In December 2005, in his fourth month as president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called the Holocaust a myth. This was during an interview with Al-Alam, an Arabic-language channel broadcast from Tehran. The interview wasn’t an outlier. A year earlier, under new leadership, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, the state-owned TV network that operates Al-Alam, broadcast a number of programs that described the Holocaust as a “made-up story,” a fiction or a myth. IRIB has always been hostile to what it calls the “Zionist Regime,” but prior to 2004 there had been no orchestrated campaign to cast the Holocaust as a lie.
Haroun Yashayaie is a past head of the Tehran Jewish Committee, an umbrella organization that oversees the administration of the city’s Jewish schools, kosher butcher shops and synagogues. A former film executive and newspaper editor, Yashayaie, who is 84, has always kept an eye on the media. When an IRIB channel labeled the Holocaust a fiction, he wrote an open letter in condemnation. When Ahmadinejad repeated the claim, he wrote another: “The Holocaust is, in fact, an open wound on the hands of Western civilization. … The Holocaust is not a myth in the same way that the massacre at Sabra and Shatila is not a myth.” After distributing the second letter to the media, Yashayaie personally delivered it to Ahmadinejad at a summit for religious minorities. The new president and his key cultural advisers were conflating criticisms of Israel with Holocaust denial, Yashayaie contended, and thereby whitewashing the crimes of fascism.
In both letters, Yashayaie emphasized that he had never been shy of publicly criticizing Israel. As a graduate student at the University of Tehran in 1967, he was one of the few students to speak out against the Six-Day War, publishing an open letter in Ferdowsi magazine titled “As a Jew I Am Ashamed.” At the time Iran and Israel were staunch allies, and in retaliation for his letter, Yashayaie says, he was summarily arrested and imprisoned by the Shah’s security forces. He protested that the rhetoric he had condemned concerned not Israel but rather “an ablution of neo-fascism.”
During his nineteen years as president of the Tehran Jewish Committee, Yashayaie met two of Ahmadinejad’s predecessors, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-97) and Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). He visited Rafsanjani on at least two occasions, and was received with open arms. “Rafsanjani was the most nonchalant cleric I ever met,” he says. Khatami attended a synagogue service in February 2004 at the invitation of the Jewish Committee, a “milestone” in Jewish relations with the Islamic Republic, according to Yashayaie.
Now retired, Yashayaie can still be found most days at his production company, Pakhshiran, on the sixth floor of what was once a white marble building in downtown Tehran, now soot-gray and surrounded by stores selling baby goods. This is where I visit Yashayaie weekly, mostly on Sundays, a day after Shabbat, which he prefers. The vintage movie posters lining the hallway to Pakhshiran’s door tell stories of car chases, thieves and quarreling neighbors. Inside, visitors can quickly spot Yashayaie’s office. On one side is a bookshelf that holds the company’s film prizes, including the Bronze Leopard at Locarno, and also a keffiyeh and prayer beads from Iran’s Supreme Leader. On the other side, photos of decaying landscapes frame the wall, recalling Iran of an earlier Persian era, when Yashayaie was born.