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Moses and the Mullahs

Conference Explores Tensions between Israel and Iran, Reflects on Their Long History

Rising tensions between Israel and Iran were explored in the context of their lengthy, nuanced relationship in “Israel and Iran: From Cyrus the Great to the Islamic Republic,” a conference held at the Yeshiva University Museum on October 31.

Dr. Houman Sarshar leads a panel discussion on Persian culture

Co-sponsored by the Center for Israel Studies and the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Center for International Affairs, the conference featured panel presentations that highlighted Jewish engagement with historical, cultural and contemporary Iran. Subjects ran the gamut from Jewish life under the Persian Empire to the surprising impact of Jews on classical and popular Iranian music.

“There is a larger conversation about Iran and Israel,” said Dr. Steven Fine, director of the Center for Israel Studies. “We really wanted to get away from the confrontation model as a way of talking about Iran and instead showcase that as a piece of this long, multifaceted history which needs to be dealt with. This is a much more complex and interesting relationship than people realize.”

Houman Sarshar, founder and director of the Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History, echoed that sentiment in a question-and-answer session. “I think if there’s one thing the history has taught us, it’s that even if at times these two sides have not admitted it, they’re desperately in need of each other,” he said.  “They’ve learned through history that the posturing may be beneficial, but it’s only posturing, because the times they’ve both prospered are when they’ve acknowledged their interdependence.”

Renowned scholars in an array of fields shared their expertise. Speakers included Mahnaz Moazami, associate research scholar at Columbia University; Judith Goldstein, professor of anthropology at Vassar College; Sarshar; and YU’s own Yaakov Elman, professor of Judaic studies at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies; Evan Resnick, assistant professor of political science at Yeshiva College; and Daniel Tsadik, associate professor of Sephardic and Iranian Studies at Revel—all of whom have done ground-breaking research in Mid-eastern fields.

According to Fine, one of the conference’s aims was to harness the university’s innate talent. “We have the expertise on our campus, and this is the place to start the discussion,” he said. “YU is the place to talk about Iran.”

Students, academics, members of the public and field authorities attended the conference, which was also sponsored by Revel, YU Museum and YU Sephardic Studies Program. “It’s a tremendously understudied subject,” said Dr. Lawrence Schiffman, chairman of the department of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University and an acclaimed Jewish historian. “To have so many learned and distinguished people gathered together to talk about the relationship between Jews and Iran is truly remarkable.”

Dr. Evan Resnick discusses contemporary American-Iranian relations. Drs. Daniel Tsadik and Ruth Bevan look on.

Mijal Bitton, a student in Tsadik’s “Jews Under Islam” course at Revel, agreed. “It’s a little-known subject and I think it’s foolish to ignore Iran and its history when you see its place in the world today,” she said. “There are definitely echoes of its history and its culture in modern Iran which you can’t understand without context.”

“The speakers today have brought out historic rhythms that helped shape Mideast relationships,” said Dr. Ruth Bevan, director of the Center for International Affairs. “How many of us really know anything about Iran? We talk about it all the time. When you know things, you don’t just operate on fears and prejudices.”

Tsadik, the conference’s coordinator, drew the day to a close with a presentation of his own research, which focuses on the modern history of Iran, Shi'ah Islam and Iran’s religious minorities. “Generally, scholars make no serious attempt to compare the Jews’ situation in Iran with that in other places or to systematically juxtapose, connect or contrast questions relevant to Iran’s Jews and issues of broader Jewish significance,” he noted. “A conference such as this one shows us that in virtually all sub-fields related to the Jews of Iran, so much more can and should be written. So many questions still await serious answers.”