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Society & Culture

Students Pay the Price for Isfahan University's Antisemitism

January 5, 2022
Maryam Dehkordi
7 min read
Students Pay the Price for Isfahan University's Antisemitism

The University of Freiburg in Germany has suspended its academic cooperation with Isfahan University over its “antisemitic tendencies” and having published calls to “eliminate Israel”, reported the Jerusalem Post on December 22. This was not the first time Isfahan University has been accused of promoting antisemitic content. Far from it: it has hosted multiple Holocaust cartoon exhibitions.

In 2000, when the reformist Mohammad Khatami was the president of the Islamic Republic, the cities of Isfahan and Freiburg signed an agreement to be “twinned cities”. One of the provisions of this agreement was a student exchange, which has now come to an end, to the loss of Iranian young people studying there.

Bastian Strauch, a spokesman for the University of Freiburg, told the Jerusalem Post that the exchange program had in fact been suspended in 2019 because of “growing political conflicts in Iran” as well as conflicts in “bilateral educational cooperation between Iran and Germany”. He added: “Only a few [Iranian] students are currently still attending the University of Freiburg. Students from Freiburg have not attended Isfahan University.”

In response to this news, and without directly mentioning Freiburg’s reasoning for the decision, Komail Tayebi, director of Isfahan University’s International and Scientific Cooperation Center, told the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) that that he and colleagues had not received any official email or letter from Freiburg informing them of the suspension. Isfahan “might” communicate with Freiburg about it, he said.

Student Exchanges: Law or Agreement?

Who governs and oversees student exchange programs in Iran? “Basically, education and especially higher education in Iran cannot be studied as an independent domain,” Mehdieh Golroo, a women’s rights activist banned from university in Iran in 2007, told IranWire. “As such, we can’t say how far student exchange programs are controlled by the universities or by the Ministry of Science.

“That said, the Ministry has a Department of International Affairs responsible for certain areas of relations between Iranian and foreign universities. The department controls and manages scholarships, and runs an online system called SAJAD, where students register to study abroad and for scholarships. At the same time, some Iranian universities have ‘International’ in their titles, implying they anticipate both accepting foreign students and, of course, sending students abroad.”

The twinning agreement between Isfahan an Freiburg was signed on October 27, 2000. It was the first time Freiburg had entered into such a partnership with a city in an Islamic country. A street in the German city was renamed “Isfahan” and Isfahan’s municipal logo was engraved on the sidewalk next to Freiburg Town Hall.

“Student exchanges based on twinned city partnerships have been a method for transmitting knowledge and culture in the modern world for a long time, especially in the European Union,” Hassan Nayeb-Hashem, a Vienna-based physician and human rights activist with Austrian NGO the Südwind Association, told IranWire. “In a world without extensive means of digital communication this was an admirable way of spreading knowledge and culture, and bringing different generations closer together.

“But I remember, once, the president of European Parliament's Subcommittee on Human Rights asked us whether we approved of student exchange with Iran. ‘Of course we do,’ we said, ‘but it won’t work if only selected, specific individuals and the children of the privileged benefit from it.”

The Reformist Dream Unrealized

Ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, slogans of “eliminate Israel” and “destroy Israel” have been chanted and displayed at practically all state rallies and ceremonies in Iran. The flag of Israel has been set on fire on the sidewalks in front of public buildings, especially educational centers and universities, and antisemitic and anti-Israel conspiracy theories are rife in Iranian media.

In 2000, when the agreement between Isfahan and Freiburg was first signed, then-President Mohammad Khatami had championed his idea of “Dialogue Among Civilizations”: a direct response to Samuel P. Huntington's theory of a “Clash of Civilizations”, which included “reconciling tensions between cultures, countries and religions” and “promoting much-needed dialogue between Muslim societies and other societies around the world”.

But, says Nayeb-Hashem, in the end the the ideological goals of Iran’s unelected state won out: ever since, the Islamic Republic’s behavior and that of state-controlled universities have not been in line with either Khatami's goals or those of the University of Freiburg. “It’s natural that Freiburg would suspend the student exchange agreement. At this juncture, sanctions against Iran are not merely economic. Sporting and academic sanctions are consequences of Iranian policies as well.”

Due to the events of World War II, the German and Austrian governments have banned Holocaust denial within their own borders. Because of heightened sensitivity to this period of history and antisemitism in general, Nayeb-Hashem says, “they do their best to stand up to anybody in the world who would deny this tragedy. This is the right thing to do and, therefore, Freiburg’s response to antisemitic actions by the Isfahan was not unexpected.”

Select Students Sent Abroad; ‘Undesirables’ Locked Out

The Islamic Republic has has a long history of barring “undesirable” young people from entering higher education institutions, or from continuing their education if they “transgress” in some way. At the end of the first term of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, a system was introduced whereby students suspected of being political dissidents or Baha’is had a star marked against their name in university documentation. These “star students” were in constant danger of being expelled, barred from completing their studies, or even from taking the national university entrance exams in the first place.

In September 2018, President Rouhani’s government approved a bill entitled the “Law to Give Everybody the Right to Higher Education”. As the name suggested, among other things, it sought to end the “star system”. On being sent to parliament, however, the bill languished until December 2021, after which Ebrahim Raisi’s government recalled the bill.

“I believe what happened around 20 years ago between Isfahan and Freiburg universities was an exceptional opportunity that has now been lost,” says Mehdieh Golroo. “The process [of giving scholarships for studying at foreign universities] is now under the control of the government and forces associated with it. Even the laws of the Islamic Republic repeatedly emphasize that the right to education cannot be restricted.”

The Importance of Freiburg University’s Decision

Hamid Sabi, a distinguished Jewish-Iranian human rights lawyer who recently served as co-counsel at the Aban Tribunal in London, told IranWire: “This action by the University of Freiburg might look like a symbolic one. But in fact, in today’s world, such gestures are meaningful and effective.

“The University of Isfahan ignored previous warnings about its antisemitic actions. The mere fact that Freiburg reacted with a serious and appropriate response to this behavior will attract the attention of Iranian society, whose members themselves could become the targets of future violations of fundamental human rights. Consequently, they will be more likely to react actively to racist and antisemitic actions by their government.”

Mehdieh Golroo believes Freiburg’s response to Isfahan’s antisemitic behavior will influence the international community’s stance on the Islamic Republic. “As an isolated state, the Islamic Republic thinks that its actions are merely for domestic consumption – so it allows itself to do whatever it wants.

“On every Quds Day we witnessed aggressive behavior at all universities. We witnessed chants of ‘Death to Israel!’ and Israeli flags set on fire. In this isolated environment they don’t believe they will be held accountable. But these interactions with the outside world and actions by the free world will drag the Islamic Republic into the court of accountability – and at the very least, some other countries will also become aware.”


Related Coverage:

Erfan Sabeti: Shia Clergy's Antisemitism Stems From an Inferiority Complex

Lawyer: Persecution of Iran’s Jewish Community Started with Execution of its Leader in 1979

Mehran Barati: Iranian Media is Emanating Nazi Germany

Shadi Sadr: Jews Have Been Cut Off from Iranian Public Life

George Haroonian: Antisemitism is Inherent to the Islamic Republic

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

Debunking the Rothschilds Conspiracy Theory: From Frankfurt to Tehran

Khamenei’s Open Dream: Finishing Where Hitler Left Off

Decoding Iran’s Politics: Anti-Semitism in Iran

Anti-Semitism and Neglect Have Destroyed a Historical Jewish School in Isfahan

Vandals Attack Synagogues in Shiraz

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

Eye for an Eye Justice, But Not For Jewish Victims in Iran

''Jews Use Sorcery for Espionage''

Iran’s Cartoon Goons: Behind the Scenes of the Holocaust Cartoons Exhibition

Denying Denial at Holocaust Cartoons Exhibition



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