August 23rd, 2015
01:59 PM ET

Larry Cohler-Esses on Jewish life in Iran: "They're not miserable. But they have discriminations."

Please credit any usage to “CNN’s FAREED ZAKARIA GPS”

The following transcript is of an interview by host Fareed Zakaria with the Daily Forward’s assistant managing editor, Larry Cohler-Esses. They discussed Jewish life inside Iran.‎

MANDATORY CREDIT for reference and usage: “CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS”

VIDEO HIGHLIGHT

Lessons from a Jewish journalist's trip to Iran

TEXT HIGHLIGHTS

The Daily Forward’s assistant managing editor, Larry Cohler-Esses on Iran's Jewish community: “I know it's surprising to other people. But, yes, they do have a community there. It is much smaller than the community that existed before Khomeini came to power and the shah was overthrown. There is estimates, depending on who you talk to, between 9,000 and 20,000 Jews there. Before the revolution in 1979, there were 80,000 to 100,000. So it's clear that life is possible there – But many Jews have chosen to make their lives elsewhere since the revolution took place.”

Cohler-Esses’ on how Iranians reacted to his visit as a Jewish journalist: “I specified to everybody I met – I identified myself as a reporter for the Forward, which is a prominent American Jewish newspaper. From the most hard line politicians who are very much in line with what Ayatollah Khamenei said – to the people who opposed him, nobody batted an eyelash at talking to me –  about my being Jewish or representing a Jewish media outlet. Part of the reason is that among the hardliners, they make a kind of rigid compartmentalization between Jews, who they consider people of the book under Islam, and Zionists, who are a maligned international force that has nothing whatever to do with Jews or Judaism.”

Cohler-Esses on Jewish life in Iran: “They're not miserable. But they have discriminations. One of the leaders who I quoted in my story said, we're not oppressed, but there are limitations. And that's true and it has many specific multiple meanings. …if a Muslim murders a Jew - price is blood money. That's the penalty. But - if a Jew murders a Muslim, the price is execution. They were very proud because they are pushing back against these limitations in their own way. But they do not challenge in any way the legitimacy of Sharia that gives them many disadvantages…”

Cohler-Esses’ on the possible politics of accommodating the Jewish community in Iran: “…they have 9,000 to 20,000 Jews in Iran, who are accommodated within their civilization, within their society. They do that for many reasons. It may be a political asset for them to have a community of Jews, even though a shrinking one, that they can point to and say, look, these are our Jews in our country and we're not doing anything to them, while maintaining a position toward Israel which, of necessity, would involve a military war that would kill many people, including many civilians, in order to get rid of the very idea of a Jewish state.”

FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN GPS HOST:  Just nine months ago, the Supreme Leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khamenei, took to Twitter to call for the annihilation of Israel. Later, he posted a listicle of sorts - nine key questions about the elimination of Israel. Iran's former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was infamous for his denial of the Holocaust. So how would you like to be a pro-Israeli Jewish reporter for a Jewish publication and get off the plane in Iran?

My next guest did just that.

Larry Cohler-Esses, an editor at the Forward, is said to have been the first reporter from the Jewish media to be credentialed to report in the Islamic Republic of Iran since the 1979 revolution. Larry, pleasure to have you on.

LARRY COHLER-ESSES, THE DAILY FORWARD: Thank you very much. It's really a pleasure to be here.

ZAKARIA: So give me your – just your dominant, you know, reaction? What was the thing that struck you the most – that surprised you the most?

COHLER-ESSES: Well, the first thing to make clear is that I specified to everybody I met, both ordinary Iranians, ayatollahs and a couple of government officials, who I represented – I identified myself as a reporter for the Forward, which is a prominent American Jewish newspaper.

From the most hard line politicians who are very much in line with what Ayatollah Khamenei said, as you just quoted, to the people who opposed him, nobody batted an eyelash at talking to me or anything about my being Jewish or representing a Jewish media outlet.

Part of the reason is that among the hardliners, they make a kind of rigid compartmentalization between Jews, who they consider people of the book under Islam, and Zionists, who are a maligned international force that has nothing whatever to do with Jews or Judaism.

ZAKARIA: What I was struck by was you talked about how Jewish life in Iran can be rich. And you point out that there are 13 active synagogues, five Jewish schools, two kindergartens, and a 100-bed Jewish hospital. Did that surprise you?

COHLER-ESSES: No, because I'd done some of my research earlier. I know it's surprising to other people. But, yes, they do have a community there. It is much smaller than the community that existed before Khomeini came to power and the shah was overthrown.

There is estimates, depending on who you talk to, between 9,000 and 20,000 Jews there. Before the revolution in 1979, there were 80,000 to 100,000. So it's clear that life is possible there. Everything you said is correct. But many Jews have chosen to make their lives elsewhere since the revolution took place.

ZAKARIA: Is it your sense that the Jews of Iran are living fulfilled lives or are they embattled and miserable, I guess would be the simplest way to put it?

COHLER-ESSES: They're not miserable. But they have discriminations. One of the leaders who I quoted in my story said, we're not oppressed, but there are limitations. And that's true and it has many specific multiple meanings.

If a - under Sharia, if a Muslim murders a Jew, the - I was told by this Jewish leader, the price is blood money. That's the penalty. But if a Jew marries - if a Jew murders a Muslim, the price is execution. They were very proud because they are pushing back against these limitations in their own way. But they do not challenge in any way the legitimacy of Sharia that gives them many disadvantages, which they then try to figure out ways around and ways to fight.

ZAKARIA: The American foreign policy writer, Peter Beinart, who happens to also be Jewish, posits that if the Tehran regime had genocidal inclinations toward Jews, surely they would have, in some way, taken it out on the Jews who live in Iran, and the fact that they don't should cast some doubt on the idea that Iran has these kind of anti-Semitic and genocidal intentions. Do you buy that?

COHLER-ESSES: No. I don't agree with that, although I certainly agree with the fact that the Jews in Iran are not being harmed or actively oppressed, notwithstanding the discrimination I mentioned.

But there are six million Jews living in Israel. And as you mentioned, there are statements by leaders, such as the Supreme Leader, Khamenei, that talk about eliminating that state, which would certainly involve eliminating many lives to make that happen.

And then they have 9,000 to 20,000 Jews in Iran, who are accommodated within their civilization, within their society.

They do that for many reasons. It may be a political asset for them to have a community of Jews, even though a shrinking one, that they can point to and say, look, these are our Jews in our country and we're not doing anything to them, while maintaining a position toward Israel which, of necessity, would involve a military war that would kill many people, including many civilians, in order to get rid of the very idea of a Jewish state.

ZAKARIA: Larry, a pleasure to have you on. Fascinating report.

COHLER-ESSES: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.

###END INTERVIEW###


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