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Talking to Iran’s Only Jewish Member of Parliament
Morris Motamed is the only Jewish member of Parliament in Iran’s Majlis, and is the official representative of the largest (25,000) Jewish community in the Middle East diaspora outside of Israel. The Persian Jewish community stretches back nearly 3000 years to around 680 BC when Jews fled King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia and were freed from Babylonian captivity by Persia’s King Cyrus the Great. Cyrus also underwrote the rebuilding of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
But now those ties are under strain. President Ahmedinejad has repeatedly offended the Iranian Jewish community with his attacks on Israel and the Holocaust, and there is worry for the community’s safety if Israel attacks Iran. Concerns abound that the Jewish community could be pressured as they were during the Israel-Hezbollah War of 2006. After several synagogues in the southern city of Shiraz were attacked during the conflict, Jews held a pro-Hezbollah rally to prove their loyalty to the regime. In October, 2007 the Israeli press disclosed that "Danger!" letters had been sent to Iranian Jews by Jews in the diaspora warning them to flee ahead of an impending military attack on Iran.
Schuh: What is the condition of the Jewish community in Iran?
Motamed: Fortunately we have no problem in the Jewish community’s living conditions. People often ask if there was any change after President Khatami’s was succeeded by President Ahmedinejad and if there was any change in conditions for religious minorities, especially Jews? We always answered that fortunately and happily, that there was no change, and we hope that there will be no change in a negative direction..
Do you ever consider emigrating to Israel or the USA?
Emigration? I haven’t thought about it and haven’t decided anything. For the time being all my family members are living in the United States.
What is most difficult about life in Iran?
There is no difference between the way of life of the minority communities and the main body of the society, which means the Muslims.
A couple of years ago, it was reported that the Iranian government was going to force Jews to wear a star or marking on their clothes. What was the truth behind this?
Unfortunately, this was fake news published in a Canadian newspaper. I considered this news a big insult to the religious minorities of Iran. I refuted the story vigorously, , to the point that the source of the news and the Canadian government officially apologized to the Iranian government. The fake story was published in a newspaper following a resolution that was being talked about in Parliament on fashion and fabrics – and they twisted it.
Please comment on the alleged statement of Iranian President Ahmedinejad’s threat to "wipe Israel off the map". What did he actually say in Persian?
One of the basic principles of democracy is freedom of speech, so that a person can freely express his ideas and viewpointsas did Mr. Ahmedinejad. So after his speech we observed that some Iranian political authorities talked in a different manner ad said that Iran doesn’t seek the wiping out or destruction of any nation from the page of history or from the map.
What do you think of the Iranian nuclear program?
As a Jewish Iranian, I consider enrichment of peaceful nuclear technology the obvious right of Iranian society. What is sad here — and I’m so sorry about it — is that before the Islamic Revolution, we witnessed that western Europe and America pressuring Iran to obtain nuclear technology and establish a nuclear power plant. Now the idea is brought up: "Why do you want nuclear technology? What is the point of nuclear technology for you when you have rich resources like fuel and gas and oil?" My question here is why at that earlier time, the problem of natural resources was not brought up?
Please comment on Ahmedinejad’s statement that the Holocaust was a myth.
About two years ago when Mr. Ahmedinejad denied the great tragedy of the Holocaust, I immediately, as the representative of the Jewish community of Iran, held a press conference and expressed my sadness about the statements of the Iranian President. I declared his words a very big insult to all Jewish communities all around the world.
Does Ahmedinejad actually believe that there were no Jews killed in the Holocaust?
Fortunately after what he said about the Holocaust the first time, we found in his next speeches, he became more moderate. But not to the extent that he apologized or withdrew his statement.
What about the Holocaust conference held recently here?
When the Holocaust conference was being held in Iran, I sent an official letter to the institute in charge of holding this conference. I expressed sadness about the holding such an event whose fubnction was to deny the greatest tragedy in human history, and to undermine the rights of victims of the terrible genocide. I complained about it. Fortunately and happily, we witnessed that this conference was not welcomed as the organizers had been expecting. Not in Iran or in the world.
Did you protest the attendance of the Jewish group Neturei Karta?
Neturei Karta has traveled to Iran many times for religious dialogues between faiths. It is natural that I meet with them.
Recently, an Israeli government official has threatened the Palestinians in Gaza with a "Holocaust". Could you comment on the use of this word in this context?
Because of what is going on nowadays in Gaza… where we are witnessing the killing and injuring of innocent people — old men, children and women — as a representative of the Jewish community, I’m very sorry. We have set forth our revulsion on this matter, with a declaration. ‘Holocaust means ‘genocide’. Here’s a person who knows what occurred during the second world war by Holocaust, and who now himself wants to bring up the specter of another Holocaust. This kind of statment is shameful and embarassing.
Haaretz has mentioned cash incentives for Iranian Jews to relocate to Israel?
Iranian Jews are free. But three months ago we published a declaration that the freedom of decision making for Iran’s Jews is not for sale. Great numbers of Jews have been offered this infucement , but we don’t want to leave our homeland. We prefer to be here.
While we have been talking today in Tehran, your answers have been very moderate. But if you did have serious problems here – would you really be free to discuss them with a foreign reporter? Or would you be punished when I leave?
Never. I have had many, many press conferences… I express my ideas. There have been no contacts or punishments. I don’t know what you mean.
For criticizing the President?
No fortunately, nothing has happened yet and I hope in future also nothing will happen.
Footnote: In recent weeks, President Ahmedinejad has amplified his criticism of Israel by calling it a "stinking corpse" doomed to annihilation. Local authorities have burned down seven ancient synagogues in Tehran neighborhoods in the name of neighborhood renovation. Clerics recently announced a plan to erase Iran’s non-Islamic heritage by destroying the tomb of Cyrus the Great.
Morris Motamed is 63 years old, born in Hamadan, Iran and trained as an engineer and cartographer in the field of Aerial mapping, field mapping, site mapping, satellite images. “This is my field of study and this is a consulting engineers company of which I am one of the owners of this company.”
Simultaneous translation by Meisam Jebelli, Iranian government interpreter.
TRISH SCHUH writes about Middle East issues and is a member of the UN Correspondents Association and Military Reporters and Editors. She is at www.BloggingTheJihad.com