reality of entering Iran far from my mind.
Persian Jewry dates back over 2,700 years, to the reign of the Persian Empire in 539 BCE, when Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon. But despite their proud ancestry, the Jews of Iran remain isolated and largely unknown to and undiscovered by the rest of the world.
At its height, just ahead of the Islamic Revolution, the Jewish community in Iran numbered approximately 80,000 individuals, and they were thriving. Overwhelmingly middle- or upper-middle class, the community boasted a wide array of educational and cultural institutions alongside at least 30 active synagogues in Tehran alone. While the ancient Jewish community had been growing steadily under the protection of the Shah, the Islamic Revolution brought on mass emigration, reducing the community to a tenth of its original size.
The advantages the Jews experienced under the rule of the Shah—high socioeconomic status, strong ties to Israel and the United States—became liabilities in the age of the ayatollahs. As in many other dark eras in Jewish history, the Jews were accused of stealing the country’s treasures, and flyers were circulated throughout Tehran urging vengeance against them. There was mass confiscation of wealth along with rampant anti-Semitism and violence against the Jewish population, and as the streets filled up with hordes of people chanting “death to America” and “death to Israel,” many Persian Jews fled to those very countries, bringing what they could with them to start a new life far from the home they once knew.
Some of the Jews who remained in Iran decided to embrace the revolution and the nation’s new rulers. Some 5,000 of them even took part in welcoming Ayatollah Khomeini, the future Supreme Leader of the country, when he returned from exile in Paris on February 1, 1979. The Jewish welcome committee led by then-Chief Rabbi Yedidia Shofet carried banners supporting of the Ayatollah and chanted “Jews and Muslims are brothers” as a sign of allegiance and hope. The hope didn’t last long, however. Habib Elghanian, the official head of the Jewish community of Iran, was publicly executed later that year, accused of spying for Israel.
The flight is half-empty and I’m fiddling with my black hijab, carefully folded up in my purse, my headphones filled with the music of Israeli singer Ehud Banai, as if I am holding on to the comforts of home until the very last minute. As the plane descends there is a rush for the bathrooms by women hurrying to put on their head-coverings before reaching Imam Khomeini International Airport and the regime’s ever-watchful eye. I join them, folding and pinning the fabric as I’ve practiced in front of the YouTube tutorial, and when I meet my own gaze I do a double take at the woman in the bathroom mirror, immediately more humbled by the heavy cloth and the weight of the meaning it holds.
As I am traveling to Iran as a journalist, I am appointed a driver and a translator, both employed by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. It’s a mandatory service, and these young men are to stay by my side throughout the 20 days of my stay. I am picked up at my hotel each morning and dropped off at my door at night, and at the end of each day there is a debriefing at the ministry where we are taken aside and spoken to separately in order to make sure our stories match.
I’m there to meet with the Jewish community, and this involves a costly and time-consuming process to get ahold of the necessary permits to do so. Tehran is the Jewish center of the country, housing a deeply traditional and religious community with its own schools, restaurants, and religious institutions, as well as a Jewish parliamentarian chosen to represent the group’s interests in the Iranian parliament. The Jewish minority, now consisting of approximately 15,000 individuals with organized communities in Tehran, Esfahan, and Shiraz, is a protected group according to the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, alongside Christians and Zoroastrians. The 13th paragraph of the constitution states that Jews, “within the limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education.”
The “limits of the law” mentioned by the constitution is a larger issue than the humble passage lets on, as it applies to the Sharia law that has ruled the country since 1979. In other words, despite being a recognized minority, Iranian Jews are still ruled by Islamic law, and if broken the consequences of that law are as permanent as they are dire. One example is the oppressive inheritance law, which states that any Jew who converts to Islam automatically inherits the assets of their extended family, potentially impoverishing many Jewish families. During my meeting with the Jewish MP, Dr. Moreh Sedegh, he told me that the issue is being addressed in talks between him and the regime. But should it be solved, it does not change the framework that holds these Jews hostage or the regime that is the arbiter of their fate.
I’m taken to the Jewish community center in Tehran, located on the third floor of a modern stone building on an unassuming corner street in north Tehran, which is home to most of the city’s 7,000 Jews. I see Hebrew writing on the walls, an old man is making chai in a quiet kitchenette, and when I greet him with shalom aleichem he stares at me blankly and then quickly turns his back. My Muslim interpreter shrugs and points to a room at the end of the corridor, where a man in a bright blue suit is talking on the phone in smooth and rapid Farsi.
He is Yoram Haroonian, the head of the Jewish community. I hand him my Swedish identity card and he says,
“Recite the Shema prayer.”
I silently curse myself for never properly learning the Ve’ahavta section. I stare straight at him as I struggle through the lines with increasing discomfort, my government handler observing the exchange with a subtle mix of annoyance and amusement.
“Should I call you Annika or Channa?” Yoram asks as I finish, smiling for the very first time, and I exhale when I realize I have passed the initial test.
Yoram’s office is beautifully ornate. There is a large conference table in the center of the room; at its head are two Iranian flags and a golden frame holding painted images of Moses and the aging former ayatollah. It is a poignant symbol of Jewish life in Iran and the constant struggle between tradition and the regime. As Haroonian tells me, life in Persia is unlike any other in the Jewish world:
The Jews of Iran are loyal to the regime, and we were actually the first to volunteer for the war against Iraq. Jewish and Muslim traditions have mixed, in some ways, where Passover mimics the Persian holiday of Nowruz and the traditions of modesty are in accordance with the Muslim tradition perhaps even more than Jewish tzniut. We are Iranian Jews, and that means Iranian first, and we are loyal first and foremost to this country while remaining Torah-true.
The words flow from his mouth with such fluency that I can’t help but feel they are not only far too deliberate, but oddly well-rehearsed. He speaks of loyalties and I can see why he does so, as I have brought an agent of the regime into his somewhat protected space. Jewish life here comes with carefully constructed rules and understandings, and one of the basic tenets involves separation from and defamation of Zionism and Israel. Outbursts of loyalty to the regime are expected, whether in the form of volunteering for a war or sharing an enemy, and that aspect of Iranian Jewish reality is something I as a European Jew can relate to and fully understand. It is clear that the Jewish community lives with a constant level of suspicion toward outsiders and insiders alike, always fearing treachery and infiltration; and much like in the Soviet Union, people are trying to weed out informants, unsure how to tell friend from foe. In short, there are no real answers, only truths in the untold, and I realize that for this man there may be a hefty price attached to every word and every answered question.
I ask him about Israel, even though I know whatever answer I get will be measured and made to fit the party line, because I want to know what the Jewish state means to Iranian Jews and if the ban on travelling there has really been lifted, as was reported back in 2013.
“We are free to visit, of course, and we can even move if we want to, but we have our lives and history here,” he says. “This is the second-oldest Jewish community in the world, and we are proud to be here, and very proud of this country.”
Before I leave, Yoram asks me to join him at his synagogue for Shabbat services the next day and then dinner at his nearby home in order to meet more members of the community. As I accept as profusely as I have been taught is the custom here, Yoram makes a point of inviting my translator as well—as if he is pretending that the man’s presence is optional and not a symbol of the chains he cannot break.
An older black-haired woman is waving at me from behind the mechitza, the divider separating the genders, and urging me to come and sit down. As I approach, she introduces herself as Yoram’s mother, and within minutes I am greeting all the women in what I gather is the “honor row” where elegant women of some seniority are seated. The century-old Abrishami synagogue is located on Palestine Street in north Tehran, housed in a beautiful stone building that includes a fine kosher restaurant, a ritual bath, and the busy Tehran Yeshiva. Every day there are two minyanim, and on Shabbat the synagogue welcomes around 250 people, filling it with the same warmth and airlessness that I know from my temple back home. And it is like home to a surprising degree, down to the same music and characters and faces: The nosy women who immediately ascertain my marital status, the off-key men singing harmonies on the familiar liturgy, and the beautiful children running wild in the pews, much to their hushing parents’ chagrin.
Life behind the mechitza offers some much-wanted and rarely-found protection from the eyes and ears of the regime. It is there the women and I speak beyond a whisper, and before the Lecha Dodi prayer, I feel a hand on my arm, grasping desperately for my attention.
“Pray for us, will you, please?”
Her words are sad and real and stark, and they break the wall put up by her masters. I nod but fail to answer; I see a glimpse of her life but fail to fully understand; and I know there is nothing I can do but say a prayer and tell her story.
After services, my translator ushers me out, and as the diners gather we slowly make our way to the Haroonian family home for Shabbat dinner. I’m walking alongside the women, and the natural physical distance between the sexes offers a rare opportunity to speak without constraints. I ask them in broken Hebrew if they are really allowed to visit Israel or even make aliyah as I had been told.
“We are allowed by law now,” Yoram’s mother says, “but when you leave the country you have to put up collateral, often everything you own, and usually there is only one visa per family offered at one time. So we can visit, if we do it discretely, but rarely someone leaves. The price would be too high for the rest of us.”
Another woman in the group tells me that Iran has the world’s highest number of agunot—Jewish women separated from their husbands but not allowed to divorce. I am shocked at this notion, as it speaks to a deep desperation—a husband leaving his wife and family behind to flee life in Iran.
The Haroonian home is warm and colorful, overflowing with guests wanting to eye the Swedish Jewess who has traveled so far to be in their midst. The grandfather pulls out a bottle of wine, something allowed for Jews under a religious exemption from the general ban on alcohol, and he makes Kiddush as my Muslim interpreter looks at me and smiles, as if unsure what to do. The mood is surprisingly relaxed, and the women all want to compare notes on Ashkenazi vs. Sephardi food as we are served overflowing plates of ghormeh sabzi. They ask me about my customs and the world outside, and by the end of dessert the forbidden subject enters the conversation:
“Have you seen Jerusalem?”
“Have you visited Hebron?”
“Do you have pictures of the Western Wall you could send us after Shabbat?”
It is fascinating to see this 2,700-year-old Jewish community that has only related to Israel through text still feel the longing for the land in such a real and powerful way, and while I answer their questions in vivid detail, I am moved beyond words by the innocence and curiosity of their query. Despite the regime’s policy of Holocaust denial and unabashed anti-Zionism, it has failed to sever the bond between a people and its homeland, even with so much at stake. Religiously, the Iranian Jews have prospered despite living under Sharia law. Ironically, it may have contributed to their observance, as intermarriage is punishable by death and religion is hailed as the one absolute they may keep to themselves and each other.
As his wife is clearing dishes, Yoram presents me with a gift: a large Jewish prayer book in Hebrew and Farsi, with scribbled writing across the back page.
“To our friend Channa Hernroth-Rothstein. May all your prayers be answered and may you come back to us soon.”
I choke up and neither of us says much, but we understand each other perfectly, and as I say my goodbyes, I pray to return safely one day and, if nothing else, that prayer will be heard and answered.
As I leave the Haroonian family home it hits me: The overwhelming mix of joy and sadness, of being in Tehran on Shabbat with my people, a scene so familiar and foreign all at once. To a certain degree, the Jews of Iran enjoy greater freedom than I, a European Jew, have ever known. Their synagogues are unguarded, their Jewish identity on proud display, and their religious life lauded and encouraged while mine is increasingly outlawed and oppressed. But their freedom exists inside a large and impenetrable prison, their homogenous traditional orthodoxy that I long for back home is only possible in a place where the alternatives are deemed illegal.
But most of all, I am struck by their longing for Israel.
My connection to Israel is a backbone, an integral part of my identity as a Jew. Being in Iran showed me what it would be like to live without it. How completely untethered and unsafe I would feel. On my continent, people are fleeing their homes because they are Jewish, their Jewish identity making it unsafe for them to stay. What if there was no Israel to come home to? What if we were left alone, like shards of crystal, dispersed in the Diaspora? How would we act? What would we be? What would we have to do in order to please our master?
I leave Iran with a heavy heart, knowing I may never return to see the people who became family in an instant, because they always were. I worry what will become of them once I board that plane; if I caused them harm by even coming. Iran was not what I thought it would be, and Jewish life there is not as hellish as I thought, but in many ways it was worse and more sinister than I could ever imagine. The Jews of Iran are not persecuted, but they are very far from free. They live in a gilded cage with freedoms and rights that can be taken away at the behest of their master without notice or reason.
This article was first published in The Tower
Speaking up for Israel is an act of supreme bravery in South Africa these days, particularly if you are a member of the ruling African National Congress. After more than two decades in power, the ANC is becoming discernibly more hostile to Israel with each passing year. The small number of activists inside the movement who have questioned this policy have rapidly become political outcasts.
They’ve been in that back room for a while. I’m standing by the door, trying to ascertain what’s going on by the mumblings and the gestures. I feel like a child, trying to coax my superior with an insecure smile. The policeman comes back, eyeing me up and down, holding my passport in his right hand.
You’re a journalist, he says. You’re not allowed to enter.
I have already been there for almost two hours, waiting to be allowed to ascend, but the line allocated for Jews isn’t moving. The other one is, though. The tourist line is moving bodies as were it the entrance to an amusement park. I had stood in that line, swooshing past security, just a few months earlier. […]
A man is burning right in front of me. He has set himself on fire in the middle of a busy Tehran street. He is screaming about corruption and poverty. My assigned government handler translates some of his ranting. People gather, trying to help him, and I am quickly pulled into a waiting car.
“It looks much worse than it is,” says my handler. “He probably planned it so he wouldn’t burn that badly. Crazy people do this sometimes for attention, but it isn’t that serious at all.”
Despite his reassurances, my handler is visibly uncomfortable. I turn around and watch the growing crowd disappear in the distance, not sure what to do with what I just saw.
It’s my second day in Iran. I came here to cover the 2016 elections and see this enigmatic country with my own eyes, hoping to understand it in a way you can’t by reading books. When I told my friends I had applied for a journalist visa to Iran, they all urged me not to go, warning that the risks were much greater than any possible rewards. I brushed off their warnings, thinking my chances of being approved were too slim to warrant any concerns. After all, I am a Swedish Jew with strong ties to Israel; I have written for plenty of Israeli publications; and my name is associated with Zionism and political conservatism. It was a long shot to begin with; but for reasons I still do not fully understand, I was granted a visa.
And then things got real.
It’s 4:00 AM and I am standing in the arrival hall of Imam Khomeini International Airport with my two large suitcases, a meticulously tied hijab, and my heart beating frantically in my chest. The government media agency has sent a driver, and from the moment he picks me up and ushers me off with a homemade sign and wordless gestures I am no longer alone. My only time for solitude will be the few hours spent in the relative confinement of my Tehran hotel room.
Working on my own was never an option. This was made clear before I even boarded the flight to Iran. Once your visa is approved, you are assigned a government-approved agent to handle your schedule, accompany you to your meetings, and drive you from door to door. There are no real private conversations and no real privacy. As a result, what I take from my interviews are not merely the words, but the silences—what is left unsaid or implied. The agent comes at a considerable cost, of course, as do the plethora of written and stamped authorizations needed to accommodate appointments and plans. Every day, I am asked to spend at least an hour in the office of a government agency to report my movements, and my translator is taken aside to give his independent report. They are then checked against each other, carefully scrutinized for discrepancies. Sitting there waiting for final approval reminds me of worlds I have only known through books like 1984 and Kafka’s The Trial.
Iran is governed with what might be described as “freedom with severe limitations,” and this is particularly obvious when trying to contact the outside world. Although current president Hassan Rouhani campaigned on unblocking social media platforms and opening up Internet access, few of these changes have been enacted, something I experienced on election day. The Internet was either blocked—even when using the necessary and illegal VPN app—or its speed was dramatically diminished. These are the same methods of control used during the 2009 election. Naser Makarem Shirazi, one of Iran’s grand ayatollahs, has declared Internet access via mobile phones “un-Islamic.” In July 2014, eight youths were sentenced to a combined 127 years in prison for anti-government posts on Facebook. A year after that, the Cyber Intelligence Unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) reported that it had arrested 12 individuals and fined 24 others for having “insulted Islam and published immoral and corrupt material” and “encouraged individuals to commit immoral acts” through their Internet activity. The arrests came after a major surveillance operation by the IRGC in which they are said to have monitored eight million Facebook “likes” in order to crack down on Internet activity that promoted “moral corruption” or featured Western lifestyles. According to Freedom House, the IRGC is known to pressure social media users into deleting content of which the regime disapproves. The IRGC itself announced in 2015 that it had pressured 36 Facebook users to delete 130 pages after it amped up surveillance of the Internet.
Everything seems to be monitored in Iran, from Internet access to clothing to movement from place to place.
The people of Iran do find ways to get around these limitations. They use VPN and other web-browsing tools that temporarily evade censorship. The most commonly used messaging app is the encrypted service Telegram, notorious for its use by ISIS. Although it is possible to connect to Facebook and Twitter in illegal ways, Iranians often choose not to send messages through these platforms, as they are much more easily surveilled. Whenever I meet people and we exchange information, they ask me to communicate via Telegram. When I ask them to add me on Facebook or Instagram, I am told that they have accounts but never use them, because the sites are so difficult to access. When they do access them, they have to watch what they post, like, and say. This type of self-censorship is prevalent in Iranian society, and is very hard to quantify. As a result, it is difficult to determine its influence on freedom, speech, and human rights. The regime’s methods of control are well known, and the threat of repercussions is enough to make the people manage themselves.
Indeed, the Iranian government is spending a lot of time and treasure on limiting Internet access. The regime’s Supreme Leader even commissioned a “Supreme Council of Virtual Space” in March 2012 to monitor the growing threat of a free Internet. It has been very successful in doing so. According to a 2015 study by Freedom House, the regime has prevented 75 percent of encrypted traffic. As of mid-2015, Reporters Without Borders stated that 26 Iranian citizens remain imprisoned for online activities and, as shown by blogger Sattar Behesti’s death in prison in 2012, a prison sentence can be a death sentence in disguise.
The city of Tehran is wrapped in a golden-brown veil of smog. It eases up for only a minute or two when rain falls and pushes the dirt to the ground. I find it hard to breathe, and get winded just walking to and from the car. But only part of that is due to pollution. Throughout the trip, I struggle with the fatigue and anxiety that comes from a sense of constant vigilance, never knowing who is watching and if my actions have compromised me. There is brilliance in this system. The regime never spells out precisely what the rules are, so you are at constant risk of breaking them, trapping you in a never-ending loop of trying to figure out the impossible.
On the third day of my visit, I have lunch with one of my handlers. We eat kebab at one of the city’s kosher restaurants. Suddenly, the mood shifts. He puts his fork down and leans across the table.
“I’ve been reading your old articles, Annika, reading them very carefully,” he says.
My mouth goes dry. I try to answer, but I only nod.
“You write a lot for Israeli papers, and you seem to spend a lot of time in Israel.”
Yes, I do, I say. I visit and write about the Middle East just as I said on my application.
“Well, I also saw you on the Temple Mount, on a YouTube video, and I saw that you place yourself in very dangerous positions.”
He’s smiling now, but it doesn’t feel like a smile. It looks oddly misplaced beneath his dark, inquisitive, and intense eyes. I can no longer feel my legs. I’m terrified he can see my heart beating in my throat. I wonder what will come next. What has he seen, read, or heard about me? He could not only take me down, but also hurt the ones I love and cherish. I try to go through everything I have written, every detail I may have missed. But the panic is creeping in, and all I can think is that I played this game and lost, and no one will ever know what happened to me.
“You have to understand, Annika, that I don’t think that you are a spy, but many others could easily think so. With your history, with the things you write.”
I know what that means. I know what “Zionist ties” and “spy” mean in the Iranian context. And I know that I am more alone here than I have ever been. Now, I can only choose whether to play defense or offense, with no second thoughts, no time to deliberate. I go for offense.
“I never lied about who I am or what I do,” I say. “I’m Swedish, not Israeli, but I do sometimes work in Israel and I stated as much on my application. If this is an issue, please contact the embassy in Stockholm so that we can quickly clear it up.”
My voice is shaking. My handler is smiling at me still. The silence is tearing me apart, little by little.
“No, that’s not necessary. Like I said, I trust you Annika.”
He leans back against the chair, shifting slowly, brushing invisible crumbs off his slacks as he watches me catch my breath.
“Don’t worry. We’re just having a friendly conversation.”
And with that, it was over. I don’t know why it started or why it ended. We went from the restaurant to parliament, and though I had work to do, the conversation stayed at the forefront of my mind. Everything had been OK until nothing was OK, and the warmth and welcome I had felt turned into something unfamiliar to me. I was struggling to make sense of it so I could prevent it from ever happening again.
When I got back to my hotel that night I shut down my Facebook account and removed the apps containing messages that I did not want strangers to see. I sent emails to my friends to explain why I was going dark, but then deleted them, suddenly frightened that a faceless middleman would catch the loaded words. Sitting on my bed, erasing everything, I felt silly for this flash of paranoia and tried laughing at myself in order to snap back into reality. But the laugh got stuck in the back of my throat. This was my reality. Though I might have been a fool for worrying, the truth is that I just did not know.
I hardly slept that night, and from that day on I maintained a higher level of vigilance. I changed my clothes in the shower every morning, because I was no longer comfortable walking around in my room undressed. I stopped calling home and I no longer used my email or social media for anything other than posting neutral descriptions of my trip, weighing every word and every sentence.
Despite Iran’s attempt to project a new, moderate image to the West, the Islamic Republic has recently hit the highest rate of executions since 1989. Under Rouhani, Iran executed twice as many people in 2015 as in 2010, when the hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in office. According to a 2015 United Nations report, there are now ten times the number of executions as in 2005. It is important to note that these are official numbers from Iran, and it is likely that the actual number is higher.
Iranian officials like to say that most of the executions are related to the country’s strict narcotics laws, but a March 2016 report from the UN Human Rights Council shows that drug-related executions make up only 65 percent of the 1,000 people executed in 2015. According to Amnesty International, Iran is a world leader in the execution of minors, with 160 juvenile offenders currently on death row. Other groups targeted for execution are journalists, artists, and human rights activists who have spoken up against the regime. The most recent and notable example was Iranian cartoonist Atena Farghadani, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison in August of 2015 for allegedly insulting government officials and spreading propaganda.
Watching totalitarian societies from the outside, I have often wondered why people do not rise up against this kind of oppression. I naively assumed that this type of regime can never sustain itself over time. After just 20 days in Iran, I began to understand how wrong I was.
I have never been as tired as I was during my time in Iran. I have never suffered such constant low-grade anxiety. It was different from fear of an imminent threat and, in my opinion, much more corrosive. There is a beginning and an end to an imminent threat. What I felt was painfully vague and ongoing. I knew I would leave, that my stay in Iran was not permanent; yet with every new day I realized more and more what it would be like to feel there was no imminent departure, no escape. Iranians are suffering from fatigue, a permanent exhaustion that comes with everyday life under a totalitarian regime. This involves not only worrying about your own safety, but also the safety of those in your community who will feel the repercussions of your actions as if they were their own. It means going from normalcy to public execution in the blink of an eye. It means second-guessing everything and everyone that comes your way.
It would be so much easier if Iran were the hellscape I thought it was before I arrived; if the oppression were ugly and clear as day. But what I saw was something wrapped in layers upon layers of gorgeous complexity. Iran is beautiful and warm and blood-chillingly frightening. Its people greet you like family yet both informants and victims are the same. I have rarely felt more at home and never felt so lonely. As I left, there was a part of me startled by the fact that I wanted to stay. This is what Iranians live with. This is the reality they face.
The people love their country. They stand by it like a mother and her child, both ruled by a violent and despotic father. They been stripped of the practical and psychological tools they need to escape. So they tell themselves that things will get better; and it does get better, and worse, and they learn to move with those waves of painful insecurity. And that, the constant insecurity, is how the Iranian regime controls its people. It is much smarter and much more insidious than that of other oppressive entities. Much like the Soviet Union, everyone is subject to the whims of their rulers, and everyone is doing what they have to in order to live their lives.
President Rouhani campaigned as a moderate, and he may be in some ways, but it is ultimately of little consequence. In the political hierarchy of the Islamic Republic, where all power flows from the Supreme Leader, Rouhani is thoroughly outranked. During his presidency, Iran has seen an increase in executions, a decrease in fundamental rights, and during the 2016 elections there were more candidates disqualified—a whopping 60 percent—than ever before. Those who wield real power—the Supreme Leader, the Council of Guardians, the Assembly of Experts—are showing their “constituencies” that despite having a reform-oriented president, no real reform will come to pass. They are showing this by tightening their hold at the very same time Rouhani is loosening it.
There will be no uprising any time soon, nor is there an “Iranian spring” on the horizon. The regime puts its thumb in the eye of the citizens, rather than bullets in their heads. You are promised a decent life so long as you follow the rules, and most of your time and effort will go toward figuring out exactly what those rules are.
This, along with widespread socioeconomic strife, leaves the Iranian people with very little energy to spend on politics in general and foreign policy in particular. As a result, the issues most Westerners assume are foremost on the Iranian people’s minds are actually the subject of indifference and ignorance. Those we see standing up to the regime or even leaving to seek a better life abroad are those in a social and financial position to do so. Most citizens of the Islamic Republic are not.
This became obvious to me during the elections. Issues of internal policy and the fight against corruption were heavily debated, but the infamous nuclear deal with the West was mostly approached as a way to help the ailing economy, rather than to reform or even overthrow the current system. To rise up, you have to have risen. To demand freedom, you have to know what it is. To think about revolution, you have to be allowed to speak about it. This is a heartbreaking catch-22, and it has captured a once great nation, a nation of people who at this point seek betterment under the rule of the regime, far from dreams of yet another revolution.
I still see that burning man, and I hear his voice as he screams in a language I cannot decipher. I want to believe that he is okay, that my handler did not lie, and the man did not meet his death in anguish and desperation. I want to believe that, knowing how naïve and stupid it sounds. I want him to be okay, but I just don’t know.
This article was first published in The Tower