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Despite tension between Iran and Israel, Iran’s Jewish minority feels at home

Jewish people have called Iran home for nearly 3,000 years. The Trump administration and U.S. ally Israel often depict the Iranian government as composed of anti-Semitic radical Islamists bent on destroying Israel. But within Iran, many of the estimated 15,000 Jews say they're safe and happy living in the Islamic Republic. Reza Sayah takes a rare inside look at life for Iran's Jewish minority.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, the major faiths of the Middle East predate the borders and conflicts of today. Perhaps nowhere does the resonance of antiquity and the mandates of faith collide with politics than in Iran.

    That is particularly true within its Jewish community, which has existed there for nearly three millennia.

    For many of the Jews of Iran, it is fair to say, life is complicated.

    Special correspondent Reza Sayah reports.

  • Reza Sayah:

    At Abrishami Synagogue, worshipers recite early morning prayers. They remove the Torah from its ark to read passages from Judaism's most sacred book. Jews practice this ritual the world over every day.

    But this ceremony is taking place in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a country that's a sworn enemy of the state of Israel, but home to what some estimates say is the second largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside of Israel.

    Life for you as a Jew is good in Iran?

  • Siamak Morsadegh:

    Yes.

  • Reza Sayah:

    You're happy here?

  • Siamak Morsadegh:

    If I wasn't happy, I can immigrate.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Siamak Morsadegh is a Jewish resident of the capital, Tehran. Inside his office, Moses is on one wall, Iran's supreme leader on the other.

    But you don't want to leave?

  • Siamak Morsadegh:

    Everyone who wants to leave can leave.

  • Reza Sayah:

    But you don't want to leave?

  • Siamak Morsadegh:

    I don't want. I am living here. And I want to live here.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Twenty years ago, Morsadegh's wife wanted the couple to move to America. She left. He stayed, choosing Iran's more conservative culture.

    So you gave up your wife to stay in Iran?

  • Siamak Morsadegh:

    Yes. Yes, it's very important for me. I think that I cannot live without Iranian culture. I can't tolerate my wife to dress in bikini in seaside, because I grew up in Iranian culture.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Today, Morsadegh is an elected member of Iran's Parliament, proof, he says, that Jews here are a respected minority with religious rights.

    You say everything is fine for the Jewish community is fine.

  • Siamak Morsadegh:

    No, no. No one can say that everything is fine.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Well, you say most things are fine.

  • Siamak Morsadegh:

    Are improving.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Improving.

    Many people outside of Iran are going to remark that you're not being completely truthful, you're not being completely open. How can you convince people?

  • Siamak Morsadegh:

    I cannot convince a man who don't want to understand our condition, of course.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Conditions for Jews in Iran have seen many ups and downs. Jews began settling in Iran in the 6th century B.C., when Iran was the Persian Empire and its king, Cyrus, freed Jews from Babylonian captivity.

  • Homayoon Sameyeh (through translator):

    We have been in Iran for 2,700 years.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Homayoon Sameyeh is the president of the Tehran Jewish Committee, a 700 year-old organization that works on behalf of Iran's Jews.

    His office walls are lined with past generations of Iran's Jewish leaders.

  • Homayoon Sameyeh (through translator):

    Iranians have given us a lot of good. We are Iranians ourselves. Sure, there are times when things happen. But our community always stands strong and demands our rights.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Iran's Jews faced perhaps their toughest challenge soon after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Islamist revolutionaries linked many Jews to the regime of the ousted shah of Iran. They declared Israel an enemy of Islam.

    Several Jews were arrested. Habib Elghanian, a well-known Jewish businessman, was executed.

  • Homayoon Sameyeh (through translator):

    They said Mr. Elghanian was a Zionist, but I still don't believe that was the case. He had big factory; 99 percent of his employees were Muslims. He invested 100 percent of his money back into Iran, but he was still executed.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Fearing for their safety, many Jews left the country. Sameyeh insists, today, Iran's Jews are safe and respected again.

  • Homayoon Sameyeh (through translator):

    In the beginning of the revolution, there was a lot of pressure on minorities, especially for Jews. There was immigration because people felt insecure. With time, things have improved. Fortunately, right now in Iran, we have complete freedom to carry out our religious duties.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Today, an estimated 15,000 Jews still live here. Most are in the capital, Tehran. There are five Jewish private schools here, several kosher restaurants. And Tehran's oldest charity hospital was founded and is still run by Jews.

    Tehran is a city with 13 synagogues. Some were confiscated by the government after the revolution. Jewish leaders say when they sued to get them back, Iran's Revolutionary Court ruled in their favor. Today, all 13 are open, with little or no security measures in place.

    Here's one of the most remarkable things about this synagogue. In a region where almost all synagogues are protected with tight security, metal detectors, even armed guards, the doors to this synagogue are open. Worshipers, or anyone else, for that matter, can walk right in.

    Manouchehr Behravan used to live in New York City. One thing he values in Iran, he says, is the absence of anti-Semitism.

    Have you ever experienced any violent acts of anti-Semitism here in Iran?

  • Manouchehr Behravan (through translator):

    No, I feel safe. I feel safer here than probably the United States, because, in the United States, a lot of people have access to guns.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Three years ago, the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani recognized Saturday as the Jewish Sabbath and a religious holiday. Parents have permission to stay home from work, and children stay home from school.

    For Yafa Mahgerefteh, it was a sign.

  • Yafa Mahgerefteh (through translator):

    It showed that they acknowledge us and our faith, because this is part of our religion. Thank God they accepted it.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Iran's Jews say they're also free to travel to Israel, a trip the government bans for all other citizens.

    Not everything is perfect for Iran's Jews. They're still kept away from senior government and military positions. Some are believed to be closely monitored by Iran's intelligence agencies, and many people question if they're openly expressing their true feelings.

    And they find themselves in a seemingly difficult position. They live in a country whose leaders are sworn enemies of Israel, the homeland of their faith.

    Iran doesn't recognize Israel as a legitimate state. Hard-liners still scream "Death to Israel" at every Friday prayers. And in international sporting events, Iran bans its athletes from competing with Israelis, who often end up winning by forfeit.

    But Jews here say Iranian policy is strictly against the Israeli government and its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, not Jews or Israeli people. It's a policy many Jews here publicly support.

  • Siamak Morsadegh:

    My decision about Israel is the — based on the Iranian national interest. Everyone who is enemy of my country is enemy of me.

  • Reza Sayah:

    And you suggest that Israel is an enemy of Iran?

  • Siamak Morsadegh:

    If Israel behaves in such manner that it's behaving until today, of course is enemy of peace in our part of the world.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Jewish Committee leader Homayoon Sameyeh denounces Israeli policies too.

  • Homayoon Sameyeh (through translator):

    Unfortunately, Mr. Netanyahu doesn't have the desire to improve relations with the world or Iran.

  • Reza Sayah:

    But he also rejects fellow Iranians who chant "Death to Israel."

  • Homayoon Sameyeh (through translator):

    It's better to talk about life and peace in the world, instead of wishing someone's death. I hope God guides us in the right path.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Many Jews here hope Tehran and Tel Aviv will one day resolve their differences.

    But, even if they do, home, they say, will always be Iran.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Reza Sayah in Tehran.

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