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Analysis: Celebrating Purim in a Muslim country under the radical Islamist threat

Jews across the world are preparing to celebrate Purim but many Jews in the Islamic world are living under a radical Islamist threat that threatens to shatter the joy of the holiday. However, they are resilient and refuse to let it destroy their lives. In other parts of the Islamic world, the situation is less dire.
Photo Credit: Rafael Sadi

Across the world, the Jewish people are preparing to celebrate the Purim holiday, which is a festive occasion full of joy and happiness. However, Jews living in many Muslim countries find themselves in a precarious situation.  Due to threats posed by radical Islamist groups such as ISIS or the regime itself, these Jews are still celebrating but at the same time, they do so in fear.  However, there are exceptions to this general trend. Despite the rise of radical Islam in the Middle East and North Africa, there are places where Jews do feel more secure and thus are able to enjoy the holiday more. In honor of the holiday, JerusalemOnline is exploring, how are Jews in the Islamic world celebrating Purim under the radical Islamist threat?

Although the holiday originates in Iran and features Iranian heroes, the plight of Iranian Jews celebrating Purim is quite dire. The population that once exceeded a vibrant 70,000 has now dwindled to approximately 12,000-15,000 members. Despite claims by the Iranian regime that they accept Jews as a protected religious group, many Jews have chosen to flee the land of their ancestors. According to anonymous sources, Iranian Jews can go to synagogue, attend Jewish day schools, close their businesses for Shabbat and even to consume wine for religious rituals in a country where alcohol consumption is punished by lashes and jail time. They claim that the Iranian leadership even provides financial support for a Jewish hospital and erected a monument honoring Iranian Jewish soldiers who lost their lives during the Iran-Iraq War. 

However, all Iranian Jews must demonstrate their enmity towards the State of Israel and to avoid having any connection with it. The anonymous sources stress that historic Jewish cemeteries in Iran have quietly been getting destroyed and local Jews don’t have the ability to object to it.  They stress that even though Jewish day schools exist, they are not autonomous and they are controlled by the government.  Many of them even have Muslim principals who force Jewish children to go to school on Shabbat. Prayer books and rabbis are in short supply. Given this, the sources stress that local Jews feel like outsiders in the Islamic Republic of Iran despite their almost 2,000 years of history in the country.

Iranian Jewish dissident Marjan Keypour Greenblatt added that one explanation for this sentiment is the Shia supremacy that is prevalent across Iran: “The officially recognized religions (Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians) are still second-class citizens according to the law, entitled to lesser rights and privileges.” Nevertheless, despite the fact that Iranian Jews suffer from this predicament, Iranian Jewish dissident Dr. Sima Goel stressed that the local Jews still take pride in their identity and celebrate Purim in spite of “the dictator that oppresses them.”

Turkish Jewish dissident Rafael Sadi stressed that despite the ever-present ISIS terror threat and the uncertainty caused by the upcoming constitutional referendum vote, there will still be great Purim celebrations in Turkey. Synagogues and Jewish clubs across the country are planning parties and celebrations: “They will celebrate but under heavy security. It is always dangerous for we are afraid. We do not want to be attacked by some crazy people.” He claimed that Erdogan’s government always takes special care in order to protect Jewish sites within Turkey and that the local Jewish community enjoys positive relations with the Turkish government: “However, the terror has no limits. I hope they won’t succeed. Yet, there is no information at this time that something will happen.   Turkey will never be Iran. Turkey will continue to be liberal as much as possible and democratic as much as possible and not a sharia law country for the very simple reason that with this system, the party of Erdogan is ruling the country for 15 years, so why change it?”

In Iraqi Kurdistan, there is a very tiny Jewish community, who represent a remnant of the Jewish community that used to exist in the country before Israel was established. In 1948, 150,000 Jews lived in Iraq. Today, there are several hundred Jews in Iraqi Kurdistan. In 2008, it was reported that the rest of Iraq has less than 10 Jews. Due to the threats posed by the Shia militias and radical Islamist groups like ISIS, Iraqi Kurdistan is the only safe place for Jews to live in Iraq. It is also the only place in Iraq where there will be Purim celebrations. Kurdish Jewish leader Sherzad Mamsani told JerusalemOnline that local Iraqi Kurdish Jews are planning on celebrating Purim together with Jewish staff at the local consulates but it will be “a small celebration.” Nevertheless, he stressed that Jews in Iraqi Kurdistan are not “threatened” and that their security situation is “stable” despite what is going on in other areas of Iraq.

Former MK Shimon Ohayan, who is of Moroccan Jewish heritage, told JerusalemOnline that Purim in Morocco is a quiet holiday compared to Israel: “Purim in Morocco is not something where you go outside to a carnival with costumes. The important thing is the feast in the house and to read the Megillah in the synagogue.”  According to Ohayan, local Moroccan Jews don’t have a problem with their Muslim neighbors: “They have good neighbors. They work and do the celebrations. The political situation is not simple but it does not influence the daily life. In every society, there are extremists and some live in Morocco. But the government treats the Jews very nice. They always welcome visitors from Israel.” He argued that Moroccan Jews will be able to celebrate the Purim holiday in calm and peace.

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