Iran Chooses Anti-Israel Rabbis To Represent U.S. Jews

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Four US rabbis traveled to Iran this week, hoping to make contact with 10 Iranian Jews who are on trial on charges of spying for Israel.

The Rabbis are believed to be the first foreign Jews allowed to enter Iran. However, the move could be just a ploy -- a "classic kind of propaganda," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.

The rabbis, chosen by Iran to make the trip, are part of a tiny sect of Judaism - Neturei Karta - which is extremely anti-Zionist and vehemently opposes the existence of the secular state of Israel in the Holy Land. They believe that Israel will be established only when the Messiah comes.

However, Cooper said Iran is making some interesting moves, which indicate that the international pressure is having an effect.

Cooper was invited to visit the Iranian mission to the United Nations three weeks ago, after he sent a letter to the mission explaining that he would hold a prayer vigil outside the mission. Two thousand people attended that vigil.

This week, Cooper and five other rabbis from the various streams of Judaism met with Amir Zamaniania of the Iranian mission to the United Nations in New York.
Although they've been upstaged by their colleagues already in Iran, the rabbis are requesting permission to visit the accused Jews in the southern city of Shiraz.

Lawyers for the accused submitted their final defense this week, pleading the innocence of their clients, despite the fact that nine of the ten already have pleaded guilty to the charges against them. The international community has called those "confessions" forced, condemning the trial as nothing more than a show.

Thirteen Jews and eight Moslems were arrested more than a year ago and accused of spying for Israel and the U.S. Later the U.S. was dropped from the charge. Both countries vehemently denied any connection with the accused.

Three of the Jews were let out on bail. They have pleaded innocent, though their case has not yet been heard.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, called the guilty pleas "confessions without a crime," but didn't blame the defendants.

"No one can second guess someone who has been in an Iranian prison for a year. Confessions are the norm and not the exception," Hoenlein said. However, he pointed out, that when the 10 were brought together the so-called "confessions" fell apart.

An example of the kind of question the defendants were asked, Cooper said, was "Do you have any relatives outside of Iran?"

Cooper said the goal of a trip to Iran is simple: "To create momentum to get them out...of harm's way." The rabbis hope to keep the contacts with Iranian diplomats on a "spiritual" level; he said they are "not interested in a fight with Iran."

"As soon as the sentences are announced," Cooper said, "there will be much more aggressive public manifestations." Another prayer vigil is planned for next week.

Will the trouble of the 13 Iranian Jews prompt a mass exodus of Jews from Iran?

Menashe Amir, Iranian Affairs Expert in Jerusalem, said he would not like to comment on the possibility of a mass exodus of the largest and one of the oldest Jewish communities in the Middle East outside of Israel.

"There is no doubt that there is great fear in the Iranian Jewish community," Amir said. Some Iranian Jews have already sought asylum in other countries not because of persecution, Amir said, but because of a "lack of security in Iran."

"International pressure is vital and affective," Hoenlein said. "It made [the case] the number one human rights cause in the world."