Iranian Jews In Israel, Protests, And The Palestinians – Analysis


By Lior Sternfeld*

(FPRI) — Masha Amini was killed on September 16, 2022, by the Islamic Republic’s morality police. She was arrested for not wearing her hijab properly and died while in custody. Her murders have not been punished. The news of her death sparked protests across Iran and the world. Protests in Toronto and BerlinLos Angeles, and Paris, followed the lead of Iranian women and those in the diaspora and chanted “Zan, Zandegi, Azadi” (Woman, Life, Freedom). It was uplifting for many to see hundreds of thousands of people connecting in the most straightforward manner to the Iranian struggle against oppression. Protests have also occurred beyond the west, and have encountered some interesting dynamics in the Middle East, especially in Israel since the protest wave began in the run-up to elections. 

Israel has a relatively large community of Iranian descent (either Iran-born or second and third generation). Some estimates put the number at 250,000 individuals, including second and third generation. Sociologically, they are identified as Mizrahim (in Hebrew: Oriental Jews; even though it’s very simplistically framed). Many feel a solid connection to their Iranian identity, cultural heritage, and more. A few reports over the last decade, when Benjamin Netanyahu first tried to organize an international coalition to attack Iran, show most Iranian Jews in Israel opposed military action against Iran. This was particularly interesting because Iranian Jews, as part of the Mizrahi demographic, also tend to vote for right-leaning parties. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to assume that many support Netanyahu and the Likud party in any other aspect. 

Many Iranian Jews in Israel feel a close attachment to  Iran. They miss Iran. They want to travel and see the synagogues, shrines, mountains, and shores; they want to taste their childhood flavors and hear their Persian language in its home; they are organized in several cultural organizations, bring Iranian (expats) musicians to perform, have celebrations and gatherings in parks, and more. There is a district in south Tel Aviv that is widely known as Little Persia where one can find spices and goods from Iran and authentic Persian restaurants. When the protest started, Iranian Jews began to organize rallies in support of the Iranian women. They, too, chanted Zan, Zandegi, Azadi. They, too, expressed their anger towards the regime that has oppressed Iranian society for 43 years and stole their ability to be part of it on a regular basis. News outlets reported on demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in early October. The Tel Aviv municipal building lit up Women, Life, Freedom in solidarity. Women cut their hair on the spot in support of their sisters in Tehran, Sanandaj, Tabriz, and Shiraz. Toward the end of the month, on October 29th, Rabin Square in Tel Aviv hosted what seemed to be a massive gathering for the same purpose, marking Mahsa Amini’s ‘arba’in (40th day of mourning). It is genuinely touching to see this display of solidarity. 

During October, the month in which a number of demonstrations of solidarity with Iranian women took place, another uprising had taken place much closer to home. That month alone, there were 230 attacks on Palestinian olive harvesters.  The Israeli activist, Adi Argov, reported on thirty Palestinians who died in clashes with the Israel Defense Forces and settlers, 720 wounded, 219 were put under administrative arrest, 517 arrested, and twenty-seven houses demolished. The Palestinian struggle gets no empathy in Israel today, neither among Mizrahi nor Ashkenazi Jews. 

There is a long-documented history of the Mizrahi-Palestinian relations post-1948. While some believed that Mizrahi Jews could and should have been a bridge between Israel and its Palestinian population, and then to the Arab world and the greater Middle East, reality proved more difficult. Efforts of Mizrahi Jews to join the Israeli (Ashkenazi flavored) melting pot, resulted in them turning their backs against their Middle Eastern culture and erasure of their own history and culture. In the ethnic, racial, and social hierarchy, one of the ways to stay afloat or advance for the Mizrahim was to keep themselves above the Palestinians. The systematic disenfranchisement and banishment of the Palestinian citizens of Israel (and later in the occupied territories) was orchestrated by the Ashkenazi establishment and was enthusiastically endorsed by the Mizrahim. The Mizrahim became the front-line troopers of this policy. For example, Mizrahim were the majority of the border police, that was in daily friction with the Palestinian population starting the early 1950s.

Israel is a polity made up of a fascinating mixture of diasporas with strong connections to homelands, and at the same time, some Jewish homelands, like Iran, sometimes are subject to severe dehumanization in the Israeli political discourse. Sympathy with the Iranian protests helps diminish and thaw this dehumanization. However, the above set up an ironic situation in which the Israeli public backed a courageous struggle against authoritarianism in Iran weeks before voting in governments that offer few solutions to the plight of their Palestinian neighbors. The prominent right-wing party, Likud, got thirty-two seats, and the far right, which are the ideological successors of Rabbi Meir Kahane, a party whose ballot is marked by the letter T for transfer (of the Arabs), got fourteen seats. Kahane was an American-born Israeli politician. He was elected to the Knesset in 1984 and was condemned by every single member of the parliament at the time, including the Likud party. His policies were equated with the Nazis and the Supreme Court in Israel banned him from running again in 1988. He was considered the very far fringes of the political spectrum. In 2022 his movement and successors are as mainstream as it gets. Shas, the Sephardi orthodox party, got eleven seats. The right-wing scored eighty-two seats out of 120. The center-right party Yesh Atid got twenty-four seats. RAAM, the Palestinian Islamist party that was part of the outgoing coalition, got five seats. And the left and center-left got nine seats (five HADASH-TAAL; four Labor). So, the vast majority of Israeli voted for 106 representatives who more or less wished to ignore the Palestinians.

Somewhat relatedly, after the Iranian national soccer team refused to sing the anthem at the World Cup game against England, Israelis lauded the courage and the civil disobedience practiced by the Iranian soccer players. I concur. I think that this silent protest speaks volumes on the merits of this specific moment in the Iranian movement. The same values of respected civil disobedience and protest do not apply to Palestinian soccer players in the Israeli national team. It has long been a national sport in Israel to examine who sings and who does not sing HaTikva, Israel’s national anthem, which talks about the yearning of the Jewish soul and the Jewish right to be free in the land of Zion and Jerusalem. The Palestinian players of course get special attention. There were calls to remove from the team any player who doesn’t sing. Bibers Natkho, Israel’s first Muslim captain, lost his position over his refusal to sing the anthem. Why, then, does a similar act show courage and morality in one place, while it is considered a cause for removal from the team on the other?

In his groundbreaking book Iranophobia: The Logic of an Israeli Obsession, Haggai Ram analyzes the Israeli fear of becoming Iran. Of losing the liberal-democratic-secular elements of the state and the society and because of demographic trends and the growing share of Mizrahim and religious parties, Israel would become another theocracy. At a moment when the ethnocratic and theocratic elements in the Israeli political map are becoming increasingly more influential, it is likely that the glimpses of hope from the resistance to the Islamic Republic allows Israelis to imagine that there is a turning point that can “restore normality” in Iran. Whether they can rationalize that along with their support for increasingly repressive policies towards Arab Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza may prove to be one of the more salient and contradictory tensions of the future of Israeli politics.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities. 

*About the author: Lior Sternfeld is an associate professor of History and Jewish Studies at Penn State University. His first book Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth Century Iran was published by Stanford University Press in 2018. He recently published with Iranian journalists Hassan Sarbakhshian and Parvaneh Vahidmanesh the book Jews of Iran: A Photographic Chronicle (Penn State University Press, 2022). Sternfeld is currently working on a new research project on the Iranian Jewish Diaspora in Israel and the United States.

Source: This article was published by FPRI

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

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