Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is perhaps the world’s pre-eminent anti-Semite, frequently denouncing Zionism and calling for the destruction of Israel. He has also repeatedly denied the Nazi Holocaust that killed 6-million Jews.
Now, as the war rhetoric ramps up between Israel and Iran, the conflict between the two countries could take a deadly turn as the Jewish State is believed to be planning a military strike to destroy Iran’s nascent nuclear program.
However, amidst all this back-and-forth talk of attacks and retaliation and worries about the outbreak of a potential World War III, Ahmadinejad may be hiding a secret -- he may be Jewish himself.
That may not be so shocking, considering that Jews have lived in Iran for at least 2,600 years. Jews have experienced periods of tolerance and prosperity in Iran, mixed with eras of persecution, discrimination and forced conversions.
Under the Pahlevi dynasty, which was established in 1925, Jews in Iran began a renaissance of sorts and played as significant role in Iran’s political and cultural milieu.
According to Jewish Virtual Library (JVL), as many as 100,000 Jews lived in Iran in 1948, during the formation of the state of Israel. By 1979, when an Islamic Revolution deposed the Shah, about 80,000 Jews lived in the country. Thereafter, thousands of Jews fled, many of them wealthy businessmen who were forced to abandon large amounts of property.
There are believed to be between 20,000 and 25,000 Jews left in Iran now. The Teheran Parliament designates one seat for a Jewish member, but he is constrained by law to support Iran’s foreign policy, which includes, among other things, strident opposition to Zionism and the State of Israel.
The Iranian parliament’s sole Jewish MP, Maurice Motamed, has criticized Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denials, but has supported his foreign policy stances otherwise.
I am an Iranian first and a Jew second, Motamed has reportedly said.
JVL noted: “The Jewish community does enjoy a measure of religious freedom but is faced with constant suspicion of cooperating with the Zionist state and with ‘imperialistic America’ -- both such activities are punishable by death.”
Still, Iran has the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside of Israel.
Moreover, it is entirely conceivable that Ahmadinejad himself has Jewish roots.
According to a 2009 report in the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, Ahmadinejad’s national identity card shows that his family’s original surname was Sabourjian, a Jewish name that means cloth-weaver.
Sabourjian derives from “weaver of the sabour,” the name for the Jewish tallit shawl worn in Persia.
Historically, the Sabourjians have lived in the same part of Iran where Ahmadinejad was born, near Garmsar in the village of Aradan, in the Semnan province of north central Iran.
The paper reported that Ahmadinejad’s family changed their name and converted to Shia Islam soon after his birth.
While Ahmadinejad has admitted his family changed its name, he has been otherwise vague about the particulars behind the change.
Ali Nourizadeh, an expert on Iran at the of the Centre for Arab and Iranian Studies in London, told the Telegraph that Ahmadinejad is likely attacking Israel and the Jews in order to hide his own origins.
This aspect of Mr. Ahmadinejad's background explains a lot about him, Nourizadeh said.
Every family that converts into a different religion takes a new identity by condemning their old faith. By making anti-Israeli statements he is trying to shed any suspicions about his Jewish connections. He feels vulnerable in a radical Shia [Muslim] society [like Iran].
Nourizadeh also declared: [Ahmadinejad] has changed his name for religious reasons, or at least his parents had. Sabourjian is well known Jewish name in Iran.
A report in Foreign Policy Magazine stated that Ahmadinejad’s original surname was Sabaghian, or cloth-dyers.
Regardless, whether it was Sabourjian or Sabaghian, cloth-weaving and cloth-dying were historically deemed jobs unfit for Muslims.
FP noted that Jewish clothworkers have existed in Aradan for centuries.
“Ahmadinejad's hometown of Aradan had a Jewish minority into modern times, the remnants of a community dating back to Silk Road traders during the 3rd to 6th centuries B.C.” FP stated.
“Likewise, both Sabour and Sabagh (or Sabbagh) were uncommon last names for Muslim cloth weavers and dyers.”
Reportedly, Ahmadinejad’s opponents in the Iranian government itself have also raised the issue of his true origins. If true, Ahmadinejad’s legitimacy as president of Iran would become jeopardized. Yet, Ahmadinejad has somehow survived, despite many political intrigues involving him and mullahs in the Teheran parliament.
However not everyone is convinced of the rumors.
Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian analyst and writer, wrote in the Guardian newspaper that Ahmadinejad is definitely not Jewish.
Professor David Yeroshalmi, an Israeli expert on Iranian Jewish communities, told Javedanfar: There is no such meaning for the word 'sabour' in any of the Persian Jewish dialects, nor does it mean Jewish prayer shawl in Persian. Also, the name Sabourjian is not a well-known Jewish name.”
Javedanfar also asserted that Ahmadinejad's father Ahmad was devout Shia, who taught the Quran before and after Ahmadinejad's birth.
In addition, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's mother is a “Seyyede” which is a title given to Muslim women whose families are believed to direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.
“One has to be born into a Seyyed family: the title is never given to Muslims by birth, let alone converts,” Javedanfar wrote.
“This makes it impossible for Ahmadinejad's mother to have been a Jew.”
Javedanfar also explained that Ahmadinejad’s father changed his surname due to class considerations
“When it became mandatory to adopt surnames, many people from rural areas chose names that represented their professions or that of their ancestors,” he wrote. “This made them easily identifiable as townfolk. In many cases they changed their surnames upon moving to Tehran, in order to avoid snobbery and discrimination from residents of the capital.”
It is unclear how (or if) Ahmadinejad has dealt with rumors regarding his ancestry. He has likely shrugged them off as propaganda by his political enemies. However, it is known that he once ordered the arrest of an Iranian blogger who called for an investigation into his background.