iran, the jews and the holocaust

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iran, the jews and the holocaust


David Menashri [*]



During the last two centuries, Iranian politics have oscillated between extremes as the country has searched for a viable path to confront the challenges of modernity. Since the late eighteenth century, it has gradually undergone a phase of Westernization—a process that was intensified prior to the collapse of the Pahlavi Monarchy (1925−79) − only to reverse direction under the Islamic Republic. [1]


            The dichotomy that has characterized recent Iranian politics is best exemplified by the distinctive visions of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. By all accounts, Khomeini’s worldview was the complete antithesis of that of the Shah. The latter’s attachment to the legacy of Cyrus the Great gave way to a return to the traditions of the Imam ‚Ali. While the Shah sought to generate loyalty to the monarchy and to Iran’s pre-Islamic heritage, the Islamic Republic’s policies are based on strict adherence to Islamic dogma and values. While the previous regime made a determined drive for Westernization, the Islamic Republic views Western influence as a major threat.


            Evidently, such vastly opposing views invariably subsume the two regimes‘ respective attitudes toward minority religions as well. As part of Iranian society, the Jews were inevitably influenced by the revolutionary change; as members of a religious minority, this cataclysm had distinctive ramifications for them. The revolution’s virulently anti-Israel and anti-Zionist stance, too, was boun d to arouse feeling against world Jewry and affect attitudes toward the Jews in Iran.


This essay will analyze the evolution of Iran’s position toward its Jewish minority and toward Jewish issues worldwide, as well as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s harsh rhetoric regarding world Jewry and the Holocaust. In order to better comprehend the magnitude of the change, it will begin by tracing the historical legacy of Iran’s treatment of its Jews and discuss policy vis-à-vis Iranian Jewry since the Islamic Revolution. It will then examine in greater depth attempts in Iran to cast doubt on the validity of the Holocaust by focusing on the views of leading officials, scholars and media publications.


Iranian Jewry: Past Legacy and Contemporary Challenges


The history of Iranian Jewry has known periods of suppression, persecution, and harassment as well as intervals of tolerance and peaceful coexistence. All in all, however, their experience was even more trying than that of Jews in other Muslim communities. „Compared to the Jews of Iran,“ Bernard Lewis wrote, „the Jews of the Ottoman Empire were living in paradise.“ [2] Growing contact with the West, mainly since the early nineteenth century, and the liberal movement that gave birth to the Constitutional Revolution in Iran (1905−11), helped to ameliorate their situation somewhat. As Habib Levy stated, these events brought the Jews the „precious gift“ of an opportunity to break „the invisible chains which had bound them hand and foot,“ even if they „did not suddenly erase the toxic impurity of anti-Semitism“ from peoples‘ minds. [3] However, it was primarily during the Pahlavi monarchy, that Iranian Jews were able to improve their position in Iranian society.


The two decades under Reza Shah’s rule „brought temporary relief to the Jews and other non-Muslims.“ [4] While the Jews experienced significant advances in their social and economic situation during Reza Shah’s reign, it changed even more substantially under Mohammad Reza Shah (1941-1979), reaching its zenith during the reform movement of the White Revolution (from 1963) − marking the Golden Era of Iranian Jewry. At that time, Jews enjoyed almost complete cultural and religious autonomy, unprecedented economic progress, and had political rights that were close to those of their Muslim compatriots. Even then, however, progress was often interrupted by difficult periods. Antisemitic literature continued to be published throughout the Pahlavi monarchy, [5] and anti-Jewish propaganda became more visible in Iran during the early 1950s, following the establishment of the State of Israel, and under Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq. Yet, in comparison to earlier periods, the Jews‘ status improved considerably under the Pahlavis.


The Islamic Revolution turned assets into obvious liabilities for Iran’s Jews. Their prominent socio-economic standing under the monarchy, their identification with the Shah and his policies, and their attachment to Israel, Zionism, and ‚American imperialism‘ were all held against them. Iran’s historical mistreatment of the Jews had left its mark on popular attitudes. The short interval of Jewish freedom under the last shah was too brief to cause a significant shift in societal attitudes toward the Jews. The basic principles of the revolutionary regime were based on radical interpretations of Islamic dogma, and Ayatollah Khomeini’s own doctrine (see below) would only exacerbate anti-Jewish sentiment. The economic challenges following the change of regime and the pressure on Iran from the outside world were also attributed, at least in part, to Israel and the Jews, who were believed to be ‚moving the wheels‘ of the world economy. Moreover, the Islamic regime’s decision to become the bearer of the anti-Zionist and anti-Israel flag fuelled this feeling. Less than three decades after the revolution, approximately two-thirds of the Jewish community (including most of the religious and social leadership) have left Iran. In 2007, an estimated 25,000 Jews remain there. Although there has been no actual governmental incitement or systematic harassment, „the Iranian Jews have received harsher treatment“ than other recognized religious minorities − excluding the Baha’is. [6]


Khomeini’s doctrine, as formulated prior to the Islamic Revolution, contained distinct anti-Jewish elements, combining Shi’i ideology with typical elements of European antisemitism. On the first page of his book Al-Hukumah al-Islamiyyah (Islamic Governance), Khomeini pointed out: „Since its inception, the Islamic movement has been afflicted with the Jews,“ who „established anti-Islamic propaganda and joined in various stratagems, and as you can see, this activity continues down to our present day.“ The Prophet Muhammad „eliminated“ the Jews of the Bani Qurayza, Khomeini recalled, because they were a troublesome group, corrupting Muslim society and „damaging Islam and the Islamic state.“ [7] In his earlier book, Touzih al-Masa’el (Clarification of the Questions), he emphasized the Shi’i doctrine of the ritual impurity of unbelievers (nejasat), listing „eleven things that contaminated,“ including sperm, dogs, pigs, carrion and unbelievers: the latter’s entire body is unclean; even their „hair and fingernails and [bodily] secretion.“ Products which cannot be purified (such as food) should not be bought from infidels.[8] A school textbook on Islamic culture and religion from the early years of the revolution which discussed „impure things [ chizhaye napak],“ similarly refers to causes of disease (microbes and viruses) and then lists the impure things, including dog, pig, alcohol, excrement, and infidels.[9] In contrast to the nationalistic Pahlavi rule, which held the Jews as equals, Khomeini’s Islamic doctrine inevitably led to the Jews being treated as inferior to the Muslim majority.


Immediately following Khomeini’s triumphant return from exile, prominent leaders of the Jewish community, headed by Chief Rabbi Yedidya Shofet, visited him to convey loyalty to the new regime. They argued that Judaism and Zionism were wholly distinct issues. Khomeini adopted this formula. Vague as it often appears, this distinction is still generally endorsed in official statements.


Once the Islamic Revolution had stabilized, venomous attacks gave way to more balanced and tolerant statements with regard to Iranian Jewry. Religious minorities (with the exception of the Baha’is) came to rely on a measure of tolerance and protection. The Jews received official recognition as a minority group, and representation in the Majlis (parliament). Freedom of worship was not substantially restricted and numerous synagogues have remained active; as small as the Jewish community is, it is still the largest in any Muslim country.


The Islamic regime’s relatively tolerant approach was noticeable on the surface, but at a deeper level matters were often more complex. Anti-Jewish sentiments abounded among segments of the population and occasionally found expression in official statements. To begin with, the distinction between Jews, Israel and Zionism was often blurred, much as it is in the Arab world. There were numerous references to Israel as a ‚bunch of Jews‘, and occasional allusions to seventh century Jews as ‚the Zionists of [Prophet] Muhammad’s time‘. Khomeini himself − often careful not to incite against the Jews − made a revealing slip. In 1982, he began one of his speeches by saying that those who followed in the path of Jesus Christ were even worse than the Jews, although it was perhaps „impossible to say that there is anything worse than the Jews.“ He then retracted: „I mean the Jews of Israel.“ [10] Over time, negative references to Jews became commonplace in Iranian parlance. According to a series of articles published on the eve of the 1998 International Day of Jerusalem in the newspaper Kar va Kargar, all Jews, regardless of where they reside, are Zionists, and retain the same basic unflattering features.[11] An article in Ettela’at quoted the Qur’an to prove Jewish animosity to Islam: „Cursed were the unbelievers of the Children of Israel“ for „their rebellion and their transgression.“[12] During the Iran-Iraq war, an Iranian military operation was given the codename Khaybar, after the Jewish oasis besieged and conquered by the Prophet. President ‚Ali Khamene’i explained that the name was in memory of the glorious victories of Islam over the Jews: Since „the front opposing us today is a Zionist front,“ he continued, „this will serve as a reminder for us of the struggle of Islam against the Jews of Khaybar.“ [13] The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as well as virulently antisemitic caricatures, were published repeatedly throughout this period.


For most Arab states, the conflict with Israel is chiefly a national and territorial dispute, but for Islamic Iran (much like Islamist movements, such as Hizballah and Hamas in the Arab world) it is a religious crusade. As one Iranian intellectual put it, since Israel is „by nature“ the enemy of Islam and the Qur’an, it is „the religious duty [ taklif-e shar’i]“ of every Muslim to confront it.[14] According to this logic, while in the past the West wished to achieve its goals through the Church, it now promoted its interests indirectly − by setting the Jews against the Muslims in order to divide the Muslim world and eventually wage war against them. Former Foreign Minister ‚Ali Akbar Velayati claimed that the creation of Israel was a „diabolical action“ aimed at „creat[ing] a Zionist and anti-Islamic fracture in the heart of the political geography of Islam,“ and at transplanting „the historical crisis between Christians and Jews of Europe to the Islamic world and converting it into a crisis between Jews and Muslims in Palestine.“ This, he added, was a „historical deal“ which in part „absolved Jews of the death of Jesus Christ“ and led to the „materialization of the aspiration of extremist and racist Jews in setting up a Jewish state.“ [15] All in all, Iranian policy was a combination of instigation and restraint; sowing the seeds of hatred − whether consciously or unconsciously − while preventing that hatred from being translated into violence.


The circumstances that led to the election of President Mohammad Khatami in 1997, his relatively pragmatic policy, and the more moderate statements following his election, inevitably led to some relaxation with regard to the Jews, too. Khatami’s emphasis on inter-faith dialogue and civil society and the need to defuse tension (with the West, for example), revealed a greater commitment to Iranian national interests than to doctrinaire religious convictions, and had a soothing effect on Iran’s religious minorities.


Occasionally, milder statements emerged, primarily from liberal thinkers. Hojjat ul-Islam (and Professor) Mohsen Kadivar − a devout adherent in the early days of the revolution and later one of the symbols of Iranian liberalism − maintained that the „truth of Islam does not mean the absolute falsehood of Judaism and Christianity.“ While „complete salvation and reward“ belongs to Muslims, he agreed, „we can both believe in one supreme truth and also not consider other religions and followers of other religions as completely false.“ [16] He reminded his co-religionists that even the Prophet and Imam ‚Ali „conducted talks with Jews“ and signed treaties with them.[17] Another leading Iranian intellectual, Hojjat ul-Islam Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari, further maintained that the principles of religion and human rights were not necessarily identical. The latter, he noted, derive from a philosophical concept of equality, based on the idea that „the humanism of an individual has priority over his belief,“ unlike religious principles in which equality is based on faith. Based on such premises, Shabestari stressed the need for dialogue between faiths, which in his view was not only recommended ( mostahab) but essential (zarurat).[18] For his part, Khatami rejected antisemitism as a Western phenomenon with „no precedent“ in Islam, where Jews and Muslims have long „lived harmoniously together.“ In the East, he said, „we have had despotism and dictatorship, but never fascism or Nazism,“ which were Western phenomena. [19]


Nevertheless, the conservative press maintained its critical tone, even when discussing general Jewish issues. An article in Jomhuri-ye Islami rejected as incorrect Khatami’s suggestion that „anti-Judaism was a Western phenomenon with no precedent in Islam;“ Islamic history, it stated, was rife with „Jewish plots against the Noble Prophet,“ and the Holy Book warned against the Jews‘ „enmity [ ‚adavat]“ and „rancor (kineh]“ toward Muslims.[20] Another article in Kayhan castigated Jews for viewing Muslims as „inferior peoples,“ who were born only to slavery [ bardagi] and doomed to remain thus forever.[21] Iranian sources further argued that the „Talmudic mentality“ approved „the logic of force,“ [22] advocating „the annihilation of the Muslims and legitimiz[ing] the shedding of their blood.“[23] While Islam forbade terrorism, another article continued, their „misleading Torah“ explicitly commanded them: „Kill their [enemy’s] men, women, and children; kill even their cattle and sheep; burn their farmlands and destroy their abode.“ The „thought process“ of the Zionists and of Hitler, the article concluded, was similar. [24]


Casting Doubt on the Holocaust


In recent years Iran has become a major center for disseminating radical views regarding the Holocaust. Such views combine typical Western denial claims with Middle Eastern arguments (see below), and some distinctive Iranian revolutionary assertions. It should be stressed that while most Iranian sources do not openly deny the Holocaust altogether, they attempt to distort it, belittle its historical significance, or trivialize Holocaust atrocities. To begin with, Iranian sources stressed that obsessive Jewish references to the Holocaust were part of an orchestrated conspiracy to attract sympathy for Zionism and win international support for the establishment of Israel. Further, they argued, the Jews used Holocaust references to lend legitimacy to Zionist policies, further suppress the Palestinians and advance Zionist schemes.

As Middle East scholars Meir Litvak and Esther Webman demonstrate, representations of the Holocaust in the Muslim World − ranging from condemnation to justification or denial − have become criteria according to which Jews in general, and the State of Israel, in particular, are judged. While treatment of the Holocaust has never been monolithic, one early assertion has remained relatively constant: The Jews cultivated a compelling sense of sympathy following World War II, which was consequently exploited to mobilize support for the establishment of their state. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi antisemitism was justified, such arguments go, in light of Jewish sedition, financial dominance of the West, and currently, Israeli policy. The difficulty of reconciling the Jews‘ weakness and vulnerability in Europe with their newfound strength in the Middle East led a growing number of Muslims to highlight elements of Holocaust denial, as opposed to merely justifying this genocide. [25] Holocaust denial in Iran, Litvak continues, is one manifestation of a broader fusion between Iran’s vehemently anti-Zionist position and traditional anti-Jewish themes. Ahmadinejad’s portrayal of the Holocaust as a legend or myth is thus neither a new nor uniquely personal obsession but an intensification of themes prevalent in Islamic Iran’s ideological discourse. [26] In line with the Arab Middle East, Iranian emphasis on Holocaust denial gained momentum in the late 1990s, even when Khatami’s pro-reform camp was reaching the peak of its power.


The following commentary, published in Tehran Times, six months after Khatami’s election, reflects the multi-dimensional charges, as well as the harsh language, often used to cast doubt on the Holocaust. It denounces the so-called Kosher brotherhood, as a group „too long intent on Goebbels-style propaganda, acting helpless and crying wolf as the occasion required, picking random targets for destruction and annihilation throughout the Middle East.“ They behave as an „American envoy at one time, as plenipotentiaries for some European states“ at others and sometimes as „trained henchmen and paid killers, becoming pimps and tarts.“ [27] Oddly, Iranian sources at times stress the harm done to Jews in World War II in a fairly objective way, but this is mainly to emphasize that such atrocities occurred in the West; or to draw a comparison with ‚the holocaust of our days‘ − that of the Palestinians. [28] Iran’s representative in the UN Geneva office further argued that because Europe „wished to get rid“ of the Jews, it rushed to establish a state for them. The Palestinians were thus called to „pay the price of Europeans‘ crimes in Auschwitz and Treblinka.“ [29] Moreover, just as the Europeans were right to fight Hitler, the Palestinians are justified in confronting „the Zionist invaders.“ [30] Rafsanjani typically added that Israel was „illegal, just as the Nazis‘ presence in France was.“[31]


The trial of Roger Garaudy, who was convicted in a Paris court for contesting crimes against humanity, [32] was exploited by Iran in order to establish a link to Iranian claims against Israel, Zionism, and world Jewry. Following his trial, Garaudy was invited to Tehran where he was received by top officials. The visit was used to expose Iranians to his views and express support for his ’scientific studies‘, but also as an opportunity to add their own particular charges. They condemned Israel for bringing about a ‚Palestinian holocaust‘ and denounced the West for establishing Israel and for bringing Garaudy to trial while at the same time defending British author Salman Rushdie who was accused of defaming Islam. Meeting Garaudy (20 April 1998), Iran’s Supreme Leader ‚Ali Khamene’i pointed to the similarities between Zionism and Nazism, and castigated the West, which on the one hand deplored „the racist behavior of the Nazis,“ but at the same time supported the Zionists‘ „Nazi-like behavior.“ [33] President Mohammad Khatami grieved that „a thinker“ and „a believer“ like Garaudy was brought to trial merely for publishing research which was „displeasing to the West.“[34]


Addressing an international conference on Palestine in Tehran (April 2001), Khamene’i further argued that there was „evidence on hand that a large number of non-Jewish hooligans and thugs of Eastern Europe were forced to migrate to Palestine as Jews.“ The purpose, he said, was „to install in the heart of the Islamic world an anti-Islamic state under the guise of supporting the victims of racism.“ Khamene’i added that historical documents attested to „close collaboration of the Zionists with Nazi Germany,“ and that the „exaggerated numbers“ of Jews killed in the Holocaust, were „fabricated to solicit the sympathy of world public opinion, lay the ground for the occupation of Palestine and justify the atrocities of the Zionists.“ [35] An article in Tehran Times added that during the war, some poor non-Zionist Jews were deliberately sacrificed to further the hideous goal of establishing a Jewish state. According to the writer, „historical documents“ proved that the massacre of Jews was „limited to the working class“—indicating collaboration between the Nazi regime and the Zionist lobby in purging Jews who were considered insignificant. [36]


The hard-line press adopted an extremely radical tone. An article in Jomhuri-ye Islami maintained that „the false slogan of the murder of millions of Jews“ was a „ridiculous pretext“ through which the Zionists managed to convince world public opinion of the need to establish a Jewish state. Every writer, researcher and historian, who sought to refute „this historical allegation on the basis of reliable evidence,“ as did Roger Garaudy, was silenced. [37] Garaudy was brought to trial even though his claim was „not far from the truth“ and many scholars considered the events of Auschwitz to be a „big lie,“ a Resalat article claimed, suggesting that it was quite possible, that instead of „writing the history“ of the Nazi gas chambers, Western thinkers had „invented history.“ [38] A Tehran Times article defended the rights of scholars to doubt the „so-called Holocaust“ which was the „brainchild of the Zionists,“ designed to „seek sympathies from the West“ and „grab billions of dollars annually“ from them. To keep their „weapon of blackmail vibrant,“ the article continued, they make innocent people like Garaudy the „targets of their irrational attacks.“ [39]


Referring to Garaudy’s trial, an article in Kayhan International typically termed it a „judicial holocaust“ and the „trial of freedom of speech.“ It claimed that the West had become „an obvious hostage“ to the theory of „original sin,“ to the point that countries such as France did not mind even violating their own founding principles just to appease the Zionists. Garaudy was only guilty „of not blindly towing the Zionist line“ of „six million Jews killed.“ By bringing such people to trial, the article added, „Europe wants to atone for its [own] periodic persecution of Jews,“ while Jews „enjoyed every basic right and rose to prominent positions in the Muslim world.“ Oddly, in France, „one can say anything against [French] national interests,“ but a single word „against the preposterous fables of Israel and its vocal lobbies“ was considered a crime. This was the result of „the Semitic myth“ that had been „blown out of proportion“ by the Zionists who controlled „the American state apparatus and economy.“ This „anti-Semitic bug“ has „so horrifyingly bitten the West“ that many seem to consider the Jews as the only Semites, and to turn a blind eye to oppression of the Palestinians. [40] Garaudy was put on trial merely for expressing an „expert judgment,“ that the gas chambers were among „the founding myths of the usurper state known as Israel.“ Trying him was „tantamount to the dawn of a dark era of witch hunting,“ the article concluded. [41]


Tehran Times seemed especially obsessed with the Holocaust. Perhaps „the biggest lie in history,“ one article maintained, took shape during the Nuremberg trials, where confessions „obtained by means of torture“ became „the cornerstone of the official Auschwitz version.“ [42] No one has ever asked the „gas chamber witnesses“ any critical questions and, thus, „the terrible accusation“ of genocide, remained based upon „the lies of a handful of Jewish swindlers like Rudolf Vrba, Filip Mueller and Elie Wiesel,“ and „the confessions of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss who was tortured for three days before signing the statement his tormentors had prepared for him.“ [43] There is no evidence on record for the gassing „of even one human being in a German camp,“ it added, and German documents „directly refute“ the „Holocaust story.“[44] According to an article published in Tehran Times, about 150,000 prisoners died in Auschwitz, „mostly from diseases.“ There were also executions, it admitted, but this was only „for acts of resistance and sabotage.“ Yet, it complained, the „massive reductions“ of the Auschwitz death toll do not affect the „sacrosanct figure“ of six million Jewish victims, which „remains as solid as the pyramids.“ [45] Had Auschwitz been an extermination camp, another article in the Tehran Times suggested, „virtually no Jew would have survived it,“ yet memoirs of former Auschwitz inmates filled entire libraries. Such „professional survivors“ who present themselves as witnesses of the Holocaust are themselves „living proof that the alleged extermination of the Jews did not take place.“ [46]


Another Tehran Times article reiterated that the Holocaust, „one of the biggest frauds of the outgoing century,“ was a story „made up by Zionists to blackmail the West.“ It regretted that those who dared to reveal ‚the truth‘ were persecuted. One such case was the Swiss Gaston-Armand Amaudruz, who „proved with logic and evidence“ that the Zionists‘ claim was „false and unsubstantiated,“ and was consequently sentenced to one year in prison under the Swiss anti-racism law. Similarly, in Britain, David Irving lost his libel battle in a British court to defend his views on the Holocaust. Yet, while the West paid reparations for „baseless claims,“ it turned a blind eye to the Palestinians‘ suffering. Their attitude, the article declared, was „a token of their subservience to Zionist circles, particularly their submission to the pro-Zionist US administration.“ [47] The Jews claimed a „right to be paranoid,“ another article continued, because they felt that the world was „after them.“ Yet, not only governments, but all major publishing houses, newspapers and the entertainment industry in the US were headed by Jews. However, did being „historically persecuted,“ give them the right to rule the world, to „occupy it, usurp it, control it?“ [48] Most international financial institutions in the world, another article continued, were controlled and run by Zionists. Zionists prepared the ground through propaganda bombardment and brainwashing public opinion. They could even prevent scientific research if its conclusions did not fit their line. Thus, it asserted, Roger Garaudy wrote a book, „based purely on research,“ which challenged the Holocaust and other notions exaggerating the number of Jews killed, but due to Zionist influence in the French judicial system, he was „fined for revealing historical facts.“ [49]


While Garaudy was the main guest of honor in Iran in 1998, other figures known for Holocaust distortion were also welcomed. German-born Fredrick Toben (who lives in Australia) arrived in December 1999. According to Kayhan International article, Toben was sentenced to jail in Germany (but subsequently released) in November 1999 for having exposed the fabrications of the gas chambers. Hitler was criminal, the article agreed, but why distort facts „to magnify the killings of a few thousand Jews into the preposterous figure of six million.“ In the Christian West, it noted, one could insult Jesus Christ and the fundamentals of the faith, but it was „a crime to question the holocaust.“ Any research on the number of Jews killed, brought on „the wrath of Zion.“ [50]


The link between events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Holocaust was made even more frequently following the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000. Reporting from the West Bank, IRNA stated on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, 2001, that that year the commemoration had occurred in the midst of „a genocidal war“ launched by the Jews against the Palestinians. Indeed, the report went on, the brutality and utter callousness of Israeli repression had prompted the analogy between „the German holocaust“ against Jews and „the Jewish holocaust“ against the Palestinians. The siege and encirclement of the Palestinian population, which had effectively turned these towns and villages into „concentration camps,“ IRNA maintained, was hardly an un-Nazi practice. [51]


The Ahmadinejad Factor


Radical views regarding the Holocaust, as noted above, were pronounced clearly long before Ahmadinejad’s presidency. However, Ahmadinejad’s critical tone, his frequent and inflammatory statements, and the fact that he is the incumbent head of state, have combined to further such attitudes in Iran and attract worldwide attention. Moreover, Ahmadinejad’s public support for such a position has encouraged a series of initiatives in Iran − conferences, a caricature contest, widespread media coverage and books.


One might have thought that Ahmadinejad, whose election was due largely to his promise to improve the lot of the underprivileged, would have concentrated on domestic (socio-economic) issues rather than on the Holocaust. Moreover, while Iran’s central objective seems to be buying time until it acquires a nuclear capability, such declarations and the consequent attention to Iranian radicalism would seem to be detrimental to its nuclear ambitions. The presence of American forces stationed close to Iranian borders and US influence encircling Iran, too, might be considered further inducement for Ahmadinejad to pay more attention to the ’near abroad‘ than to threaten to eradicate Israel or question the Holocaust. Yet, Ahmadinejad has taken every opportunity to voice his radical views.


On 26 October 2005, he presented his vision of a world without Israel or the US, urging that Israel be wiped off the face of the map. [52] On 8 December, during the Islamic Conference Organization in Mecca, he made headlines by calling the Holocaust into question. Some European countries maintain that Hitler „burned millions of oppressed Jews in crematoria,“ he said, and „if someone proves the opposite, they convict him and throw him into prison.“ Although he did not accept this claim of the annihilation of European Jewry, even assuming it was true: „Does the killing of oppressed Jews by Hitler“ justify support for the Zionist regime? [53] On 13 December, responding to the international uproar caused by his statements, he added: The Holocaust „has never been presented for a free scientific debate, and has become a red line and a myth that cannot be discussed.“ [54] On 15 December, he went even further. They have invented „a legend“ under the name „Massacre of the Jews,“ he said, which they hold higher than God, religion and the prophets. „Why are you using those killings as a pretext to come to the heart of the Islamic world and dear Palestine and impose a phony Zionist regime?“ he asked. He then appealed to Europe: „If you have committed a crime, it’s good if you allocate a part of your country or Europe, America, Canada, or Alaska to them so that they can establish [there] a country for themselves.“ [55]


In January 2006, following the Danish cartoon imbroglio, Ahmadinejad announced a Holocaust cartoon contest and an ‚academic‘ conference to be held later in the year. Why, he asked, was it acceptable to defame the Prophet of Islam but not simply to question the veracity of an historical event? On 11 February 2006, in a televised address to a rally, he referred to Western scorn for Holocaust denial as „a medieval way of thinking.“ [56] Ahmadinejad often frames the issue around the identity of his interlocutor, such as his open letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and interview with Der Spiegel, in which he emphasized the supposed injustice of blaming innocent young Germans and hinted at a global conspiracy propagating this myth to further Zionist and Israeli interests. [57] Since early 2006, however, Ahmadinejad has focused on his purported desire for an honest intellectual examination of the issue and its historical implications.[58] Thus, a consistent feature of his position is that regardless of the historical facts surrounding the Holocaust, the „real holocaust“ is that which the Israelis are perpetrating against the Palestinians.


Ahmadinejad’s announcement of a conference on the Holocaust spawned worldwide condemnation and the meeting was postponed on numerous occasions. However, the „Review of the Holocaust: Global Vision“ conference ultimately took place on 11−12 December 2006. Rasoul Mousavi, head of the Foreign Ministry’s Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS), which organized the event, explained the need for the conference as an opportunity for scholars to discuss the subject „away from Western taboos and the restriction imposed on them in Europe.“ [59] Thus, the alleged lack of academic freedom of inquiry regarding the Holocaust became the premise for holding such a conference. This notion is reflected in the IPIS call for papers:


Recently, ‚the Holocaust‘ turned into a main factor to influence the history and even the destiny of certain nations. The Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS) believes that a suitable scientific and research opportunity and space shall be provided for researchers and for those interested in order to clarify the hidden and open corners of this issue, which is considered as the very important preoccupation of our world today. [60]


The participation of six delegates from the Jewish ultra-Orthodox and anti-Zionist Neturei Karta received particular attention. While this group does not deny the Holocaust or challenge the validity of accepted death toll figures, they deemed their front-row presence at the event important „to lessen the hatred present in the entire Arab people against Jews,“ according to Jerusalem representative of the group, Israel Hirsch. [61] However, their attendance can better be explained by the features common to both Neturei Karta’s ideology and Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israel rhetoric. Acknowledging the veracity of the Holocaust, Neturei Karta’s Rabbi Yisroel Feldman stated in his address prepared for the conference (and read there by Rabbi Aharon Cohen): „There is also no moral justification for using these events to dispossess and occupy another people who have nothing whatsoever to do with what was done in Europe. Let Europe make amends for what took place if they so desire, not the Palestinians.“ [62]


The remainder of the conference participants can be classified loosely into two groups: pseudo-academics and leaders of extremist groups from the West, who are alienated in their respective countries due to their radical views; and individuals from Arab and Muslim countries. Those belonging to the first group − including ex-Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and prominent revisionist thinkers such as Frederick Toben, director of Australia’s Adelaide Institute, American Bradley R. Smith, and French Professor Robert Faurisson − appeared to have dominated the floor at the conference, easily overshadowing Iranian and Muslim representatives.


Reflecting the notions discussed at the conference, the leading submissions to the Iranian Holocaust cartoon contest were also on display. Using traditional antisemitic stereotypes, the cartoons portrayed Israel’s exploitation of the Holocaust, to justify brutality in the Middle East and oppression of Palestinians. The winning entry, submitted by a Moroccan, ‚Abdallah Derkaoui, depicted an Israeli crane piling large cement blocks on Israel’s security wall, gradually obscuring al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem; an image of a Nazi concentration camp covered the wall. [63]


Such attitudes towards the Holocaust by top Iranian officials, obsessive media treatment of the issue, and the lack of alternative sources of information, combined with a negative image of the Jews and denunciations of Israeli politics, gave such contentions additional force.


Recently, there has been a proliferation of pseudo-academic and objective studies in Iran. In a way, the IPIS conference was an example of an attempt to conduct a supposedly fair academic review. Individual studies or collective works quickly followed. One such book authored by Mohammad Taghi Taghipour, Beyond the Holocaust Scene, was published by the Tehran-based Political Science & Research Institute (PSRI).[64] In the preface, PSRI states that its aim is to expose the legendary nature and historical distortion of the Holocaust. Contrary to the efforts of the Zionists‘ propaganda machinery, it maintained, free thinkers were now casting doubts on such claims. The book promises to expose in a „comprehensive, but precise, academic, and documented“ study the Zionists‘ false claims about the issue (pp. 7−8). It contends that there was no Nazi scheme to eliminate Jews, although there were − as in any other war − prisoner camps where people from all nationalities were held. It also maintains that in 1942 typhoid broke out in some German camps, including Auschwitz, which led to some casualties (pp. 88−90). According to the study, recent documents show that there were no gas chambers in the Third Reich (pp. 95−6). In short, according to Taghipour, all available documentation confirmed that the Holocaust was „one big historical lie“ created by world Zionism to advance their political goal of a Jewish state. Further, Europeans and Americans − to compensate for a crime that never took place − agreed to this scheme for which the Palestinians have to pay the price (pp. 117−118, 126).


The Historical Studies Quarterly published by PSRI devoted its fall 2006 edition to the Holocaust. Among the titles were: „Did 6 Million Really Die?“ and „Truth Burning Furnaces.“ [65] Another new book on the Holocaust, The Place of the Holocaust in the Zionist Project (Myth or Reality), by Sayyed Mohammad Tarahi, was published by the Center for Islamic Revolution Documents. [66] The book maintains that the Holocaust was an instrument, or a legend (afsaneh), created to justify the establishment of the Jewish state. The book promises to prove scientifically the various dimensions of the Holocaust myth ( Ostureh) (pp. 17−21). In its five chapters the book explores the so-called historical, cultural, religious, political, and economic aspects of the Holocaust. Accordingly, the promotion of this myth was instrumental in achieving the Zionists‘ political goals and making it a symbol of their sufferings ( mazlumiyyat) in order to extract reparations. It concludes that no nation should be rebuked for emphasizing its sufferings, yet propagating and profiting unjustly from them should be admonished (pp. 261−7).


Additionally, Iranian TV programming has increasingly broadcast content that denigrates Jews and distorts the historical significance of the Holocaust. Under the guise of scholarly and learned discussion they transmit venomous views about the Jews and the Holocaust, which are disseminated to the wider population.


Criticism of Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust rhetoric has not been limited to Western figures; opposition has also emerged from among intellectuals and members of the Iranian Jewish community. Referring to the Tehran conference, Sadegh Zibakalam, a political science professor at Tehran University and one of the most vociferous opponents of Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust arguments, stated:

As an Iranian, I’m perplexed and astonished by the actions of our Foreign Ministry. I don’t know what is the honor of gathering a group of anti-Semites, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, and racists—and bring them to Iran, for what?… And this is happening at a time when our nuclear case is at the UN and we have to do our best to gain the trust of the international community [ sic].[67]


Elsewhere, he asserted that the Foreign Ministry was trying „to please the president,“ and in so doing failed to properly inform him of the ramifications of his declarations. Other like-minded individuals joined in slamming Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric for its negative impact on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its reputation in the international community. ‚Abbas ‚Abdi, one of the student leaders of the 1979 US embassy siege, warned of the „political and economic price“ that would accompany Ahmadinejad’s initiatives. „What do we gain by denying the Holocaust,“ he asked in an interview with E’temad-e Melli. „It is best for us as humans to condemn the Holocaust and even participate in its memorials in order to confront Zionist crimes.“[68] The exiled Iranian cartoonist Nikahang Kosar viewed the Holocaust cartoon exhibition as „disrespect to the survivors“ of the Holocaust and those who suffered during the war, adding: „I don’t think it’s very humane to use this tool to loathe Israel or to question the legitimacy of the Israeli regime.“[69] Haroun Yahaya’i, head of Iran’s Jewish community, also spoke out. Unlike the political and economic concerns of intellectuals and cartoonists, Yahaya’i’s remarks stemmed from personal offense and a sense of betrayal. He described the Holocaust as one of the 20th century’s „most obvious and saddest events“ and asked: „How is it possible to ignore all the undeniable evidence existing for the killing and exile of the Jews in Europe during World War II?“ Holding a „Holocaust denial seminar“ in Iran would not achieve anything for the Iranians, merely soothe „the complexes of racists.“ [70]




What then are Iran’s reasons for promulgating such views? The immediate explanation may simply be a sincere belief in the need to eliminate Israel and a conviction that the Holocaust was a primary tool used to establish the Jewish state and justify the suppression of the Palestinians. America’s involvement in Iraq and growing Iranian oil income may have contributed to a perceived sense of strength. In addition, Ahmadinejad may hope to consolidate his political position at home by giving voice to extremist views against Israel. With Iran’s domestic problems continuing to multiply, he may also be trying to divert attention away from economic issues and toward an external enemy in order to mollify public opinion. Finally, voicing such opinions and taking the lead in supporting the Palestinian cause may be Ahmadinejad’s way of promoting Iranian leadership in the Islamic world. Regardless of the reasons for his frequent harangues on the Holocaust, the strong sentiments held against Jews (although not necessarily against the Jews of Iran) by the president and the media serve to further radicalize such views in Iranian society.


[*]   Für die Rechte zur Weiterveröffentlichung bedanken wir uns beim Autor.
Professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and African History, Director of the Center of Iranian Studies and Incumbent of the Parviz and Pouran Nazarian Chair for Modern Iranian Studies, Tel Aviv University.

[1] For a detailed analysis on the developments discussed here in a broader historical perspective, see David Menashri, Post-Revolutionary Politics in Iran: Religion, Society and Power (London, 2000). For a discussion of the Jews in Iran, see David Menashri, „The Jews of Iran: Between the Shah and Khomeini,“ in Sander Gilman and Steven Katz (eds.), Anti-Semitism in Times of Crisis (New York University Press, 1991), pp. 353−71; idem, „The Pahlavi Monarchy and the Islamic Revolution,“ in Houman Sarshar (ed.), Esther’s Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews (Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History, 2002), pp. 381−402; see also Antisemitism Worldwide, 1994-2001, Stephen Roth Institute, Tel Aviv University.

I wish to thank the research assistants in the Center for Iranian Studies − Brandon Friedman, Rachel Kantz and Michael Maze − for their help in research for this paper.

[2] Bernard Lewis, The Jews of Islam (Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 166.

[3] Habib Levy, Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran (Costa Mesa, CA, 1999), pp. 483, 495.

[4] Eliz Sanasarian, Religious Minorities in Iran (Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 46.

[5] Amnon Netzer, „Anti-Semitism in Iran: 1925-1950,“ and Michael Zand, „The Image of the Jew among Iranians during the Second Half of the Twentieth Century: 1945-1979,“ Pe’amim 29 (1986), pp. 5−31 and 109−39, respectively (in Hebrew); Jaleh Pir-Nazar, „Chehreh-ye Yahud dar Athar-e Seh Nevisandeh-ye Motejadded-e Irani,“ Iran-Nameh 13/4 (Spring 1995), pp. 483−502.

[6] Sanasarian, Religious Minorities in Iran, p. 110.

[7] Ruhollah Khomeini, Al-Hukumah al-Islamiyyah (1970), pp. 7, 83, 121. See also Hamid Algar, Islam and Revolution: Writing and Declarations of Imam Khomeini (Berkeley, 1981), p. 127.

[8] Ruhollah Khomeini, Towzih al-Masa’el (Tehran, 1962), pp. 15, 18.

[9] Farhang-e Islami va Ta’limat-e Dini, fifth year elementary school, 1981/2 edition, pp. 121−2.

[10] Jomhuri-ye Islami, 20 Sept. 1982.

[11] Kar va Kargar, 17 Jan. 1998.

[12] Sura of the Table, 82, in Ettela`at, 28 Feb. 1984.

[13] Kayhan, 25 Feb. 1984 (all references to Kayhan are to the paper published in Tehran). Majlis Speaker ‚Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani pointed out a similar connection in a speech in the House: Kayhan, 26 Feb. 1984.

[14] ‚Ali Akbar Behbudikhwah, „Naqd Toujihat-e Ta`rikhi-ye Sahionism dar moured-e Mashru’iyyat-e Rejim-e Qods,“ Siyasat-e Khareji 2 (Tir-Sharivar 13681989), pp. 314−17.

[15] `Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran va Masa’leh-e Felastin (Iran and the Question of Palestine) (Tehran: 1997), pp. IV−VI, in English, Introduction , and pp. 89−90, 181−2.

[16] Salam, 1 Jan. 1998.

[17] Hamshahri, 15 Nov. 1998 − DR.

[18] Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari, „Islam va Masihiyat-e Orupa’i“ (Islam and European Christianity), Siyasat-e Khareji 4/3 (Mehr-Azar 1989), pp. 409-15. See also Mohsen Kadivar and Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari, „Din, Modara va Khoshunat“ (Religion, Tolerance and Violence), Kiyan 45 (Jan.-March 1999), pp. 6−19.

[19] CNN, 7 Jan. 1998.

[20] Jomhuri-ye Islami, 10 Jan. 1998.

[21] Kayhan, 31 Oct. 1994.

[22] Radio Tehran, 26 Feb. – DR, 28 Feb. 1994.

[23] Kayhan al-‚Arabi, 27 Feb. – DR, 7 March 1994.

[24] Kayhan, 11 March – DR, 18 March. Another article reiterated the comparison between Zionism and Nazism following Operation Grapes of Wrath: Kayhan, 21 April 1996.

[25] Meir Litvak and Esther Webman, „The Representation of the Holocaust in the Arab World,“ Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Studies ; Tel Aviv University, 2006; in Hebrew; idem, „The Representation of the Holocaust in the Arab World,“ The Journal of Israeli History, 1 (Spring 2004), pp. 100−15.

[26] Meir Litvak, IranPulse, Center for Iranian Studies, Tel Aviv University, 3 (11 Sept. 2006).

[27] Tehran Times, 28 Dec. 1997.

[28]. Kayhan, 1 March 1994.

[29]. Ettela’at, 24 Feb.; Kayhan, 1 March 1994.

[30] Radio Tehran, 20 Oct. – DR, 21 Oct. 1994. Similarly, Kayhan, 1 March 1994.

[31] Le Figaro, 12 Sept. – DR, 13 Sept. 1994.

[32] See

[33] IRNA, 20 April 1998 − DR.

[34] Tehran TV, 19 Jan. 1998 − DR.

[35] IRNA, 24 April 2001. Palestinian President, Mahmud ‚Abbas accused the Zionist Movement, in his doctoral thesis, of cooperating with the Nazis, due to their shared interests. Litvak and Webman, „The Representation of the Holocaust“ (in English), p. 108.

[36] Tehran Times, 7 May 2000.

[37] Jomhuri-ye Islami, 14 Jan. 1999.

[38] Resalat, 13 Jan. 1998 − DR.

[39] Tehran Times, 4 April 1998.

[40] Kayhan International, 20 April 1998.

[41] Kayhan International, 19 Jan. 1998.

[42] Tehran Times, 25 Jan. 2001.

[43] Tehran Times, 17 Feb. 2001.

[44] Tehran Times, 1 Feb. 2001.

[45] Tehran Times, 29 Jan. 2001.

[46] Tehran Times,19 Feb. 2001.

[47] Tehran Times, 10, 11, 12 April 2000.

[48] Tehran Times, 28 Sept. 2000.

[49] Tehran Times, 4 July 1999.

[50] Kayhan International, 6 Dec. 1999.

[51] IRNA, 19 April 2001.

[52] The Guardian, 27 Oct. 2005.

[53] MEMRI, „The Role of Holocaust Denial in the Ideology and Strategy of the Iranian Regime,“ 15 Dec. 2006.

[54] MEMRI, „Iranian Leaders: Statements and Positions (Part I),“ 5 Jan. 2006.

[55] MEMRI, „The Role of Holocaust Denial in the Ideology and Strategy of the Iranian Regime,“ 15 Dec. 2006.

[56] MEMRI, „Ahmadinejad on the ‚Myth of the Holocaust‘,“ 1 4 Feb. 2006.

[57] IRNA, 28 Aug. and Der Spiegel, interview with Ahmadinejad, 30 May 2006.

[58] MEMRI, „The Resolution of the Holocaust Issue Will End in the Destruction of Israel,“ 15 June 2006.

[59] International Herald Tribune, 11 Dec. 2006.

[60] IPIS Call for Papers:

[61] Ynet News, 12 Dec. 2006.

[62] Neturei Karta website:

[63] AP, 2 Nov. 2006; ; hasen/spages/782695.html. For the winning cartoons see: holocaust/index.htm.

[64] Mohammad Taghi Taghipour, Pas Pardeh-e Holocaust (Tehran, 20067).

[65] Faslnameh-e Motalle’at-e Ta’rikhi, Vizhenameh-e Holocaust, 14 (Fall 2006).

[66] Sayyed Mohammad Tarahi, Jaigah-e Holocaust dar Projeh-e Zahionizm (Ostureh ya vaqe’iyyat) (Tehran, 2006).

[67] Radio Free EuropeRadio Liberty, 11 Dec. 2006.

[68] Khaleej Times, 14 Dec. 2006.

[69] RFERL, 18 Aug. 2006.

[70] RFERL, 13 Feb. 2006.





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