PBS story on Iran's Jews hurt by failure to fully explain what captive minorities must do to survive

Captive minorities in nations ruled by all-controlling despots play by the rules — or else. Iran’s estimated 9,000-15,000 Jews, one of the world’s most ancient Jewish communities, are a case in point.

Why? Because playing by the rules is just what happened recently when a visiting PBS journalist came calling on Iran’s Jews — with Teheran’s explicit permission, of course.

You’ll recall that Iran’s leaders constantly call for Israel’s physical destruction and that Teheran funds Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas. Both proxies are also sworn to destroy Israel.

This means that Iranian Jews are between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Many of them have relatives in Israel, and the Jewish homeland is where their biblical-era ancestors left from some 2,700 years ago, when forced into exile.

In late November, one of PBS’s premiere news platforms, “PBS NewsHour,” broadcast a piece that, like other attempts to explain the Iranian Jewish community, came up frustratingly short.

Once again, those Iranian Jews interviewed on camera said what they always say, which is that life for them in Iran is, on balance, secure — though not always perfectly so — and that Israel is their enemy simply because it's their government's enemy.

What else could they say in a nation where just one politically suspect utterance by a Jewish community member, particularly if made to a foreign media outlet, could mean devastating consequences for them and their co-religionists?

(“Special correspondent” Reza Sayah did note some of the tightly controlled circumstances in which Iran’s Jewish minority survives as second-class citizens. But PBS could have added the comments of an outside expert or two to more fully explain the Iranian context. I can’t help wonder why that didn't happen.)

Here’s the lede-in to the NewsHour story, lifted from the segment’s transcript:

Jewish people have called Iran home for nearly 3,000 years. The Trump administration and U.S. ally Israel often depict the Iranian government as composed of anti-Semitic radical Islamists bent on destroying Israel. But within Iran, many of the estimated 15,000 Jews say they're safe and happy living in the Islamic Republic. Reza Sayah takes a rare inside look at life for Iran's Jewish minority.

“Safe and happy”? Perhaps in a Potemkin village sort of way.

By that I mean that allowing Iranian Jews limited religious — but not real political — freedom (though no group actually has either in Iran) allows Teheran to claim it's not anti-Semitic but only anti-Zionist. That’s a distinction without meaning, it seems to me, because if Iran has its way and topples Israel, killing tens of thousands of Israeli Jews in the process, what does it matter whether they died because they're “Zionists” and not simply “Jews”?

So it’s no surprise that everyone interviewed on camera — and it's frequently the same community representatives who get to speak in stories about Iran’s Jews — toed the official line. But what are news consumers supposed to make of this?

Not much, I’d say. The same goes for any story about any captive minority — say China’s Tibetan Buddhists or Muslim Uighurs, or Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses —  done without including outside experts who can freely provide the needed context.

I’m supported in this by the only Jewish writer for an avowedly pro-Zionist, American-Jewish newspaper allowed into Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Larry Cohler-Esses. He reported from Iran in 2015, when he worked for The Forward.

When Cohler-Esses published his stories on Iran’s Jews I posted here at GetReligion that, while I greatly respected his journalistic abilities, the highly controlled environment in which he was obligated to work in Iran limited the value of his reportage.

Writing for JTA, the international Jewish news service, Cohler-Esses said much the same about the recent PBS effort.

Several days after the Jewish Daily Forward published the first-ever report from the Islamic Republic of Iran by a reporter openly representing a Jewish, pro-Israel news outlet, the host of CNN’s foreign affairs show “GPS” posed a vexing question.

Citing the Forward’s surprisingly favorable account of the circumstances under which Iran’s Jews lived, Fareed Zakaria asked: “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.” Turning to the reporter who filed the story, Zakaria asked, “Do you buy that?”

As the journalist in question, I didn’t at the time. And with PBS pitching basically the same point in its Nov. 27 report on conditions for Iran’s Jews today, I don’t now, even though both my August 2015 report and the recent story by PBS accurately depict the small number of Jews who remain in Iran today as living pretty secure lives with religious freedom and economic viability.

The problem in both Zakaria’s question and the PBS report (and many similar reports) is the premise.

As “PBS News Hour” put it in its story’s very first paragraph: “The Trump administration and U.S. ally Israel often depict the Iranian government as composed of anti-Semitic radical Islamists bent on destroying Israel. But within Iran, many of the estimated 15,000 Jews say they’re safe and happy living in the Islamic Republic.”

Why the but? Both things are true. Many Jews in Iran are safe and happy — at least enough to prefer staying there rather than gamble by uprooting themselves for an uncertain future elsewhere. And Iran is a country whose most powerful forces — within a divided government — are radical Islamists who do seek to do what they can to ultimately liquidate Israel as a Jewish state, albeit not at the cost of their own country’s existence.

To sum up, always regard news reports that only feature members of a captive minority — religious or otherwise — with deep skepticism unless it includes balancing input from those in the know who live outside the nation in question and are free to speak their mind.

If that seems obvious, count yourself among those with an important degree of media literacy. The problem as I see it, however, is that far too few news consumers, particularly in today’s highly polarized media climate, possess the media literacy required to make sense of all the information that comes their way.

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