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Religious Minorities

Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979

November 29, 2021
Behnam Gholipour
41 min read
Jews have been living in Iran since Biblical times and numbered more than 65,000 in the 1950s
Jews have been living in Iran since Biblical times and numbered more than 65,000 in the 1950s
Since 1979 the Islamic Republic of Iran's virulent antisemitism has forced many to leave
Since 1979 the Islamic Republic of Iran's virulent antisemitism has forced many to leave
Historical animosity toward Jews is now entangled with the political skirmish between Iran and Israel, and conspiracy theories promoted by the Iranian state
Historical animosity toward Jews is now entangled with the political skirmish between Iran and Israel, and conspiracy theories promoted by the Iranian state

Special report by Behnam Gholipour

Jews have been living in Iran since Biblical times, after Cyrus the Great freed them from captivity in Babylon. But since the 1979 Islamic Revolution the Jewish population of Iran has dwindled to a fraction of its former size.

Those Jews who have remained in Iran under the present rule by Shia clergy are attacked and harassed on three fronts: generalized, historical antagonism toward Jews, the political skirmish between the Islamic Republic and Israel, and allegations of “Crypto-Judaism”.

The Jewish population of Iran stood at more than 65,000 in 1956 and has now fallen to fewer than 20,000. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the lives of Iranian Jews have been dominated by the regime’s hostility towards Israel and systematic Holocaust denial. For the past 40 years, Iranian Jews have been bluntly viewed by the ruling clergy as assets and allies of Israel, and the tragedy of Holocaust has been presented as nothing more than Western propaganda to justify the existence of Israel. As tensions have grown in recent years so too has the harassment of the Jews, both officially and unofficially.

Officially, Judaism is recognized as a “legitimate” religion under the Islamic Republic. The Iranian Constitution states Jews can worship freely and have a representative in the Iranian parliament. They are also granted their own schools, temples and cultural and sports societies – although, under the law, Jewish students are also free to study at any school or university. Jewish institutions and activities are not under surveillance by security and intelligence agencies — or so claims the Islamic Republic.

The reality is different. Since certain elements within the Shia clergy took over governance of Iran, the Jewish community has been viewed as a politically “suspect” minority, as a religious “rival” and as an “ally” of the West when it comes to the Holocaust and other issues of concern to the international Jewish community.

The Tehran Jewish Committee says these emigrations are the result of “constant humiliation of the Jews and unhappy events”. But for obvious reasons, most notably a justified fear of repercussions if its members speak out too forcefully, the Committee has not specified what these “unhappy events” have been.

Members of this body and countless other Jewish people in Iran have been subjected to a welter of injustices due to antisemitism over the past four decades. Iranian Jews have been the main victims of the historic rivalry between Islam and Judaism ever since the conquest of Iran by the Muslims in the 7th century AD, but it has been in the past 40 years that the campaign against Judaism and the Jews has reached unprecedented heights.

Anti-Semitic Propaganda in “Scholarly” Articles

In the past 40 years the propaganda machine of the Islamic Republic has issued thousands of pieces of antisemitic comment. Many are packaged as “critical reviews of Judaism” or “defending the legitimacy of Islam vis-à-vis Judaism”. This state-sponsored hate is in turn disseminated by Shia seminaries and institutions, Iranian media, and even the intelligence and security agencies.

Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979

A commemoration of Ayatollah Khomeini at an Iranian synagogue is publicized by state news agencies

The Imam Khomeini Educational and Research Institute, founded in 1991 by the late Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, is one of country’s key religious institutions. It officially exists to promote “political and governmental Islam” but has also published many items on Judaism and the Jews. This institute is overseen by the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic in accordance with statutes approved by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution. The board of trustees and the institution’s president are chosen by the Supreme Leader.

Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, who died on New Year’s Day, 2021 at the age of 85, was one the country’s most influential hardline clergymen. He trained hundreds of ideological operatives for the regime and was one the most vocal promoters of “political Islam” and anti-Western sentiment in Iran.

“Islam never considers a Jew and a Muslim to be equal,” Mesbah Yazdi said in 2014. “Even though Islam has conferred certain rights on Jews, this does not mean they are equals in every right. Sometimes this is called ‘second-class citizenship’. They can call it whatever they want, but it does not change the reality.”

Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979

Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi
Articles placed in the around 20 periodicals published by this institute frequently aim to present Judaism as a “deviant” religion. “The history of mankind has witnessed no other nation that is as greedy for money and wealth as the Jews,” said one, supposedly scholarly piece in the institute’s Marifat magazine. “To reach this goal, they have tried every legitimate and illegitimate means.” The article then went on to blame Jews for many actions taken by the state of Israel, saying that they played a role in deciding Israeli policies.

Another article published by the institute’s Marifat-e Adyan (“Knowledge of Religions”) journal, entitled Jews in Islamic Lands, declared: “The history of the Jewish nation shows  many of them have characteristics such as fanaticism, megalomania, arrogance, etc, and this has forced many nations to take a stand against them.” The article concluded that the “abominable” characteristics of Jewish people meant they alone were responsible for their “occasional” harassment by Muslims and “constant” harassment by Christians.

Yet another article in the same publication described Jewish people as “belligerent”, opining: “War has a special place in Judaism. Ancient Jewish history is shaped by the Jews’ offensive or defensive battles.”

Taking Aim at Jewish Culture

Another institution active in promoting “political Islam” and discourse favored by the ruling clergy is the Islamic Development Organization. This entity was founded in 1982 by Ayatollah Khomeini to promote the ideology of the Islamic Republic, and throughout the subsequent decades, it has engaged in spreading extensive anti-Semitic propaganda under the cover of opposition to Israel. The Supreme Leader governs this organization, appointing both its president and board of trustees. 

Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979

Ayatollah Khamenei and Hojjatoeslam Ali Makhdoom, director-general of the Islamic Development Organization 

Understanding the Jews, an essay published by this organization, claimed that the small Baha’i religious community in Iran is a “variant” of Judaism specially created for Iran. The author went on to claim: “Music is one of the most powerful tools in the hand of the Jews, which has invaded all countries, even Iran. Jazz, rock and heavy metal music are Jewish inventions. Naïve young people are attracted more and more to this deadly phenomenon... Most musicians in the world act under the supervision of the Jews and, in sum, moral corruption is running rampant because of this music.”

The same article also claimed the Jewish people were the world’s “wine merchants”, and that “wine is one of their most important propaganda tools.”

In another essay published by the Islamic Development Organization, called The Quran’s Sociological View of the Jews, the author cited passages from the Muslim holy book in a bid to back up their thesis that Jews were “oath-breakers”, “megalomaniacs”, “jealous and vengeful”, “materialistic and keen on getting wealthy”, “malevolent towards Muslim”, “ethno-centric and racist” and “parasitical”.

Another article entitled The Jewish Enmity towards Islam claimed: “Throughout history the Jews have been one of the most cruel nations in the world, and still are. Whenever they have ruled a region, they have massacred people in the most ruthless way... In the history of mankind there has been no nation so infatuated with wealth and worldly goods. They do anything to acquire wealth even if it goes against human dignity and honor... The Jews are known for breaching their promises, and one must not forget the crimes that they have committed through history. An ugly characteristic of the Jews is a particular kind of selfishness and egotism.”

Another article made the author’s – and the state-sponsored institution’s – position plain: “The clash between Islam and the Jews and Israel is not merely a political clash, but a clash of civilizations. And at the present time, it is Israel that represents Judaism as a civilization.”

Antisemitism on National TV

The state-owned Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) has a near-monopoly on radio and television in Iran. For years this organization has promoted hatred toward Jews by airing antisemitic TV series as well as antisemitic religious and political programming.

One of earliest and most significant moves in this campaign by IRIB was the creation of Saint Mary: a movie and TV miniseries. The film was directed by Shahriar Bahrani and produced by Mohsen Ali Akbari in 2000, and shown in theaters the following summer. It then aired as a series of shorts on TV the following year.

Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979

A still from the controversial TV series Saint Mary
What brought this particular film to the attention of the Islamic Republic’s ruling establishment and wider public was an unprecedented endorsement from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who visited the set in person in the autumn of 1999 and praised the production of both this film and others like it. It was for this reason Saint Mary also enjoyed a half-life on TV in Iran. It also aired on South Africa’s ITV (Islamic Television) network and even in Venezuela.

The plot of Saint Mary begins in 16 BC. The people of Jerusalem are awaiting the birth of a son to Imran (Joachim), the expected Messiah. But instead, a girl is born, and her mother Anne names her Mary: “Servant of God”. At the age of six, Mary is presented to a temple, and resides there under the protection of the priest Zechariah.

In the film, the Jewish priests are against Mary remaining in the temple and harass her, because in their view girls are not welcome. Zechariah protects her but eventually, Mary is driven out when she turns 16. Then the angel Gabriel appears to her, foretelling that she will bear a holy man. Later, she later gives birth to Jesus. Herod, the ruler of Judea, is so frightened by the birth of Jesus that he orders his killing. But the baby talks in the cradle, astounding all those around him.

After the series was aired the Tehran Jewish Committee protested against its further dissemination, warning that the series “has hugely and negatively affected public’s perception of Judaism and the Jews... All the priests without exception are presented as evil, hypocrites and irrational, and show no measure of grace.” This series, the Committee added, presented “a hateful image of this divine religion” to viewers not familiar with Judaism.

But Saint Mary proved to be just an opening salvo in a series of attacks against the Jews by the IRIB and conservative media.

Hardliner daily The Islamic Republic was among those on the vanguard. One of its articles claimed that following an old tradition, “the Jews use human blood in their holy day meals.” In response to this outrageous claim, the Tehran Jewish Committee wrote to Masih Mohajeri, executive editor of this paper, stating: “The slander that Jews use human blood in their holy day meals was first used in Tsarist Russia to kill Jews... Years later it traveled to Nazi Germany, to justify the genocide of the Jews, and apparently now an Iranian newspaper wants to promote it.”

Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979

The Tehran Jewish Committee objected to the presentation of Jewish priests in the series
Some months later the Committee also wrote an open letter to then-Chief Justice Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, denouncing the wider harassment of Jews in Iran, especially by the media. “The Iranian Jewish community is troubled and anguished,” it said, “by the treatment of Judaism and Jews in the country’s media, including in certain newspapers, books, pamphlets and leaflets, radio and TV programs, in threats by phone, cursing letters and sometimes in-person profanity... Liars and demagogues bestow thousands of libels on the Jews in their publications, inviting people to wreak vengeance upon Jews and slaughter them.”

The Committee asked the judiciary chief to stop this “propaganda offensive against Judaism and the Jews” and to take action against its architects. This request, however, together with the rest of the letter was completely ignored by the judiciary and government officials. The contemporary wave of antisemitism in Iran rolled on.

In 2003 Maurice Motamed, then-representative of the Jewish community to parliament, delivered a speech to MPs in which he, too, criticized the ongoing media harassment of Jews in Iran. “We expect the IRIB to respect our religious ceremonies and symbols. We expect the producers of this organization to avoid presenting every bad person as a Jew and to produce programs that evoke antisemitism.”

In late 2004, the Tehran Jewish Committee wrote another open letter, this time to then-IRIB president Ezzatollah Zarghami. Members asked him to “prevent the constant and endless insults to and humiliation of Jewish figures and things sacred to the Jews”, and to stop broadcasting “entirely false and provocative” scenarios against Judaism. “It is sad,” the letter continued, “that the Jewish clergy and Jewish sanctities are repeatedly and unsparingly denounced, insulted, humiliated and abused, and any detestable or worthless person is portrayed dressed as a Jew and speaking with a Hebrew accent.”

Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979

The IRIB's TV series Conspiracy was broadcast twice despite objections from the Iranian Jewish community
That particular letter was written in protest against the IRIB’s airing of Conspiracy, a 29-part Syrian-made TV series originally called The Diaspora (Ash-Shatat in Arabic). The series was based in part on the infamous The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a pamphlet of falsehoods that claimed Jews had been engaging in a conspiracy to rule the world and repeated the blood libel. The hoax, first published in Russia in 1903, claimed amongst other things that Jews murdered Christian children to use their blood in baking matzah, the unleavened bread widely eaten at Passover. The Syrian TV series drew on these falsehoods to accuse Jews of being directly responsible for every major human disaster in modern history, under the leadership of the Rothschild family: from the two world wars and the toppling of the Ottoman empire to the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

After the Tehran Jewish Committee expressed alarm, IRIB officials not only ignored the letter but broadcast the series for a second time in 2009 during the holy month of Ramadan.

Five months later, the MP Maurice Motamed delivered another speech to parliament protesting against antisemitic propaganda in Iranian media. Every day, he said, the Jewish community was having to face new forms of antisemitism, “insults and humiliation”. He drove home the point that this was pushing many Jews to emigrate from a country that had been their home for generations.

This second speech by Motamed had not even come in response to Conspiracy. It was in reaction to the airing of yet another Iranian TV series, The Great Escape, in which he said the Jewish rabbi character was given “the most disgusting role”. 

Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979

Antisemitic sentiment also informed the characters in TV series The Great Escape

A Turn for the Worse Under Ahmadinejad

Motamed might have hoped that by delivering these furious speeches within the legislative chamber, the crisis might subside a little. But if so, his hopes were dashed after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took over the presidency of the Islamic Republic in 2005. The country’s new chief executive threw his weight behind Iranian holocaust deniers, fanning the flames of antisemitism by calling the Nazi genocide of Jews “a myth” and “a lie” used as a “pretext” for the creation of Israel in 1948.

Ahmadinejad’s open Holocaust denial was not only condemned across the globe but by the Jewish community in Iran. “How can one doubt the stated articles in the charters of Nazi party and the Nazi army [that provide] for cleansing Europe of Jews, and ignore their racist ideology?” the Tehran Jewish Committee demanded of the president. “How can one ignore all the existing and irrefutable evidence proving the genocide of Jews and their forced expulsion from Europe during World War II took place?... Not only is the Holocaust not a myth, but it remains a festering wound on the face of Western civilization. Holding seminars to deny the Holocaust achieves nothing for the people of Iran. It only provides relief to the racists.”

This letter also did nothing to prevent or temper the state’s antisemitic propaganda drive in Iran. For eight years, President Ahmadinejad went on publicly denying the Holocaust and attacking the Jewish people, using Israel as justification. Years later, he even boasted that Holocaust denial had been his greatest achievement in office.

Despite all this, in 2007 IRIB broadcast a 22-part TV series by the name of Zero Degree Turn that was for once welcomed by the Iranian Jewish community. Despite the myriad opportunities there would have been, overt antisemitism was absent from the plot. The story, set during the German occupation of France in World War II, centered on a Paris romance between Habib Parsa, an Iranian-Palestinian Muslim and philosophy student, and Sara Astrok, a French Jewish woman. The pair face many obstacles, including persecution by the Nazis and Sarah's Zionist uncle, but in the end they succeed in escaping to Iran together. The series also portrayed the Holocaust with some sympathy. 

Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979

The series Zero Degree Turn was badly received by Iranian conservatives and foreign commentators alike
The series drew a furious reaction from hardliners. The Islamic Revolution Historical Research and Encyclopedia Foundation, run by ultraconservative clergyman Hamid Rouhani, published a review lambasting the series and accusing it of promoting the “idea” of the Holocaust in order to portray the Jews as victims. The review went further still, publicly accusing Iranian Jews of “totally siding with the Zionists” and uniformly supporting Israel, from its creation through to the present day.

Despite its softer stance the series was also controversial overseas. Some Western media outlets praised its creation, with the BBC writing it showed “official sensitivity” to the accusations of antisemitism that dogged the Ahmadinejad era. But the positive view was not shared by all: “Zero Degree Turn in no way sends a positive message about the Shoah or Jews and many publications failed to properly review and translate the program with the help of experts,” wrote Karmel Melamed in the Jewish Journal. “My investigation of the new Iranian program, with the help of experts fluent in Persian, revealed Zero Degree Turn is nothing more than the same old antisemitic, anti-Israel propaganda put out by the Iranian government... It’s sad when reputable publications and news outlets in the US and Europe are too lazy or close-minded to do their research and dig deeper into a story regarding Iran before jumping to conclusions.”

Taking Aim at the Holocaust

One figure who stood out in the Ahmadinejad-era phase of antisemitism in Iran Mohammad Ali Ramin, who in 2006 organized the International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust. This now-notorious event in Tehran was described by the international media, correctly, as a “Holocaust denial conference”. Iranian Jewish leaders say more Jews left Iran after it was staged.

Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979

Mohammad Ali Ramin
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has also been a supporter of organized campaigns to deny the Holocaust. On his own official website, a vast collection of Holocaust denial pieces have been posted. Many of them are quotes from his own speeches and statements. So virulent has the content been that in 2020 Instagram closed Khamenei’s page due to the Holocaust denial.

Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was an open Holocaust denier

With Khamenei’s tacit support, Holocaust denial under Ahmadinejad turned into an organized campaign, leading to the also now-infamous Holocaust cartoon exhibitions and contests. These continued even under the more moderate President Hassan Rouhani, though his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, denied the government had anything to do with them.

The first International Holocaust Cartoon Contest was held in 2006. The annual event was initially sponsored by the office of the Iranian president, and later supported by Khamenei’s office and organizations affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Masoud Shojaei Tabatabai, editor-in-chief of the monthly Kayhan Caricature – an organ which, like the rest of the hardline Kayhan newspaper, is under the direct control of Khamenei’s office – was the competition’s first director.

Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979

Masoud Shojaei Tabatabaei
Before the organized campaign under Ahmadinejad, most of Iran’s ruling clergy did not treat the Holocaust as a pivotal matter of discussion. Up until the early 1990s the Holocaust was generally accepted to have happened in Iran, and the IRIB aired Western movies and series about the Holocaust without comment. In 1993, the Islamic Republic’s envoy to the United Nations had even issued a statement condemning the killing of the followers of Branch Davidian in Waco, Texas, by comparing the incident to the Holocaust.

From the mid-1990s, however, some security officials and agencies started casting doubt on the atrocities of that time. One of the fiercest early denialists was Saeed Emami, then a deputy intelligence minister, who gave a speech at Hamedan University claiming the Holocaust was nothing but “rubbish”. Emami himself would later be arrested and accused of masterminding the “chain murders” of Iranian dissidents in the late 1980s and 1990s. He died in prison a year later, in in suspicious circumstances.

In 1996, the same year Emami made his false claim about the Holocaust, the French philosopher and Muslim convert Roger Garaudy published a controversial book entitled The Founding Myths of Modern Israel. Garaudy was prosecuted in a French court for denying the Holocaust in his work. He was hit with a suspended prison sentence and fined 240,000 francs.

Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979

Roger Garaudy
The Islamic Republic, however, welcomed Garaudy’s “contribution” to the fields of antisemitism and Holocaust denial. The book was quickly translated into Persian and published all over the country, at a low price. Garaudi had been visiting Shia clerics in Iran since the 1980s, but this book made him a star. The Iranian regime promptly co-opted him as a tool to criticize Israel and the fact of the Holocaust.

In the years that followed, Holocaust denial became a persistent feature of antisemitic statements by officials in the Islamic Republic. Then-President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani dismissed the genocide of six million Jews by the Nazis as “Zionist propaganda” and not historical fact. Rafsanjani, though, was a not a new convert to Holocaust denial; he had railed against this historical truth since as early as 1970.

Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani twice dismissed the Holocaust as "Zionist propaganda"
On April 20, 1998, Khamenei met with Garaudy and praised him for his “tireless efforts” against “the Zionists”. In the course of their conversation, Garaudy told the Iranian Supreme Leader that Zionists controlled all levers of power in the US and were in control of American media, television, radio and cinema. “Therefore,” he said, “in my opinion, the US is currently an Israeli colonial asset.”

Even the reformist President Mohammad Khatami later also praised Garaudy as a “thinking man” and a “devout Muslim” who had been prosecuted because he had “annoyed the West” as a result of his research. The stage was set for an avowed, open Holocaust denier like Ahmadinejad to take over the presidency next.

A New Stage in Holocaust Denial

In the early 2000s Holocaust denial in Iran entered a new phase. Khamenei explicitly announced that “exaggerated numbers” of Jews killed during Holocaust had been stated “to gain people’s sympathy, to lay the groundwork for the occupation of Palestine and to justify crimes committed by the Zionists.”

Four years after Ahmadinejad won the presidency, these statements became a cornerstone of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy. The exhibitions, events, articles and books that followed were unmatched in number, nor in the bluntness of their message, with the IRIB and state organs making Holocaust denial a staple of their schedules.

Under Ahmadinejad, the government also launched numerous websites dedicated to denying the Holocaust. One even explicitly celebrated the Nazis’ actions and promoted their racist ideology, and was denounced by the Jewish member of parliament.

In 2011, the IRIB took another step forward in its antisemitic campaign by broadcasting the Iranian movie Saturday’s Hunter, a decision that was also castigated by the Tehran Jewish Committee. Al Jazeera TV has described the film as a portrayal of “the everyday crimes of the Zionists against the Palestinian people. This movie talks about the dominance of extremist Jews on Israeli government agencies and recounts how the Zionists justify the massacre, and the killing of innocent children and human beings, on the pretext of Jewish jurisprudence.”

Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979

The film Saturday's Hunter promoted a welter of antisemitic stereotypes and conspiracy theories
Saturday’s Hunter premiered in theaters in the early fall of 2011. It was widely promoted by the IRIB, official news agencies, propaganda websites and newspapers affiliated with the regime. Some of these outlets suggested that Iran send the movie to the Oscars, not because of its artistic merit but because of its political direction.

Because of the public controversy surrounding Saturday’s Hunter, though, even organizers of the security agencies-dominated Fajr International Film Festival were reluctant to accept it as an entry. They eventually caved under pressure from Ahmadinejad’s first vice president, Mohammad Reza Rahimi, who declared his support for the movie’s “anti-Zionist” message.

Rahimi continued in this vein throughout his political career. In 2012, at an international anti-drug conference held in Tehran with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Rahimi used the occasion to deliver an anti-Semitic speech, blaming the Talmud for the spread of illegal drugs worldwide. Rahimi claimed the Talmud taught "how to destroy non-Jews so as to protect an embryo in the womb of a Jewish mother", and held that "Zionists" were in control of the illegal drug trade. His "proof", he declared, was that "not one single Zionist is an addict." In front of the assembled experts and delegates, Rahimi said Zionists had ordered gynecologists to kill black babies and that the Russian Revolution of 1917 had been started by Jews, although none of them died in it.

His statements naturally drew worldwide condemnation. Undeterred, after Fajr Film Festival’s jury completely ignored Saturday’s Hunter, Rahimi forced Deputy Culture Minister Javad Shamaqdari to bestow on the movie an entirely newly-created accolade called the “Islamic Human Rights Award” at the closing ceremony.

The antisemitic propaganda and Holocaust denial continued after Ahmadinejad was succeeded by Hassan Rouhani. In 2016, in an open letter to Ali Younesi, the special assistant to President Rouhani for ethnic and religious minorities' affairs, the Tehran Jewish Committee asked him to take steps to cancel the International Holocaust Cartoon Contest. The long-running event, members said, “creates anxiety in the Jewish community of Iran”.

Even though the permits, funding, venue and other facilities for the contest were directly covered by the Iranian regime, officials claimed then – and continue to claim – that they are organized by “the public”. The contest went ahead in 2016 as planned, and Fars News Agency reported that Ayatollah Khamenei described it as “excellent”.

Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979

Just one of the hundreds of cartoons submitted to the Holocaust Cartoon Competitions
One of the financial supporters of the first Holocaust cartoon contest was Hamshahri, a propaganda outlet owned by Tehran Municipality. Another was the Iranian House of Cartoons, also financed by Tehran Municipality. Saba Arts and Culture Center, where the first contest was held, belongs to the Iranian Academy of the Arts: also a government institution. For many years, its director was Mir Hossein Mousavi

The second Holocaust cartoon contest was financed by the Owj Arts and Media Organization and the Cultural Institution of Islamic Revolution’s Martyrs. Both claim to be NGOs, but the first is financed by the IRGC, the second one by the Islamic Development Organization. The founders and directors of entities like the House of Cartoons, Owj and the Martyrs’ Cultural Institution are known in Iran as “Hezbollahis”: officials willing to promote the most extreme, aggressive cultural programs of the regime, who are supported in all their endeavors by the Supreme Leader, the police and security bodies.

Publications Spreading Conspiracy Theories

As well as broadcasting antisemitic, Holocaust-denying films and TV series, the IRIB also promotes the output of Iranian “academic” journals and publications that support its propaganda aims. An examination of the IRIB’s archive reveals more than 40 promoted items and reports about the Jewish people, Israel and Israelis.

One such article came from the quarterly Historical Studies, which published by the Political Studies and Research Institute: a body indirectly controlled by the Intelligence Ministry. The year after Ahmadinejad came to power, it ran a special edition on the Holocaust featuring articles on such topics as “Jewish Holocaust Claims and Benefits”, “Have Six Million Been Killed?” and “Allied Plans to Eradicate the German Nation”.

The journal’s parent institute was founded in 1988. One of its other, best-known publications was the five-volume Jewish and Parsi Plutocrats: British Imperialism and Iran by Abdollah Shahbazi. In 2006 the book received Iran’s Book of the Year Award, an annual accolade conferred by the Iranian president. Another book published by the institute is Jewish-Zionist Organizations in Iran, advertised as a work that reveals “mysterious activities by Jewish and Zionist organizations and networks in Iran”. The book refers to a set of documents that it claims show “the alignment of [Iranian] Jewish circles with Zionist projects, activities and goals, especially for moving Jews to Israel and procuring donations for Israel”. It also alleged several Jewish entities were involved in this supposed scheme, including the Iran Zionist Organization, the Tehran Jewish Committee, the National Jewish Fund, the Iranian Jewish Women’s Organization, the Treasure of Knowledge Cultural Society, the Hatef Youth Organization, and the Cyrus the Great Cultural Center.

Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979

The book Jewish-Zionist Organizations in Iran
These works were all published while Abdollah Shahbazi was president of the Political Studies and Research Institute. Yet one more it has published, entitled Holocaust Behind the Curtains, explicitly denies the Nazis’ genocide of the Jews. Sadly, it is also headquartered at the former home of an Iranian Jew who was forced to flee Iran during the Islamic Revolution. The man’s home was confiscated by the Executive Headquarters of Imam's Directive (“Setad”), a body controlled by the Supreme Leader.

Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979

Abdollah Shahbazi
The special issue of Historical Studies placed a special emphasis on Holocaust denial, with no pretense of academic rigot. “The Holocaust has become a profitable business for the Jews and the Zionists, an industry founded on lies and unbelievable fabrications,” said the first, lengthy article. “The Holocaust is promoted by propaganda and is supported by the oppressive power of the judiciaries [in various countries].”

Another article on the “life and times” of Adolf Hitler asserted: “The claims made by the Jews and promoters about the policies of the Third Reich [that were] aimed at suppressing and massacring the Jews are in no way believable. In his policies and beliefs, Hitler was never after massacring the Jews... Important Jewish and Zionist organizations and leaders gave Hitler a lot of help to capture power and carry out his policies, so much so that one could say that Hitler’s social policies were completely in tune with the wishes of Jewish and Zionist leaders.”

Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979

One "scholarly" article tried to claim Hitler never gave the order for Jews to be massacred
The third article completely denied that six million Jews had been killed by Third Reich. It claimed, via a wilful misreading of European demographic data, that such a figure was “impossible”. The fourth article claimed the Nazis did not have any killing centers, claiming it was “completely bogus” to say they ran anything other than forced labor and POW camps.

Another article in the same issue reviewed the French movie Shoah (1985), accusing director Claude Lanzmann of being “one of staunchest defenders of the Holocaust story” and adding: “All evidence presented in this film about the massacre of the Jews are unreliable.”

The issue also contained some translated articles from Western authors, all of which denied the Holocaust “myth”. Rather than being roundly criticized it proved to be a trailblazer: scores more articles and reports in a similar vein have been published since, almost all of them financially supported and promoted by the Shia clergy.

In the same year, 2006, the Islamic Revolution Document Center, run by principalist clergyman and Ahmadinejad associate Ruhollah Hosseinian, published a book called The Holocaust’s Place in the Zionist Project: Myth or Reality?. It unapologetically pushed the same narrative, claiming the concept of the Holocaust was “introduced for the first time in 1942 by a number of Zionist circles in the United States, and became more widespread over time. Propaganda by influential and powerful Zionist societies succeeded in convincing the public that this distorted presentation of historical reality was an undeniable truth.”

Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979

The book entitled The Holocaust's Place in the Zionist Project: Myth or Reality?
But the same book also contradictorily said the Holocaust had been “exploited” by Jewish organizations after 1948 and the creation of the state of Israel. “Until 1967 [the six-day war] it was seldom presented as a legendary event. But after Israel achieved a position of power in the 1967 war, it was elevated to the status of a legend, and used to reinforce Israel’s political system.”

Two years later in 2008, the quarterly Journal of Legal Research published an article entitled Criminalizing Holocaust Denial: Conforming to Human rights or Against Them? which contrived to show how “criminalizing Holocaust denial restricts free speech” in the world.

In 2009, the volume of such articles published by research centers affiliated with the regime increased again. The quarterly Islamic Studies was one of the more prolific outlets. One of its items in the summer 2009 edition claimed “the Jews” had been inconsistent in their approach to Holocaust because, while memorializing Jewish victims, “most Jewish commentators believe that those who were killed during World War II deserved divine retribution because they disobeyed god and violated divine commandments”. Besides, it went on, many Jews did not try to save their fellow Jews from the Nazi concentration camps.

Then in 2012, Tehran University’s Faculty of Law and Political Science published an article in a quarterly called Politics that not only denied the Holocaust, but attacked the Jewish people. It claimed Jews were “corrupt” and promoted “corruption” wherever they went, seeking “special privileges” for themselves. Instead of reproaching one another for “their social malfeasance and wrongdoings”, the article proclaimed, Jews “distorted historical facts and evidence and, by playing the victim, accuse all nations of antisemitism.”

The article characterized the Holocaust as the most recent “project” by Jews to portray themselves as “homeless” in order to establish a Jewish state. The article then claimed Zionists had previously used this “pretext” to start World War I, so that they could “occupy Palestine”, then started World War II and used the “Holocaust project” to “legitimize” their presence in Palestine.

Back in 2007, the same quarterly had also published an article entitled The Ideological and Historical Roots of the Failure of Peace Plans in the Middle East. The article claimed: “It is the Jews who guide Israel based on their religious teachings.” This article one of many works that accused Jewish people generally of being at one with Israel. In its winter 2019 issue,  Politics published an article entitled The Jews and Children’s Cinema that announced “new Judaism and Zionism are one and the same.” By reviewing a few children’s animations, the author tried to show that Jews had used the media to “play the victim” and to promote a “Messianism” that maintained “Judaism and Christianity are the same.”

Jews as Historical and Political Suspects

Social and political distrust of Jews goes a long way back in Persian Iranian culture and society, arguably as far back as the Arab-Muslim conquest. But in the past 40 years this has been weaponized by state institutions.

The outward position of the Islamic Republic’s political and security institutions is that Jews living in Iran are potentially allied with Israel and actively working to serve its interests. Therefore not only can they not be trusted, but their activities must be scrutinized under a magnifying glass.

Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979

The IRGC has founded and backed many antisemitic organizations in Iran
The baseless but infectious theory that all Jews are involved in a conspiracy is also behind the hostile public attitude of some Shia clergymen towards Iranian Jews. It has led to arrests and the imprisonment of many Jewish people in Iran. In 1999, 13 Jews were detained in Shiraz by the Intelligence Ministry: among them a rabbi, two university professors, several teachers in private Hebrew schools, a government official, a kosher butcher and a 16-year-old boy. They were tried by a Revolutionary Court on charges of spying for Israel, and 10 were sentenced to between four and 13 years in prison. They were gradually released due to international pressure over the next four years, and all of them emigrated to the US. But their families who remained in Iran were subjected to sustained pressure from the security forces, which is why none of them talked to the media about their ordeal.

In 2010, an article published by the IRGC-affiliated quarterly Security Horizons clearly expressed Iranian state institutions’ profound – outwardly at least – mistrust of Iranian Jews, claiming they were highly susceptible to recruitment by Israeli intelligence agencies: “One of the pillars of the power of Israeli intelligence and espionage networks is their collaboration with ethnic and religious minorities in various countries. On the whole, minorities have a high position in Zionist ideology and practice… Under the cover of defending minorities, and by exploiting the issue of religious and ethnic groups, Zionism wants to justify the establishment of Israel as a country based on race and religion.”

The IRGC is often regarded as a key promoter of antisemitism in Iran, but it leaves few traces, preferring to engage with the subject indirectly and via proxies. This includes IRGC-affiliated media outlets like Mashregh News, which in 2011 quoted unnamed “security officials” as having claimed: “The Israeli spy agency Mossad has tried in vain to convince a number of Iranian Jews to move to the occupied territories, along with some other Jews who live in Arab countries.”

A constellation of digital propaganda organizations also promote antisemitism online, usually with the authors’ real identities and affiliations concealed. Dozens of these sites have been created on behalf of the Islamic Republic as a means of hatemongering without taking responsibility. They are periodically taken offline, usually by hosts or court orders from abroad, but always resurface again under a new banner.

One such outlet is the “Jewish Studies Center”, which has published a multitude of articles pushing the line Judaism is directly linked to Freemasonry, Satanism and the Baha’is. An entire segment of the website, entitled “Jewish Plots”, exists to accuse Jews of having had a hand in unhappy historical events in Iran. After IRGC Quds Force General Ghasem Soleimani was killed by an American drone outside Baghdad Airport in January 2020, it published an article entitled The Role of Western-Jewish Rationality in the Martyrdom of Commander Soleimani. True to form, it tried to connect this incident to “the Jews”.

Accusing “Hidden Jews”

The same website has also published several articles on so-called “Crypto-Judaism” and “Zionist Muslims”, two terms used for years by some Islamic Republic officials to effectively cancel their rivals, political opponents and civil rights activists.

In Halakha, or Jewish jurisprudence, the Anusim (“forced ones”) is a category of Jews who have been forced to abandon Judaism and convert to another religion against their will , who do their best to secretly remain true to Jewish values. In other words, the term refers to Jews who have been forced to either convert or perish.

In 2010, an article on the Anusim in the quarterly Journal of Historical Research, published by the University of Sistan and Baluchistan, lashed out at the Jews who had lived in the 7th century, at the dawn of Islam. It held: “Starting wars, sowing discord and conspiracies, sedition and undermining trust were among the most significant political and cultural activities by Jews at the time of Prophet Mohammad.” At that time, the article claimed, a group of Jews pretended to convert to Islam so they could “infiltrate” Islamic society and try to influence its future direction by advising Muslim political leaders.

In the 40 years since the Shia clergy took power in Iran, a considerable number of politicians have been accused of being “hidden Jews”: even former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The accusations against Ahmadinejad began in 2009 after he had a number of public spats with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. So attractive was this theory that even Abdolreza Davari, one of Ahmadinejad’s own former advisors, wrote later on that the ex-premier was a “hidden Jew”.

State-sponsored “Jewish conspiracy” theories abounded again recently during the pandemic, with both Shia clerics and Iranian media positing SARS-CoV-2 was an Israeli invention. Mehdi Khazali, son of the extremist Shia clergyman Abolghasem Khazali, claimed that Khamenei’s January 2021 ban on the importation of Covid-19 vaccines from the US and the UK had been issued on the advice of doctors who were “hidden Jews”. The ban and its devastating impact on Iranian public health, he claimed, were really the work of Zionists whose mission was to “destroy Iran and the world.” He then repeated the widespread claim: “Jews created coronavirus so they could sell their vaccines across the world.”

In addition to Ahmadinejad, Khazali also declared the family of Ali Larijani, a former speaker of the Iranian parliament, to be “hidden Jews”. The Larijani brothers, who also include ex-Chief Justice Sadegh Larijani, were a powerful family in the Islamic Republic until very recently, when they fell out of favor with Ayatollah Khamenei.

Historian Abdollah Shahbazi, the aforementioned president of the Political Studies and Research Institute, has also contributed to the theory. Shahbazi was one of the first people to accuse Mahmoud Reza Khavari, the chairman of two major Iranian banks under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, of being a “hidden Jew”. Khavari was accused of embezzlement but managed to escape from Iran and took residence in Canada.

Fairly credible rumors at the time suggested that Khavari had powerful supporters in Khamenei’s inner circle, hence why he had been able to get out of the country. But Shahbazi came up with a weirder explanation. The name “Khavari”, meaning “eastern” in Persian, he wrote, is actually derived from “Mizrahi”, a common name among Iranian Jews and a traditional term applied to “oriental” or Middle Eastern Jewish communities who have lived in the Middle East and West Asia since Biblical times.

A number of Islamic Republic officials and media loyal to them hold that Khorasan, the northeastern part of Iran, is the “cradle of hidden Jews”. Clergyman Mohammad Reza Faker, a late member of the Assembly of Experts, delivered a speech in 2008 about “hidden Jews” in the holy city of Mashhad, the capital of Razavi Khorasan province. In his telling, about 150 years ago a group of Jews in Mashhad converted to Islam. They first lived in a neighborhood known as Novices, meaning “New Muslims”, but gradually left the city and mixed with other Muslims in other town. Faker claimed that prior to this, “enemies of Islam” who wanted to “infiltrate” the Islamic community had asked these Jews to “pretend to convert to Islam” so they could carry out their schemes (including supporting Baha’ism). One of the “hidden Jews”, he claimed, was Abbas Amir Entezam: a deputy prime minister in the interim post-revolutionary government, who was arrested on espionage charges and spent many years in prison before he died in 2018.

Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979

Ayatollah Faker claimed "hidden Jews" were advancing Israeli objectives in Iran
In another part of his speech, the radical cleric said that agents of the Intelligence Ministry responsible for the chain murders of 1988 to 1998 had all been “hidden Jews”: “Their ancestors were Jews, their fathers were Baha’is, and they themselves pretended to be Muslim: in other words, Jewish or Baha’i new Muslims!”

He also claimed: “I have reached the conclusion that at the present time, at least 100,000 of these individuals are dispersed in our society, that is, people who were Jews, then became Baha’is, and now pretend to be Muslims.”

Albeit on a different pretext, the disinformation website called the Jewish Studies Center has made the same claim: “Like an advanced intelligence organization, hidden Jews teach their children in a secret way. These tactics are not limited to Mashhad and Kashan Jews. Jews in Tehran, Isfahan, Yazd, Shiraz, Hamedan and other cities have been using the same techniques. But the important question that remains unanswered is this: Where are these hidden Jews now? Which places in Iran have been infiltrated by these individuals and their families since the revolution?”

This website also has a sensational section entitled “Ratology” that purports to “identify and president foreign and domestic influential and subversive figures” whose “secret” role the average Iranian reader will not be aware of. The list includes the Shah’s former prime ministers and cabinet members, including Amir Abbas HoveydaAmir Asadollah AlamAli Asghar Hekmat and Ali Naghi Alikhani, Iand ranian artists, writers, academics and literary figures such as Shojaeddin Shafa, Khashayar Deihimi, Mohammad Saeed Hanaei Kashani and Homayoun Sanaatizadeh, as well as members of the Namazi family – and even Joseph Stalin, because he approved of the creation of the state of Israel.

The “hidden Jews” theory was also promoted in an article by the aforementioned Islamic Revolution Historical Research and Encyclopedia Foundation. Entitled The Jews and Falsification of Contemporary History, it argued that Iranian Jews had not been as active in re-writing history as other Jews in the world because they were comparatively few, lived under an Islamic government, and lacked the necessary access to the media. As a result, it opined, Iranian Jews had concluded they would have to “play the victim”, exaggerate their role in the overthrow of the Pahlavi monarchy and claim they made important, positive contributions to Iran. The article went on to say such claims were not credible and in fact, Iranian Jews were friendly with both Israel and the Pahlavi monarchy.

The Besat Institute for Strategic Studies is a relatively new entity, founded in 2012 to “study enemies by focusing on Jewry as the most vengeful enemy of [Muslim] believers”. It purports to examine this question from two angles, focusing on Jewish activity since the foundation of Islam, and Zionism in contemporary history. Mehdi Taeb, the brother of Hossein Taeb, head of the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization, is a member of this institute’s board of directors and guides its antisemitic activities.

Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979

Mehdi Taeb
The Institute has held a number of anti-Israel gatherings and seminars that promote hate against the Jewish people. It also offers educational courses loaded anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic content. In 2018, it ran a program entitled “Jewish Deviationism” at the IRGC’s Ayatollah Saeedi Education Center in Qom.

The Institute also has five separate websites, the most important of which is called Kheybar Zionist Studies. This site bears the main responsibility for promoting the Institute’s antisemitic, anti-Israel content. The Institute has also published a book entitled Antisemitism: Fact or Political Pretext? that claimed antisemitism in various countries was the result of “the Jews’ political and financial intentions, beliefs and behavior.” In other words, it claimed antisemitism was the fault of the Jewish people themselves.

Importantly, in a potentially wilful misreading of the truth that informs all of its antisemitic output, the Institute strives to present Judaism and Israel as one and the same. This, too, is a fallacy commonly repeated by the ruling clergy in Iran. “There are various reason for why the Jews are afraid of annihilation,” one publication asserted, “but one of them is that this regime [Israel] is rooted in the heart of Satan. The corrupt roots of this usurper and child-killer regime have grown from Satan’s heart and for this reason it can never be stable and enduring.”

One particularly prolific Iranian website, Mouood, which is supposedly dedicated to hastening the Return of the 12th Imam, the Shia Messiah, has published more than 1,600 reports and articles about Jews in Iran and around the world.

“The phenomenon of hidden Jews (the Anusim) and their role in the birth of Babism and Bahaism is an important factor in Iran’s contemporary developments,” said one article on Mouood, entitled The Jews and the Spread of Babism and Baha’ism. “Since the beginning, the Baha’is have used Jews in different countries and converted them to Baha’ism. We know money is ingrained in the nature of the Jews. Jews in Muslim countries, many of whom are enemies of the Muslims and want to harm them, converted to Baha’ism much faster than the Muslims.”

Other articles on this website maintain that the Jews are “world’s warmongers” and play an important role in the “American porn industry”. In 2010, Mouood website claimed that a letter sent by the a Jewish Zionist leader in Iran to the court of Reza Shah Pahlavi, dated April 8, 1931, proved that “the Zionists wanted to hand a large part of Iran over to Jewish immigrants from Europe and the US, to abolish Islamic laws, and to give the Jews unrestricted cultural and social freedoms so they could carry out their Zionist policies.”

The Iranian Holocaust

Purim is a Jewish holiday that celebrates the rescue of the Jewish people in the ancient Persian Empire from a plot by a court official to kill them all, as recounted in the Book of Esther. Some members of the Shia clergy, believe in a completely different reading of the Biblical narrative. According to this theory, it was the Jews who massacred more than 70,000 Iranians: an “Iranian holocaust”, committed by the Jews.

This unevidenced, alternative Purim story has also been promoted by Mouood, which claims the “barbarian” Achaemenid Persian empire was “supported, guided and led” by Jews. So too on other websites like Mashregh News: “Purim is in fact a celebration and festivities for the blood of tens of thousands of Iranians who were killed by the conspiracy of two Jews who had infiltrated the court of Xerxes.”

According to the latter article, Esther herself was a “hidden Jew” who “concealed her Jewishness from the Persian emperor to become his queen.” The article goes on to claim: “In 2010, a rabbi in Israel cited Purim and Esther to rule that female agents of Mossad were allowed to engage in any sexual act with enemies to carry out their mission, just as Esther did.”  The article concluded that prostitution is therefore permitted in Judaism.

This distortion of the point of Purim is repeatedly used to justify antisemitism and assaults on Jewish civil liberties in Iran. In 2020, the state’s paramilitary Basij organization issued a statement in which it threatened to tear down the shrine of Esther and Mordechai in Hamedan and replace it with a Palestinian consulate. “We warn the United States and the Zionist regime ...that the first act of fulfilling their filthy desires and the slightest attack on Palestine and the holy Al-Quds [Jerusalem] means that they will no longer occupy a place with Esther's tomb… We'll turn it into a Palestine consulate. You will see the fulfillment of this promise.”

This was not the first time  the shrine had been threatened with destruction. In December 2010, some 250 Basij students from Abu Ali Sina University in Hamedan had gathered in front of the mausoleum and threatened to destroy it, in revenge for perceived Israeli threats to infringe on the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.

Custodians of Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial

Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is one of the country's biggest promoters of antisemitic content
In the Islamic Republic, both antisemitism and Holocaust denial are not social phenomena but organized ideological campaigns. They are supported by the highest political and religious institutions in the land, up to and including the office of the Supreme Leader. Ayatollah Khamenei himself and many of the entities under his direct control, from Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting to religious foundations, are the main architects of this campaign.

On the political-military side, Khamenei also has the Revolutionary Guards at his beck and call, who for years have been active in not only threatening Israel but disseminating the worst kinds of antisemitic propaganda. By launching such satellite outlets as Owj Media and the Seraj Cyberspace Organization, the IRGC has sought to package this hate as a cultural and artistic product. Fars, Mashreq and Tasnim News Agencies, and dozens of other “news” and “analysis” providers besides, have unproblematically published hundreds, if not thousands of articles that seek to demonize the Jewish people.

Then there are the Shia seminaries, and religious organizations controlled or influenced by them. The most important of the clergy’s propaganda tools is the Imam Khomeini Educational and Research Institute. Plenty of other state-aligned entities – including the Islamic Development Organization and Tehran Municipality – have taken up arms in the Islamic Republic’s unilateral campaign against Jews.

An examination of the record of all these institutions and people leaves no doubt: antisemitism and Holocaust denial are integral to the identity of the Islamic Republic.

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Khamenei’s Loyal Penman Links Quran to Holocaust Denial

Decoding Iran’s Politics: Anti-Semitism in Iran

Iranian State Media Decries Biblical Animated Film as “Zionist Infiltration”

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Crime and Denial, or Why Does the Leader of Iran Deny the Holocaust?

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Weekly Khamenei Report: Against Freedom of Expression, For Holocaust Denial

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