Larry Cohler-Esses

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

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 fled 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.

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About that quick trip to Iran by an American Jewish journalist. Great job, but ...

About that quick trip to Iran by an American Jewish journalist. Great job, but ...

This Is a delicate one. How do I praise an esteemed colleague for scoring a breakthrough, attention-grabbing, complicated, and perhaps even dangerous story while also cautioning readers to be suspicious of his story's content?

My hope is to make a point about the tough task facing journalists who swoop into a place run by a dictatorship known for its masterful media manipulation, and are expected to produce definitive reports based on their limited time in-country?

I'm speaking about the recent stories published in The Forward  by Larry Cohler-Esses, who recently visited Iran at Teheran's invitation, making him the first journalist from an American Jewish, pro-Zionist publication to do so since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The mere fact of his trip was mainstream news, and understandably so. The New York Times, NPR, CNN, The Guardian, Haaretz, and other big names in American, European and, of course, Israeli journalism rushed to interview him about his experience. 

A personal note: I have known Larry for a quarter century -- yup, I'm dispensing with AP style here; it seems too formal for a colleague. We met when he worked for a Jewish weekly in Washington, D.C., and I toiled for the competition in Baltimore, but we are not close. I know him to be a stickler for accuracy and a reporter with superb journalistic instincts who excels in tackling difficult subjects. I'm sure he accurately reported what he saw and was told.

Currently The Forward's assistant managing editor, it took Larry two years to get his visa for Iran, a sign of his tenacity. But perhaps also a sign of Iran's ability to time its moves to squeeze the most it can out of a situation.

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