A Brief History of Iran's Jews


         

a group of Iranian Jews, some time in 1918
a group of Iranian Jews, some time in 1918

 
 
 
 

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The Jewish Iran

By Peter Bjel

A determined Jewish community has been in Iran since before the arrival of Islam. The experiience of Iran's Jews is much like the contradictory experience of Iran itself.

Iran is a country of contradictions, as are the current issues that stem from it. The Bush administration has been teeter tottering in its relations with Tehran, menacingly threatening confrontation some days, or upholding diplomatic courses on others. A military strike scenario on Iran, which cannot be overruled, borders on both the inevitable and apocalyptic.

The country is ruled by a repressive clique of clerics that wield ultimate power, yet they are deeply unpopular by a progressive and increasingly restless population, two-thirds of which is under the age of thirty.

The same holds true of its pronounced Jewish community, which is the largest community of Jews in the Middle East, next to Israel. On the one hand, if the country's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is to be believed, this Islamist ideologue that presides over the de jure Presidency of Iran is intent on finishing that which Hitler failed to complete.

Soon after the rise of Iran's theocratic government in February 1979, the now-late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini realigned Iran politically against Israel, and in the following years went on to support terrorist groups such as Lebanon's Hezbollah, in a bid to undermine Israel and other Western targets.

In July 2007, the Society of Iranian Jews, which is the voice of the country's 25,000-35,000-strong community, rebuked the urges of Diaspora Jews and the Israeli government, both of who offered as much as the equivalent of $5,300 (CAN) per individual to immigrate to Israel.

Maurice Motamed, the current Iranian Jewish parliamentarian
Maurice Motamed, the current Iranian Jewish parliamentarian

"The identity of Iranian Jews is not tradable for any amount of money…Iranian Jews are among the most ancient Iranians. Iran's Jews love their Iranian identity and their culture, so threats and this immature political enticement will not achieve their aim of wiping out the identity of Iranian Jews," the community declared.

History and the community's resilience is an epicentre of this identity and pride. As amongst the oldest community in Iran, the country's Jews first arrived in 727 B.C.E., after they had been deported to Media by the Assyrian king, Tiglathpileser III, following a failed uprising. In 680, a second wave of Jews arrived in Persia, to escape persecution from another Assyrian king, Nebuchadnezzar II.

More Jews followed from the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great. In 539, he issued the so-called 'Cyrus Declaration,' which allowed the exiled Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild the Temple. Some 30,000 did just this, but many others chose to stay on Babylonian-Persian territory.

According to one history, "These remaining exiles can be regarded as the nucleus of the permanent Jewish settlements that gradually expanded from the center to the provinces. The tolerant attitude of the rulers toward Jewish subjects brought gratitude from the Jews and found expression in subsequent generations." A brief interruption in this status quo by the invading Alexander the Great, who overthrew the Achaemenid dynasty, altered Jewish life in Persia (as it was known then), but the community increased during the following Sassanid dynasty.

The long course of Persia's Jews changed when, in 642 C.E., the Battle of Nehavend took place, and the twelve centuries-long independence of Persia ended with the victory of Arab-Muslim forces. Islam became the official state religion, Arabic influence spread, and all non-Muslims essentially became second-class citizens. "Jews were made to wear a yellow ribbon on their arms and Christians a blue ribbon to distinguish them from Muslims."

Forbidden from working in the government, many Persian Jews worked as merchants in banking and money lending, sometimes facing official persecutions, which intensified during the Safavid dynasty. From 1502-1736, Shiite Islam rose in prominence, and it increased the power of clerics and introduced the concept of 'un-cleanliness' of non-believers. Many Jews converted to Islam as a result, some of who continued to secretly practice Judaism.

The last years of the Qajar dynasty, from 1794-1925, saw a constitutional movement in Persia. Its high point was in 1908, with a guarantee of freedom of religion amongst the Jewish, Christian and Zoroastrian communities. In a move that remains unchanged to the present, "All three communities had the right to elect one delegate to the parliament, although they could not participate in the election of other delegates."

The Pahlavi dynasty, which began under Reza Shah (and continued under his son, Muhammad Reza Shah) through the Twentieth Century, outlawed the 'un-cleanliness' of non-Muslims concept. With the resulting economic boom under the Shah, Iran's Jews moved into the economic mainstream, and in 1950, his government officially recognized the fledgling State of Israel. Economic and political linkage followed. One year later, 8,000 Iranian Jews immigrated to Israel, but again, many more remained; Iran was the lone Muslim country that did not expel its Jewish population after Israel's founding.

The Shah's modernization of Iran, however, and the golden age he provided to the country's Jews, was a double-edged sword, and over time, his regime became increasingly repressive and despotic. It was an open secret that the Shah had been restored to power in August 1953 via a CIA-backed coup, and many disgruntled Iranians gradually grew more vocal in their hostility towards him. "In general the late 1970s was a time when everybody, not just the Jews, knew they had to be careful not to say anything that might offend the Shah's court," writes one historian.

The events of 1978-1979, when the Ayatollah assumed power in Iran, shocked observers for the hostility and pronounced Islamic tone they took. Some of those Jews able to do so, numbering in the tens of thousands, left Iran amid the chaos.

Since then, at least 13 Jews were ordered executed by Iranian authorities, usually on the grounds that they were "Israeli spies." One of the first community leaders to fall victim to this was the mogul and Jewish parliamentary representative Habib Elghanian, who was executed, ostensibly for treason, collusion with the Shah, and Zionist sympathies.

In 1999, on the eve of Passover, another group of thirteen Jews from southern Iran were arrested for espionage, but in the end, their various sentences were scrapped, thanks to international pressure and edicts from Iran's current Supreme Ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khameini.

Here is where the paradox comes in. The same regime that, to the present, disseminates anti-Semitic propaganda and exports hostility and threats to Israel – a country that Iran still refuses to recognize – constitutionally protects Iran's non-Muslims, guaranteeing "freedom in the practice of religious duties and functions…" The religious revival in Iran, previously eliminated by the Shah, has actually empowered Jewish community leaders and spurred a revival of Judaism in the community.

Iran's Jews, while subject to harassment from Revolutionary Guards, workers' communities and some government officials, are free to practice Judaism, as well as own private and communal property. Every city hosts a government-recognized Jewish Community Council, which is responsible for the interests, welfare, religious and educational needs of the community.

Most of the community is self-employed, working mostly in small trade and retail businesses, and a small percentage are professionals. Jews serve in the Iranian army, and several died in Iran's war with Iraq. While there are some complications and rules, those Jews that wish to leave Iran, ultimately may do so; several report that they have travelled to Israel in order to visit relatives problem-free, though it helps that they travelled via Turkey.

"There's little outward anti-Semitism of the kind one sees in the Western world nowadays, and it's a much warmer society than one imagines from the outside," reports the aforementioned historian. "Iranians feel a deep national and cultural bond with each other, and the majority of Iranian Jews think of themselves as Iranians first."

Evidently, Ayatollah Khomeini agreed, as when he declared, "the Iranian government differentiates between Iranian Jews and the Zionist government of Israel." To one group of concerned Iranian Jews bold enough to approach the authorities after 1979, they were told "All three prophets were sent by God to guide mankind. All those heretical religion on earth never tended to the soul of mankind. But the three monotheistic religions do. They are the only religions to descend directly from heaven."

The survival of Iran's Jews need not have happened. At the end of the Fifteenth Century, Central Asia, some of whose populations had originally migrated eastward from Persian and Babylonian areas, had mostly become Muslim. Many religious minorities vanished, but for the Jews, despite the odds. Iran's Jews attest to this remarkable resilience and determination, and patterns evinced from their history shows that, short of catastrophe, they will remain an indefinite presence in Iran.

- Peter Bjel is a graduate student at the University of Toronto, and can be reached at peterbjel@hotmail.com.

~~~~~~~

from the December 2007 Chanukah Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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