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IV Thinking and Talking about Jews and the Jewish State

“Death to Israel”: Perceptions of Israel and Jews among Iranian Muslims


Most research into Iranian antisemitism and anti-Zionism has focused upon the political and institutional level in Iran (Jaspal, 2013a; 2013c; Litvak, 2006; Shahvar, 2009). Some of this research is summarised in Chapter 1. The data presented in this chapter are drawn from an exploratory, qualitative interview study with Iranian men and women. This chapter provides qualitative insights into the social representations held by a group of Iranians concerning Israel and Jews, with a particular focus on the role of identity processes therein. After a brief methodological overview, the following themes are outlined and discussed

(i) Anti-Zionism and Iranian National Identity; (ii) Positioning Jews in relation to the Ingroup; (iii) Creating and Elaborating Antisemitic Social Representations; and (iv) Anti-Zionism and Holocaust Revisionism.

Methodological overview

In the summer of 2011, 40 Iranian men and women between the ages of 18 and 28 were invitedto participate inanin-depth semi-structured interview study concerning “identity and social attitudes among Iranians”. The interview schedule tapped into: (i) self and identity, and particularly religious and national identification;

(ii) political trust; (iii) perceptions of Jews and Israelis; and (iv) knowledge of political issues and international relations. The interviews were conducted in Tehran, the capital city of Iran. Of the 40 participants, there were 20 men and 20 women. Twenty-four individuals self-identified as political “reformists” and 16 as “hardliners”. The hardline political movement in Iran is known to espouse a strong anti-Zionist position, while the reformist movement appears to take a relatively more pragmatic stance. For instance, in a CNN interview the former reformist president of Iran, Khatami, did denounce the Israeli–Palestinian peace process as “flawed and unjust”, but he also stated that the regime in Iran did not “intend to impose our views on others or stand in their [the Palestinians'] way”.1 Moreover, foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Asefi stated that “we respect all decisions taken by the majority of the Palestinians” (see Jaspal, 2013a). This demonstrates the relatively pragmatic stance taken by some reformist politicians

1  CNN Interactive in Iran. It was deemed necessary to recruit participants who identified with either political stance in order to examine the potential relationship between political orientation and social representations of Jews and Israel. The sample could be described as an urban sample because all of the respondents lived in Tehran. They all described themselves as being of Persian ethnic origin, as Shiite Muslim and as very to moderately religious. The sample was relatively educated – 27 participants had completed, or were studying towards, a university degree; 10 participants had completed high school; and only 3 participants had no formal qualifications.

The data were analysed using qualitative thematic analysis, which has been described as “a method for identifying, analysing and reporting patterns (themes) within data” (Braun and Clarke, 2006, p. 78). The study aimed to capture participants' attempts to make sense of their personal and social worlds, with particular foci upon their perceptions of Israel and Jews and of their own identities. Consequently, the analysis adopted a realist, epistemological approach in that participants' talk was viewed as a fairly reliable reflection of their cognitions and representations. The author transcribed the recordings and read the transcripts repeatedly in order to become as intimate as possible with the accounts, and preliminary interpretations were noted in the left margin. These included inter alia participants' meaning-making, particular forms of language, and apparent contradictions and patterns within the data. Initial codes aimed to capture, from the analyst's perspective, participants' perceptions of Jews and Israel and their own identities. The right margin was then used to collate these initial codes into potential themes, which captured the essential qualities of the accounts. As highlighted by Braun and Clarke (2006, p. 82), “a theme captures something important about the data in relation to the research question, and represents some level of patterned response or meaning within the data set”. Themes were developed as part of the data analysis, in order to provide insight into the phenomenological worlds of participants. The list of themes was reviewed rigorously against the data in order to ensure their compatibility and numerous interview extracts were listed against each corresponding theme. At this stage specific interview extracts, which were considered vivid, compelling and representative of the themes, were selected for presentation in this chapter. Finally, four superordinate themes representing the themes derived from participants' accounts were developed and ordered into a logical and coherent narrative structure.

Both the gender and political orientation of each participant are indicated in the extracts below. In the quotations from participants, an ellipsis indicates where material has been excised; and other material within square brackets is clarificatory.

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