The Jews of Iran: A Future Outside the Promised Land

January 27, 2019

In the Middle East, tensions between Iran and Israel are exponentially escalating. The relationship between both nations, once friendly during the era of the Pahlavi dynasty (1947-1953), has witnessed lows that reached existential threats since the Iranian revolution in 1979. At the early stages of the State of Israel’s formation, Israel was home to 806,000 residents. As of 2016, 8.5 million residents[1] of which 75.4% are Jewish[2] live in Israel. Explicitly a Jewish State, the principle was enforced by the Nation-State bill passed in July 2018 that favors rights of Jewish citizens first, claims Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and sets Hebrew as the official language of the country making Arabic a secondary language. Today's Israel is home to Jewish descendants of native residents of what it refers to as Judea and Samaria, descendants of the second world war refugees, Jews from around the world having immigrated to Israel, and Arab citizens of Israel. Months after declaring its independence and throughout the years, Israel granted thousands of Jews around the world citizenship in line with its 1950 Law of Return. Although Israeli policies make of the State of Israel a haven for every Jew, those born outside Israel do not necessarily identify as Israelis. One of the oldest Jewish diasporas in the Middle East is in modern Iran, where around 8,500 Iranian Jews are citizens of the Islamic Republic[3]. Certain Iranian cities were centers of Torah and learning, such as Kashan, a major center for religious and intellectual activity in the seventeenth century. Iranian Jews having immigrated to Israel are referred to as Parism, Hebrew for Persians. They are around 150,000[4] to have left Iran to build their future in the Promised Land, but what about those who choose to stay and make Israel’s sworn enemy home to the next generation of Jews?


The Jewish community of Iran is among the oldest in the world. Its members are known to be descendants of Jews who remained in the region following the Babylonia exile when the Achaemenid rules of the First Persian Empire allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem. Alexander's conquest and domination of the Persian Empire did not radically change the situation of the Jewish communities in Persia. The next rulers of Persia, the Parthians, ruled the country for five centuries and gave the Jews broad religious, cultural or even legal autonomy. Jewish chronicles mention the Parthian period as one of the best in their history.


Before 1948, Iranian Jews were partially descendants of ethnic Jews from Palestine, and for another part, they were descendants of converted Persians, or other members of ethnic groups present in Iran, including Kurds. Most Iranian Jews spoke Farsi as their mother tongue. The Persian Empire extended far beyond today’s recognized Iranian borders. According to Iranian historians, Ismail, founder of the Safavid era, took an important part of Iran’s history. During his time in the fifteenth century, it was the first time since the Arab conquest that Iran is united on the political and religious levels, becoming Shiite. Sunnis and Jews were persecuted, as described by Babai Ben Lutf of Kashan (1613- 1662), He also described the Afghan invasion and mass persecution of Jews between (1729-1730). Jews then had two options: convert to Islam or abide by humiliating decrees.


The Alliance Israelite Universelle was the vector of education for the Jews of Iran, previously versed in the study of Hebrew and the Jewish religion. The first Alliance school in the region was established in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1865. Contacts were established with the Iranian Jewish community but were not fully successful. Following consultations between the Iranian Prime Minister Mirza Osayn Khan and representatives from the alliance In 1873, the Prime Minister was in favor of creating Alliance Israelite Universelle schools in Iran[5]. According to the Anglo-Jewish Association Report (1875-1976), a limited budget and lack of teachers did not allow the establishment of an AIU school in Iran. However, schools following the French curriculum appeared under the reign of Mozaffaredin Shah, and the first AIU school opened its doors in Tehran in 1898, followed by the schools of Hamadan (1900) and Isfahan (1901). Culturally, these schools insisted on French and Persian culture while there was a near disappearance of Hebrew. Back then, Alliance schools were reputable and even attended by noble Muslim children. The First World War challenged communications with Paris, which did not enable the conditions of pursuing the Jewish project. Moreover, traditional Iranian Jewish religious circles did not welcome imperialism from Western cultures noting that French started to become a predominant language. By that time, Jewish pupils no longer progressed in the knowledge of Persian and Hebrew cultures, as well as in the study of their own religion. In these traditionalist circles, a strong protest rose and around 1921 Persian and Hebrew studies started to reappear in the curriculum.


In terms of freedoms, civil and legal rights started to be granted to Jews under the Constitution, thanks to pressure from intellectuals, Bazaars, and Imams. The latter no longer supported the tyrannical regime of Mozaffaredin Shah (1896-1907). The Majlis (Parliament) in 1909 successfully had a Jewish representative. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 awakened Zionism. Immigration to Israel started, and the number of Iranian Jews in Israel multiplied from 1500 in 1917, to 7000 in 1925, especially in Jerusalem[6]. They had kept the Iranian nationality and organized themselves according to their geographical origin: Shiraz, Yazd, Bushehr, and Hamadan. During World War II, about 1200 Jews from Europe were granted Iranian citizenship by the Iranian consul in Paris, Abdol Hussein Sardari, to escape persecution[7].


 An Iranian Jewish man prays in a Synagogue in Iran/Alfred Yaghobzadeh


Until the twentieth century, the Jews of Iran were confined to their own quarters. In general, they were an underprivileged minority, their occupations were restricted to usury and precious metal work. Since the 1920s, Jews have had better prospects for social and economic mobility. Jews wanted to integrate themselves into Iranian society at all costs and identify with the symbols of secular nationalism, but they also wanted to remain Jewish. They appreciated Persian poetry, literature, as well as music and celebrated national holidays. They abandoned their Jewish names for Iranian names and glorified Iran's pre-Islamic past.


The secular nationalist tendency, at least from the standpoint of historical and cultural consciousness, seemed to have paved the way for a rapprochement between Jews and the Iranian people. They received assistance from many international Jewish communities, which helped bring infrastructure improvements such as electricity and water into Jewish neighborhoods. Jews have, since the beginning of the Pahlavi era, gained importance in the Bazaars of Tehran and other cities and after the second world war. They were able to gain access to advanced professions such as pharmacy and medicine. Jews were optimistic about the regime change. When Ayatollah Khomeini — a senior Shi’a Muslim cleric and the future Supreme Leader of the country, returned to Iran in 1979, 5,000 Jews, led by Iranian Chief Rabbi Yedidia Shofet, were among those welcoming him. Some of them held pictures of Khomeini and signs proclaiming: “Jews and Muslims are brothers.” On May 14, 1979, five days after the execution of Jewish community head Habib Elghanian, who was accused of Zionist espionage and activities, a delegation of Jewish leaders set out for Qom to meet with Khomeini, who calmed their fears with the following words: “We make a distinction between the Jewish community and the Zionists–and we know that these are two different things. We are against [the Zionists] because they are not Jews, but politicians…but as for the Jewish community and the rest of the [minority] communities in Iran–they are members of this nation. Islam will treat them in the same manner as it does with all other layers of society.” (Radio Tehran, May 15, 1979)


Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic and its declaration of Islam as the all-encompassing state religion in 1979, the regime has officially distinguished between the Jews of Iran, considered loyal citizens, and other Jews — Israelis, Zionists and world Jewry, toward whom the regime did not conceal its hostility. Zionist activity was made a crime, punishable by severe penalties. There are several specific constitutional provisions about certain religious communities in Iran. Article 13 explicitly recognizing Zoroastrians, Christians, and Jews as the only recognized religious minorities in Iran able to “perform their own religious rites, and to act according to their own canon in personal matters and religious education” (“Islamic Republic of Iran Government Constitution” 2010). Article 14 goes on to state that Iran and its Muslims must treat all non-Muslims in accordance with “ethical norms and the principles of Islamic justice and equity,” but adds the warning of only doing so for those who “refrain from engaging in conspiracy or activity against Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran”. Despite the constitutional recognition of rights, many of the non-Muslims that were persecuted by the state had charges of conspiracy leveled against them. The 1979 constitution grants Jews a permanent seat in Parliament: today Ciamak Moresadegh occupies this seat, succeeding Maurice Motamed in the 2008 elections. The formation of political and religious groups is addressed in Article 26. The article allows for specifically recognized minorities to form such groups, provided they do not violate principles of “independence, freedom, national unity, the criteria of Islam, or the basis of the Islamic Republic”. The final article of the constitution that directly addresses religious minorities and their place within the Iranian state is Article 64, detailing the division of Majlis representatives for minority religious groups. According to this article, the recognized religious minorities are allowed four representatives in Majlis. The Jewish and Zoroastrian communities elect one Majlis representative each, the Assyrian and Chaldean Christians jointly elect a single representative, and the Armenian Christians elect their own representative.


It is clear that the Islamic Republic would keep an eye on those who threaten Iran’s national interest. However, many Iranian Jews have family in Israel and continue to maintain contact with them[8]. Moshe Katsav, president of the State of Israel from 2000 to 2007, was from Yazd, and about 45,000 Iranian Jews emigrated to Israel between 1945 and 1977. Since 1979, there have been situations in which Iran accuses Jews of espionage (along with thousands of Iranian compatriots) and has even executed a dozen including the representative of the community in Tehran Habib Elghanian on May 9, 1979. Today, many Iranian Jews do not consider leaving Iran for Israel. In fact, they’ve been at home for thousands of years despite political ups and downs. They practice their rituals and routine and participate in political life. It is undetermined whether Iranian Jews commonly face forms of discrimination in Iran, but the Islamic Republic is keen to distinguish between Jews and Zionists, yet willing to take serious measures to stop any Zionist activity in Iran, even at the cost of human rights violations.

[1] World Bank Open Data, Population, Total, Israel

[2] The Israel Central Bureau of Statistics

[3] Jewish Virtual Library, Vital Statistics: Jewish Population of the World (1882 - Present)

[4] The Israel Central Bureau of Statistics

[5] Bulletin of the Alliance Israelite Universelle , 1873.

[6] Le Monde sépharade, Shmouël Trigano, Seuil, 2006

[7] Les meilleurs ennemis du monde : Israéliens et Palestiniens, entre voisins

[8] Religious Minorities in Iran: Baha’is, Jews, and the Islamic State Sarah Oliai









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