Saturday, July 19, 2014

Assessing past Iranian intellectual perceptions of Israel

Lior Sternfeld is an academic who has studied the early Iranian intellectual perceptions of the State of Israel. His area of interest is Middle Eastern social history with a particular focus on Iran.

Lior Sternfeld.
He has a specialist knowledge of the status of religious minorities, particularly Iran's Jewish population, in Iran throughout the reign of the last Shah of Iran and in the initial years of the rule of the Ayatollah Khomeini's regime.

I was therefore interested to discuss with Mr Sternfeld Iranian intellectual perceptions of Israel after its inception and up until the 1967 war as embodied most notably by the writings of the Iranian intellectual Jalal Al-e Ahmad whose most notable work 'Gharbzadegi - "Westoxification"' argued strongly that western influences had a poisonous affect on Iranian society and should accordingly be confronted – he for example saw a direct and intricate connection between the decline of traditional weaving of carpets in Iran with western encroachment on that society. This view was embraced by the leaders of the Iranian revolution including the Ayatollah Khomeini himself.

Articles, reviews and papers he has written on these subjects can be read here.

Mr. Sternfeld was kind enough to answer some of my questions in regard to these matters and in regard to the Pahlavi era in general.

i) First of all, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I grew up in Israel and got my B.A and M.A at the department of Middle East Studies at Ben Guion University. I wrote my master's thesis about Mosaddeq and the way his struggle was perceived in the Middle East outside Iran, pointing out to one of those rare international moments. In 2009 I moved to Austin, Texas to begin my doctoral program at the Department of History. At UT I started studying the complex histories of Iranian religious minorities, leading me to write my dissertation on Iranian nationalism as experienced by Iranian Jews in the twentieth century.

ii) Second only to Cyrus the Great Reza Shah Pahlavi [the father of the last Shah of Iran] is said to have been an immensely respected figure amongst the Jews of Iran. Could you tell us a little bit about what Jewish life under the Pahlavi's was like?

Reza Shah aspired to create a secular society that elevate the Persian ancient history over Islamic element. Influenced by 19th century philologists, he adopted the Aryan hypothesis that in large argues that the genetic (and cultural if you will) forefathers of modern Iranians are actually Indo–European tribes that wandered in these terrains thousands of years ago. He wanted to make the case that Iran is essentially European and not part of the Semite-Arab Middle East.

As religion became secondary in significance, Jews – who are ethnically Persians – could enjoy better vocational opportunities, and leaving the old Jewish neighborhoods. But there bigger advancement occurred under Reza's son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi who reigned from 1941 to 1979.

Reza Shah Pahlavi.

iii) While Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi's regime had afforded Israel de-facto recognition from its inception and Jews had relatively few cultural restrains under his regime he did nevertheless harbour some curious and somewhat conspiratorial views regarding vested Jewish power in the United States as exemplified in a 60-Minutes interview with Mike Wallace.

Where do you think this conspiratorial and paranoid nature stemmed from and, more importantly, did it influence or guide the Shah's policies regarding Iran-Israel relations at that time?

The Shah believed that Jews control the media in the US and this interview you're referring to was toward the end of his regime, when he thought that the "Jewish" media pushing President Carter on the human rights issues. I'm going to speculate here that even his decisions to grant Israel de-facto recognition, and the close military collaboration with Israel stemmed from partly, maybe subconscious, problematic views that "International Judaism" control markets and governments. He believed that Israel is a superpower that controls many resources in the US and Europe and by standing out as a supporter of Israel Iran would get better access to military and industrial aid. That is partly the reason the he felt betrayed by the "Jewish" media, the International Judaism did not fulfill its part as he viewed it.

iv) And perhaps emblematic of just how close these two countries, at least on a government-to-government level, were in many aspects in the 1970's the Shah was able to purchase military hardware from the United States that Israel could not. For example Iran was the only country permitted to buy from the United States a fleet of highly sophisticated Grumman F-14 Tomcat fighter jets. Nevertheless Carter didn't want Iran to be able to purchase Pershing missiles. Which was where the Israelis then stepped in in the controversial joint Iran-Israel Project Flower.

What were Israeli intentions in helping Iran to be such a vast military power at that time do you think?

I don't know much about the acquisitions of the Iranian army, but we know that Israel opened many doors for Iran in Europe and the US. For example, Israel vouched for Iran with United States to supply Iran its first nuclear reactor (it was actually President Peres that did it). It was part of the Periphery Alliance that began in the mid-1950s, and was participated by Israel, Iran, Turkey, and Ethiopia; the four non-Arab countries in the Middle East (or bordering with the Middle East). This pact was initiated as the all four feared the spreading of [Egypt's President Gamal Abdel] Nasser's pan- Arabism. They all had mutual interests in maintaining large, well-trained, and well-equipped armies that can face any danger may come up by Nasser or any other Arab country.

v) As you point out Jalal Al-e Ahmad's travelogue about Israel is probably the most striking account of how Iranian intelligentsia perceived pre-1967 Israel. His scathing attack on Israel following the Six Day War is notable for the intensity of the anger and frustration he expresses.

But what I must say struck me most about Ahmad's account of Israel is how he saw it as a guardian state of the Jewish diaspora. For instance he refers to the then recent Eichmann trial in Israel and lauds the manner in which Israel went out and caught that mass-murderer of the Jewish people and then gave him a full and fair trial for his crimes against European Jewry. He even goes as far as to hold Israel up as a model of what Iran could be for Shiite Muslims and talks about how 'Yad Vashem' reminds him of the martyrdom of Hussein [the Third Imam of Twelver Shiism and grandson of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed] at Karbala in 680. 

What does Ahmad's guardianship state idea tell us about his own ideology and of early intellectual perceptions of Israel in Iran in your view?

Al-e Ahmad is a fascinating character to follow, who had made a tremendous impact on the Iranian intellectual sphere. The sentiments he expressed in his travelogue were very much in-line with the leftist intelligentsia in Iran. My argument is that until 1967 many in those circles saw Zionism as a post-colonial movement, a movement of national liberation. They supported the establishment of Israel in 1948, which may was because of the Soviet support, but we see genuine interest in the political system of the newly founded social-democrat Israel. Al-e Ahmad visited Israel as an official guest of the foreign affairs ministry, and we have to remember that when thinking about what he had seen and whom he had met.

But the notion of guardianship can be interpreted in several ways. He obviously was well versed in the Biblical stories of the old kingdom of Israel, and viewed it as equivalent of the Iranian story; i.e. an old nation reviving its days of glory in the ancestral homeland. He was also amazed by the way people that only two decades earlier faced total annihilation succeeded not only to survive but also to capture one of the chief minds of the Final Solution.
Jalal Al-e Ahmad.

vi) Intense and rapid social change in Iran came as a result of the White Revolution. Whilst arguably socialistic in its character the rapid modernization policies did result in a backlash from traditional aspects of society. Indeed it was around this time that Ahmad outlined his 'Westoxification' theory.

Yet he does criticize Iran for not being more like the Israel he saw of the early 1960's – a state with a good agricultural and education system but one which nevertheless didn't deviate from its religious values and traditions and effectively balanced both eastern and western influences. What fundamentals do you think Ahmad saw in early 1960's Israeli society which he deemed so worthy of emulation that he did not see in the post-White Revolution Pahlavi-era Iran which came not long after his trip to Israel?

Admittedly, very few Israelis that lived in the 1960s in Israel would have recognized Al-e Ahmad depiction as their own country. Al-e Ahmad was fascinated by the Kibbutz. Ideally it made sense to the non-Stalinist socialist. However, the Kibbutzim can hardly be viewed as a fair representation of the Israeli society. The entire ideological foundation of the Zionist movement lays upon the connection between the Biblical Israelites and modern days Jews. Religion was institutionally employed only to satisfy this connection. In my opinion that was the way Al-e Ahmad envisioned the relation between Iran and Islam. He wanted to preserve the cultural religious symbolism of the Shi'a but to neutralize the authority of the religious establishment. As for the White Revolution: his criticism of it was that it was imported from the west uncritically.

The Shah embarked on this project with plans for reforms in every realm of the Iranian society, however, the society could not, and did not want, to transform itself so rapidly, and as Ervand Abrahamian (among others) showed there was a case of "unequal development," where the state encouraged urbanization, and industrialization that benefited in the short term very thin economic elite, that was also related to the monarchy, and simultaneously limited the ability of the political system to democratize.

Last Shah giving land deeds as part of his "White Revolution"

vii) You clearly see 1967 as a hinge moment when it comes to Iranian perceptions of Israel. Just how fundamentally did events of June 1967 alter these perceptions in your estimate?

As I mentioned earlier, until June 1967 Israel was perceived as a post-colonial country, and a potential member of the nascent "Third World". The war in 1967 turned Israel from a post-colonial country to the colonial power par excellence. In six days Israel conquered the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Sinai, and the Golan Heights, and subsequently allowed Jewish settlements (and even encouraged) in the occupied territories. the level of their disappointment must have had something to do with the speed it took for this change to take place.

viii) When Iranian-born novelist Gina B. Nahai penned her first novel 'Cry of Peacock' in 1991 it followed what she said was a great deal of research into the background of the history of Iranian Jews which she says was a very poorly researched field. I understand that this is a field you have read into yourself. Could you give us an idea of what life was like for Iranian Jews in the pre-1979 period and how much of it we now have some understanding of?

I agree that this field is understudied. The main problem with historiography of Iranian Jews is that the majority of it was written from within the Zionist paradigm that basically denies Jews historical agency. The meta-argument is that Jews cannot prosper in any other place but Israel, especially not in Muslim countries. However, Jews have lived and prospered, and created, and excelled in many ways in Iran. They were not merely passive subjects in the sidelines of the Iranian society. Historians such as David Yeroushalmi and Daniel Tsadik already showed in their recent books that Jewish history in Iran is much more nuanced than previously understood. One of the important insights is that we cannot really talk about a Jewish community, but rather on many Jewish communities across the country, and each had different experiences in different times. One of the statistics that really is mind-blowing is that in 1941 roughly 80% of the Jews in Iran were impoverished, 10% belonged to the middle classes, and 10% were wealthy. By 1979 10% were wealthy, 10% were impoverished, and 80% were now part of the Iranian middle class. This transformation is almost unbelievable.

So having this in mind we have to look into what happened to the Jewish community in those 38 years. Part of it is that many of the poor Jews left Iran in 1948-1951, but much of it is just the community that took the full advantage of the opportunities that were given to it by the government, international Jewish aid organizations, and social institutions from within the communities.


Anonymous said...

fascinating post. many thanks.

Anonymous said...

Go to israel to preach with uskowi and his entourage, we do neet your advices..........and propaganda

Anonymous said...

Anon 6:20PM

Do you have a particular problem with Jews, Lior Sternfeld, Nader Uskowi, or this blog as a whole for that matter?

Anonymous said...

Anon 6:20 PM..........If by "we" meaning the "entourage" of bigots the brainwashing theocratic dictatorship has created then no thanks.