Rassad, jewish teacher in Hamadan, birthplace of Esther and Mordecai, dates to 500 BC.
Wife of King Xerxes, who was a son of Darius.
Rock designed by ghanjnameh, Hamaden, Persian account of his victories
Spy Trial of 13 Leaves the Jews of Iran Shaken
By SUSAN SACHS
AMADAN, Iran -- In his spare time, Nejad Rassad, one of only 35 Jews left in this ancient city, tends a building believed to be the mausoleum of Esther, the Jewish queen of Persia who saved her people from annihilation 2,400 years ago.
He is happy to unlock the thick granite door, bend low to enter the dim vaulted crypt, translate the Hebrew words carved on the queen's ebony tomb and then recount in colorful detail the biblical story of Esther and the endangered Jewish community redeemed long ago by royal intervention. But Mr. Rassad, a gaunt 52-year-old teacher impeccably turned out in a summer business suit, became abruptly silent this week when the drama of modern Iran's Jews was mentioned.
"I don't know anything about that," he said when asked about spy charges brought by an Iranian revolutionary court against 13 Jewish men from the Iranian cities of Esfahan and Shiraz. "Life is good here," he added. "Don't ask me anything about that."
The trial, which took place in a closed courtroom in Shiraz in the last two months, has deeply shaken many of the 30,000 Jews in Iran, with some moved to willful silence and others to thoughts of emigration.
A verdict is to be announced on Saturday. While the chief justice in Shiraz has said no defendant faces the death penalty, some diplomats in Tehran say at least some will be convicted and spend time in prison.
The 13 men -- most of them shop clerks or teachers and the youngest a student of 18 -- are accused of spying for Israel. After nearly 15 months in prison, several confessed to giving information to Israelis during secret trips to visit relatives.
But their lawyers have argued that the confessions are invalid and that no evidence shows that the information they are supposed to have passed was classified.
The case has drawn intense international interest, with Jewish and human rights groups criticizing the secret proceedings and the treatment of the accused, especially those paraded on state television to repeat their confessions.
The United States, France, Russia and other nations have made it an issue in their dealings with Iran, calling on President Muhammad Khatami to ensure that the Jews' trial is conducted fairly.
Some diplomats in Tehran have seen a political motivation behind the case, suggesting it was a cynical move by Islamic conservatives to scuttle President Khatami's fledgling rapprochement with the west. For their part, many Iranian officials in the judiciary and in the Khatami government have bridled at the attention from outside, calling it unwarranted interference in Iran's internal affairs
But behind the political debate the case has had more personal ramifications for the Jews of Iran, who are trying to assess its meaning in the context of their personal lives.
In private, many said the spy case was a reminder of how capricious the Iranian system could be and how easily suspicions raised against a few Jews could affect the lives of all Jews in a country that regarded Israel as its archenemy.
"There are a lot of Jews leaving the country now," said Morris Mottamed, a Tehran engineer who represents the country's Jews in the Iranian Parliament, where religious minorities are each allotted one seat. "And I would say that about 40 to 50 percent of the Jews are thinking of leaving Iran."
While an exodus that large has not materialized, private groups in Europe and the United States that assist Jewish immigration acknowledged that the numbers of Iranian Jews seeking their help has increased sharply in recent months.
Officials from some of those groups would say only that the numbers were still relatively small but that the spy case had them concerned about a potential rush of Jews seeking to leave Iran.
In Shiraz, where most of the espionage case defendants and their families live, anxiety spills out in private conversations.
"People have made up their minds -- they're leaving," said a Jewish shopkeeper who agreed to a furtive chat.
"The TV is saying that Jews are spies."
He was panicked and fearful of starting a new life. "If I sell my business and convert the money into dollars, I won't get much," the man said. "What can I do? What am I going to do with my father? His generation worked and worked and now it's for nothing. He loves this country. I love this country.
"You know, if the Islamic Republic said to us, 'Don't walk on the sidewalk,' we wouldn't walk on the sidewalk," the shopkeeper added. "But now, watch, in a year, half of the Jews here will be gone."
The Jews of Iran trace their origins to the sixth century B.C., when Cyrus, the Persian empire-builder, conquered Babylon and freed the Jewish slaves.
Cities like Shiraz and Hamadan, once the summer retreat for Persian rulers, developed vibrant Jewish minorities and well-tended shrines, like that of the prophet Daniel in Shush and that of Queen Esther.
But since the creation of Israel in 1948, and then after the 1979 Islamic revolution that transformed Iran into a theocratic state, much of Iran's Jewish population left for other countries.
Those who remained said they simply learned to adjust to the new Islamic government's requirements, like the obligatory headscarf and cloak for women and the prohibition of many books, films and music.
"There weren't any restrictions on the Jews after the revolution that weren't imposed on all Iranians," said Simon Shabani, a Jewish physician in Hamadan. "Some people could put up with it better than others."
Dr. Shabani might move, but only to Tehran, so that his three children could go to Hebrew school and his wife could be close to a larger Jewish community. But he, for one, said he feels untouched by the tensions around the spy case.
"I just want a nice peaceful life," he said. "These 13 couldn't have been ordinary people. There must have been something."
Iran recognizes its Jews as an officially accepted religious minority, letting them observe their religious ceremonies and services, teach Hebrew to their children and operate Jewish community centers and youth groups.
Still, although some like Dr. Shabani said they feel comfortable, a degree of watchfulness often runs through their daily lives.
In Shiraz, some of the 5,000 Jews who still live in the city sometimes gather for weekend picnics in the summer. But they always ask for government permission.
"We don't want to cause any trouble," said Isach Niknava, the head of the Shiraz Jewish community. "It's more relaxing to have the permission in advance."
Mr. Mottamed said he hoped to dissuade his constituents from leaving out of anxiety over the Jewish spy case. Iranian officials, he added, have assured him that the case is not religiously motivated and that they do not wish to see an exodus of Jews.
But the Iranian government's handling of the espionage trial has sent a different message. Some defendants were queried about their religious feelings and their answers were broadcast, along with their confessions, on the state television channel, which is controlled by Iranian religious hard-liners.
"Jewish people felt insulted," Mr. Mottamed said. "The television focused on one specific minority and questioned its rights. That's one reason why many people are thinking of leaving the country."
That reaction to the broadcast has not elicited much sympathy from Iranian officials.
"It happened at a time when the foreign media had launched a big propaganda for the Jews," said the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ataollah Mohajerani, in an interview. "So our judiciary had to use its instruments to show that the Jews might be guilty, so it used the state television."
If the rest of Iran's Jews do emigrate, he said, that is their decision.
"We prefer our Jewish citizens to live here in Iran with us," said Mr. Mohajerani, considered a moderate in Iran's political pantheon. "This is the choice of the individual to decide where he wants to live."