Iranian Jewish physician

Until the mass migration after the founding of Israel in 1948, Jews made of one largest and longest-lived non-Muslim minorities in Iran. They were widely scattered and lived in almost all major cites and towns and did not live in high enough concentrations to dominate any one area. The Jews in Iran tended to be similar to Muslims culturally and linguistically. They followed “mizrahi” , or Oriental Judaism.

There are about 8,000 or 9,000 Jews in Iran today. They live mostly in Tehran and Shiraz and have traditionally worked as doctors, university professors, businessmen, merchants, taxi drivers, soldiers and janitors. There were about 25,000 to 30,000 of Jews in Iran in the 1990s. This was down from a height of about 100,000 and about 85,000 at the time of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. After that and before that they have been emigrating steadily, mostly to Israel and the United States. There an estimated 300,000 Jews of Iranian descent worldwide, with most of them in Israel and the United States, where there are large communities in Los Angeles and New York.

Jews in Iran speak Farsi as well as dialects that incorporate a number of Hebrew loan words. Local expressions are often unintelligible to other Jewish groups. A mutually intelligible trade language, “letra’i” , basically Hebrews set to Persian grammar, had traditionally been used in trade. Even though the Jewish community in Iran is small it the second largest one in the Middle East after the one in Turkey. They have traditionally been tolerated. The Islamic Constitution allows Jews to observe their religious practices and traditions, run Jewish schools and have a seat reserved for them in the parliament..

Iran's Jews have strong bonds with Israel. About 200,000 Iranian Jews live in Israel. In the mid 2000s, Israel's deputy prime minister, military chief and Farsi-speaking president, Iranian-born Moshe Katsav, were Iranian Jews. Thousands of Iranian Jewish families have relatives in Israel. The historical links between Persia and the Holy Land go back to antiquity and are celebrated each year with the festival of Purim. At that time Iran’s Jewish community, at 25,000, was the largest in the Middle East outside Israel. [Source: Associated Press, International Herald Tribune.

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library ; Judaism101 ; BBC - Religion: Judaism ; Yivo Institute of Jewish Research ; Jewish History: Jewish History Timeline Jewish History Resource Center ; Center for Jewish History ; Jewish ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook

Early History of the Jews in Iran

Jews have been in Iran some say for 2500 years. They probably came to Persia in the 8th century B.C. as a result of the Assyrian conquest of Israel. Various traditions ascribe the Jewish community of Esfahan to Nebuchadnezzar, the of Babylon, after his conquest of Judea in 586 B.C. The Jews in Iran trace their origins back to the Persian king, Cyrus the Great, who conquered Babylonia in the 6th century B.C. and freed the Jewish slaves, reportedly at the request of his wife Esther, who was a Jew. See Below

According to Associated Press: “Hebrew canons and the Old Testament recount the story of Persia's King Cyrus allowing Jews to return to Jerusalem from Babylon and rebuild the temple nearly 2,600 years ago. Iran also is the site of one of Judaism's most important sites: the shrine of Esther and Mordechai in the western city of Hamedan. The Book of Esther tells the story of how she was raised by her relative, the royal adviser Mordechai, and became a Persian queen. She saved her fellow Jews from slaughter by persuading King Xerxes to call off a plan to attack the community on a date that was to be decided by lot, or "pur." The change of heart is marked each year by the festival of Purim.” [Source: Associated Press, July 31, 2006 ^^^]

Under the Sassanians (A.D. 226-646) Iranian Jews were ruled by a Jewish royal figure, the Exilarch, living in Babylonia. Esfahan was a center of Talmudic study. Jews clashed with Zoroastrians over a number of ritualistic issues in the A.D. 5th century, resulting in suppression of the Jews and, after anti-Jewish riots, their expulsion from Esfahan.

Purim, Persians and the Story of Esther

Esther Accused Haman

The story of Esther takes place in Shishan, the winter capital of Persia. Esther was a beautiful Jewish woman who lived there with her uncle Mordechai, who had adopted her. The leader of Persia was Emperor Akshashversus (also known by the Greek name Xerxes). After dismissing his wife Vashto because she refused to follow his orders, the emperor selected Esther as a new wife. She had been a member of his harem. Akshashversus didn't know she was Jewish. Shortly after she became queen, she warned the emperor of a plot to kill him after being told of the plot by Morechai. Akshashversus was grateful.

Haman, one of the king's favorite ministers and a fanatical anti-Semite, became enraged when Mordecai refused to bow to him and decided to vent his anger on all the Jewish people in Persia. He asked for and received permission from Akshashversus to exterminate the Jews on the false charge of treason.

Mordechai pleaded with Esther to plead with Akshashversus for help but she could only communicate with the emperor if he called her. If she called him she risked being put to death. After fasting for three days she appeared in the inner court. There Akshashversus asked her what she wanted. She said she wanted to invite the emperor to a banquet. He agreed. That night he couldn't sleep and asked that book of records be read to him. From the records he learned that it was Mordechai who uncovered the assassination plot and saved his life. At the banquet, Esther pleaded with the emperor to spare the Jews.

Akshashversus decided that the Jews must be saved. But changing a ruling was impossible because it would mean the emperor wasn't infallible. Instead, Akshashversus supplied weapons to the Jews who defeated troops loyal the Haman. Haman, his top aides and 10 of his sons were hung on gallows that had been prepared for the Jews.

Later History of the Jews in Iran

After the Arab conquest in A.D. 642, the Jews prospered. They lived in communities they controlled in the Zagros mountains, where some were pastoralists. Jews helped found the city of Shiraz in the 8th century. They set up credit networks and were key figures in international trade. The Jews also prospered when Mongols ruled Persia.

Under the Shiite Safavids who came to power in 1502, the Jews were declared a “dhimmi” , a protected minority. They were required to wear special markers that identified them as Jews; were required to follow a number of special rules imposed on them; and were not allowed to touch the same food as Muslims. In the 17th century large numbers were forcibly converted to Islam. Under Shah Abbas I and Shah Abbas II they were allowed to return to Judaism but many chose not to.

Ketubbah from Persia

The Jews lived in relative peace, prospered in small communities and survived a number of upheavals. They did fairly well under the Afghans (1736-1747) and Zands (1750-1794) but were treated poorly under the Qajars (1796-1925). In the late 19th century, European Jews intervened on their behalf and helped them fight discrimination and set up European-style schools.

The Shiites considered the Jews to be “nagas” (“polluting”) . Jews and Muslims were prohibited from sharing the same food and even sitting on the same carpet. Jews were not allowed to engage in certain occupations such as farming nor could they engage in crafts such as goldmaking. The Jews competed with and had generally good relations with Christian Armenians and interacted with the Bahais, many of who were Jewish converts.

Jews in Iran in the 20th Century

In World War I a program against the Jews in the Fars Province was part of an attempt by local politicians to influence European governments.

Under the Pahlavis (1925-1978) most restrictions against Jews were lifted and Jews participated in many facets of commerce and government. The Shah personally guaranteed the safety of the Jews and allowed them to own land and were given other basic rights denied them in the past. Before the establishment of Israel, Jews were found in every major city. Rural Jews were found in the Fars province and Kurdistan. The largest communities were in Esfahan and Shiraz. In the 1950s about 50,000 Jews lived in Teheran.

Under the Shah the safety of the Jews was guaranteed; Article 13 of Iran's constitution, which says that only Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians are recognized as religious minorities and have the right to practice their religion within the limits of the law.

Jews emigrated to Israel in several waves. The last large wave began in autumn 1978 and lasted through the Islamic Revolution in 1979. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979 many Jews emigrated to Israel and the United States. The Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, singled out the Jews in his populist rebel-rousing speeches. He condemned the Shah for his ties with Israel, and asserted the Jews were trying to take over Iran.

Life of Iranian Jews

Hamedan Jews

Iranian Jews have traditionally been an urban people, who lived together in self-reliant quarters called “mahallah” . Houses were often grouped on alleyways and had low entrances for protection against forced entry. The Jews had their own education system and took care of, distributed and prepared their own food.

Because the Jews were prohibited from owning land and feared being robbed and because there were no banks, Jews often engaged in moneylending as a way of disposing their excess cash. Many worked at jobs withing the Jewish community such as religion leaders, butchers and ritual slaughterers. Others worked as masons, druggists, doctors, wine makers, and liquor and carpet merchants. Jews have been among Iran’s leading musical performers and fortunetellers and herbalists. When opportunities open up under the Pavalvis they worked as teachers and civil servants.

Iranian Jews typically lived in nuclear families today but in the past their basic social unit was the “khanevadah” , a three-generation patrilineal family that lived together and operated as a economic unit. Marriages were typically arranged when the girl was very young, often before she was in her teens. Cousin marriages were common and often preferred. The husband was often ten years or more older than the wife. Dowries were paid and were often very high. In recent years marriage customs have become more similar to those in the West.

Synagogues have traditionally served as center of social life as well as religious life. Many men attended synagogue daily. Separation of spouses during meses has traditionally been observed. The Jews generally kept a low profile and went out of their way to avoid trouble. They rarely resorted to violence no mater what the provocation because they feared retribution.

Jews After Islamic Revolution

After Islamic Revolution in 1979 many Jews stayed and even hung portraits of Khomeini in their offices, even though his regime unleashed seething anti-Israel rhetoric. Most Jews interviewed by the Western press said they were treated fairly and the problems and persecutions they suffered were no different than those suffered by many Muslims. Journalists believe that many accented the positive out of fear of being harassed.

Shrinking numbers of Jews make it difficult to fill schools and find marriage partners. Asked why he doesn’t leave the Jewish member of parliament told AP, “We love our country. This is my birthplace. I love the smell...I don’t see myself as different from the rest. I live freely with my religion.”

The Iranian legislature, the Majlis, or national Assembly, reserves one seat for Jews as it does for Zoroastrians and Armenian Christians. Syrian Christians or Chaldean Christians together share one seat.

In West Los Angeles, there is a significant number of Iranian Jews. They are a cohesive group, connected through synagogues, marriages, and jobs. Few of L.A.’s mosques are Shiite, and, in any case, the last thing that most people fleeing the Islamic revolution wanted to see was a mosque. “If you’re Jewish, you have American Jews,”one Iranin Jew told the Los Angeles Times.

run-down synagogue in Isfahan

Persecution of Iranian Jews

Under Ayatollah Khomeini, a number of Jewish leaders were executed, Jews were harassed, Jewish schools were seized, Jewish newspapers were closed down and Jewish schools were forced admit Muslim students and teachers and incorporate state propaganda into their curriculum. Foreign Jewish aid organizations were forced out. But after a while blatant suppression stopped and Jews were able to find a place for themselves in Islamic Iran.

Persecution and discrimination against Jews still exists. The blood money payment for the death of a Jew is one eighth that of killing a Muslim. One Jew in Isfahan told National Geographic, "From the time of the Arab conquest, Jews have lived in relative peace with their overlords. Theoretically we have only had to pay a special tax, but in fact we have been made to feel in many ways like second-class citizens. Often we have been restricted to certain quarters of he a city, or limited to certain trades or kinds of dress. Here in Isfahan, for instance, we are still nor allowed in public baths."

Books on Jews in Iran have titles like "The Crimes and Murders of Jews", "Jews: A Racist Nation and Israel" and "The Shah’s Secret Police". Many Iranians believe that the United States is controlled by Jewish money. There have even been Nazi-style attacks against the homes of Jews.

Iran was involved in a terrorist attack of Jewish community center in Argentina in 1994 that left 85 people, mostly Jews, dead. According to an Iranian operative who defected to Germany in 1996, officials at the Iranian embassy in Argentina hatched the plan in 1992 The defector also claimed that Argentine President Carlos Menem was reportedly paid $10 million by the Iranian government to cover up Iranian terrorism in Argentina. Menem is of Arab descent and the Iranians believed he had anti-Semetic feelings. The money came from a $200 million Swiss account controlled by the son of the Ayatollah Khomeini and President Rafsanjani. Menem denied the charges as preposterous. There is strong evidence of a cover up.

Iranian Jews Imprisoned for Spying

empty Jewish bazaar in Saqqez

In March 1999, thirteen Jews were arrested in Shiraz and Isfahan for spying for “the Zionist regime” (i.e. Israel) on charges believed to be trumped up for political reasons. The case was tried in a revolutionary court dominated Islamic clerics and where decisions are based on Islamic law. In June 2000, ten of the 13 were convicted of being members of an illegal group that “cooperated” with Israel and were given sentenced of 4 to 13 years in prison. Three were acquitted. Two Muslims were convicted of aiding the group.

The arrests and convictions sent a chill through the Jewish community. A number of countries condemned Iran for the move and called fro the charges to be dropped. Many human right groups thought the arrests were an effort by hardliners in the Iranian government to embarrass reformers.

The convicted Jews included a rabbi, two university professors, several teachers and shop clerks, a government official, a 16-year-old student and a kosher butcher. None of the accused were allowed much contact with lawyers during their 16 months in prison before the verdict was announced. They were initially charged with violating exchange controls and defying rules that segregated males and females in the classroom. Only later the were they charged with spying. This shift is one reason why the charges were believed to be trumped up.

Eight of the defendants “confessed” to spying and two did so in front of televison cameras. One said, “I have been accused of espionage for Israel. I do accept this charge. I have been spying for Israel. In my trip to Israel in 1994, I was trained for my activity.” He then explained he was part of a spy network.

The confession was believed by many to coerced. Little hard evidence was offered other than that the 16-year-old youth sent e-mail messages to Israel, one of the defendants worked on a secret aviation project, several others had been conscripts in the military, some made long distance calls to Israel ands ome had made secret trips to Israel (a common practice among some Iranian Jews because travel to Israel is against the law). In September 2000 an appeals court reduced the sentences and two of the 12 were freed after they served their sentences. In April 2003, the last Jews accused of spying were released.

Jews in Iran in the Mid-2000s

In 2006, Associated Press reported: “Nothing in the office of Iran's sole Jewish lawmaker calls attention to his faith - no Star of David, no menorah or other symbol of Judaism. But like nearly every public building in Iran, it has a portrait of the Islamic Revolution's patriarch, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Moris Motamed's political headquarters highlight the well-practiced survival skills of Iran's remaining 25,000 Jews - caught again in a political no man's land by the fighting between Israel and the Iranian-backed Hizbullah in Lebanon...But Iran's Jews have undeniable bonds with Israel - most notably Israel's Iranian-born president, Moshe Katsav.” [Source: Associated Press, July 31, 2006 ^^^]

inside Urmia synagogue

“Any public expression of sympathy for Israel would invite a sharp crackdown from authorities and hard-line Islamic groups. "We are Iranians. We work for what's best for Iran. The fighting, fortunately, does not affect the Jewish community in Iran," said Motamed, who holds the single parliament seat reserved for Jews. Other seats are set aside for the Christian Armenian and Assyrian minorities and followers of Iran's pre-Islamic Zoroastrian faith. ^^^

"For Iranians, there is a distinction in their mind between Zionism and Judaism," said Motamed. "This is a very important distinction for us." Iranian Jews face no restrictions on their religious practices, but they must follow Islamic codes such as headscarves for women in public. The same rules apply to the larger Christian and Zoroastrian communities. ^^^

“But the Jewish population in Iran continues to shrink from emigration to Israel, the United States and elsewhere. Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, nearly 100,000 Jews lived in Iran, Motamed said. Anti-Semitic acts are rare, but Jews often are the targets of degrading caricatures in the Iranian press. Tensions rose considerably in 2000 when 10 Iranian Jews were convicted of spying for Israel and sentenced to from four to 13 years' imprisonment. An appeals court later reduced their sentences under international pressure and eventually freed them. Iran's Persian ancestors, meanwhile, figure prominently in Jewish lore and tradition. ^^^

Iranian Jews Protest Ahmadinejad Calling the Holocaust a "Myth"

Mahmood Ahmadinejad became the President of Iran in 2005. He called the Holocaust a myth and proposed moving Israel to Europe, Canada or the United States. At a “World Without Zionism” conference he called for Israel to be “wiped off the map” and the existence of the “Jewish camp” of Israel was an effort by Europe nation genocide against the Muslim wold. Ahmadinejad seems to revel in the attention and controversy his remarks create.

In January 2006, Associated Press reported, “the leader of Iran's Jewish community, Haroun Yashayaei, issued a rare challenge to Islamic authorities after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called the Holocaust a "myth." He said Ahmadinejad was questioning "one of the most obvious and saddening incidents in human history." Israel, however, presents a red line no one will cross. Iran's Jews have remained publicly silent as Iranian leaders have called for Israel's destruction, including Ahmadinejad's call last year for Israel to be "wiped off the map." [Source: Associated Press, July 31, 2006 ^^^]

In July 2006, “Jews in the southern city of Shiraz held a pro-Hizbullah rally that was covered by state-run television - a sign that the march was likely overseen by the Islamic regime to reinforce the idea of national solidarity. The Web site of the Tehran Jewish Community includes statements opposing Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip and praising uranium enrichment by Iranian scientists. The US and many of its allies, including Israel, believe Iran is using its nuclear reactor project as a cover for a weapons program.” ^^^

Jews Escaping Iran in the Early 2000s

Iran Jews in better times

In Israel, it was big news when about 40 Iranian Jews landed in Tel Aviv after a harrowing escape from Iran. Fox News reported: “ Relatives screamed in delight and threw candy at the newcomers as they emerged into the airport reception hall... The new immigrants took a covert route, facilitated by the Israeli government and backed with funding from American evangelical Christians who see their efforts as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Two brothers, Yosef and Michael, said they were glad to be in Israel. They declined to give their family name in order to protect relatives. "I feel so good," said Yosef, 16. "I just saw all of my family. You can't put that into words." Michael, 15, said he told all his friends where he was going, and they wanted to come along. "I was scared in Iran as a Jew," he said. "I would never be able to wear a skullcap in the streets there." Others said they felt safe in Iran, discounting warnings that Jews could become targets. [Source: Fox News, December 25, 2007 /*/]

“The sensitivity of the operation was in evidence throughout. No details about their route of exit from Iran were given, but it was assumed they came through a third country. "I'm in heaven," gushed Avraham Dayan, 63, waiting for his son, daughter-in-law and grandson. He said he had not seen his 38-year-old son in 11 years, missing his son's wedding and the birth of his grandson. /*/

“The operation was sponsored by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a charity that funnels millions of dollars from evangelical donors each year. Yehiel Eckstein, a rabbi who founded the Jewish-evangelical International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, said each immigrant receives $10,000 from the group to help get them started in Israel because they "start in Israel with nothing," leaving behind all their possessions. "Our feeling is that this is very similar to the situation of Jews in Germany in the 1930s," Eckstein said of the threat facing Jews in Iran. "By the time they realize it's not going to blow over, it'll be too late. All it needs is a U.S. or Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear program for them to come down strong on the local Jewish population." Benjamin Yakobi, 16, has lived in Israel seven years. Waiting for his cousin, he said Israel is safer than Iran. "Here we are all Jewish, and we are not worried that someone will do something," he said. /*/

“Altogether this year about 200 Iranian Jews have arrived in Israel of a total of about 25,000 Jews in Iran. Michael Jankelowitz, spokesman for the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, which deals with immigration, said more Jews have arrived in Israel from Iran in 2007 than in any other year since the 1978 Islamic revolution there, and the group of 40 was the largest. "Jews have been coming to Iran over the years in discreet and secret ways," said Yossi Shraga, the Jewish Agency official in charge of immigration from Middle East countries.

"Generally, Jews are free to practice Judaism inside Iran," said Meir Javedanfar, an Israeli analyst whose family emigrated from Iran in the 1980s. Iranian Jews, however, are increasingly concerned about the intensity of attacks on Israel by the Iranian press, which they view as bordering on anti-Semitism, he said.

Friendly Ties Between Persians and Jews

In 2006, when strains between Israel and Iran were at their peak, Stanley A. Weiss wrote in the International Herald Tribune: “As an American Jew visiting Iran, I apparently made an irresistible target. "Zionist Israel," an Iranian official instructed me, was the root of all problems in the Middle East; a Western "colonial imposition" on Muslim lands that must be reversed. "It's Iran's own fault," I replied. "If Cyrus the Great hadn't freed the Jews from Persian slavery 2,500 years ago and told them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple, there wouldn't be an Israel." The official chuckled and changed the subject. [Source: Stanley A. Weiss, International Herald Tribune, July 10, 2006 +/+]

“Today, it's hard to imagine two more bitter enemies than Iran and Israel. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calls for Israel to be wiped off the map. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert calls a nuclear- armed Iran an existential threat to Israel. Yet animosity between Iran and Israel is an historical aberration. Before Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, ancient cultural bonds and common strategic interests between Persians and Jews made Iran and Israel close allies. Even today, enduring strategic interests suggest that a revived Persian-Jewish partnership, while by no means imminent, is inevitable. +/+

“If he knew his history, Ahmadinejad would recall that Iranian diplomats in Europe saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust and that Iran served as an escape route for Iraqi Jews fleeing to Israel after the 1948 war for Israeli independence. In fact, Iran was one of the first Muslim countries to establish diplomatic and trade relations with the state of Israel. Common Sunni Arab enemies made Persians and Jews close friends for the next three decades. Iran's Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi depended on Israel for a steady stream of arms and intelligence. Israel depended on Iran as part of its "periphery policy" of security alliances with non-Arabs on the Middle Eastern periphery along with Turkey, Ethiopia and Lebanese Christians. Persian Iran sat out all three Arab-Israeli wars and even during the Arab oil boycott of the 1970s, continued supplying Israel with oil. The 100,000 Jews in Iran helped sustain robust Iranian-Israeli trade. +/+

“Even after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic Revolution severed these ties and sent most Iranian Jews fleeing, overlapping interests allowed these arch-enemies to do business. Mutual animosity toward Iraq - and Israel's desire to preserve influence with Tehran moderates - led Israel to supply weapons to the Islamic Republic well into the 1980s, including service as middleman in the Reagan administration's arms-for-hostages deal. Flickers of an Iranian-Israeli rapprochement continued even during the heightened tensions of the 1990s, despite Iran's support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, Palestinian militants and the bombings of the Israeli embassy and Jewish cultural center in Argentina. +/+

“By the time of my visit to Iran, during the first year of Mohammad Khatami's reformist presidency, Israeli officials were exploring ways to repay shah-era oil debts to Iran. Israeli exports to Iran, mostly agricultural equipment through European third parties, were said to exceed $300 million. Although hardliners in Tehran, Jerusalem and Washington have sabotaged attempts at dialogue at every turn, Iran and Israel's common interests endure. Both have a vital interest in avoiding Israeli attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities and preventing the fracturing of Iraq along ethnic lines. In the event of a wider regional war between Sunnis and Shiites, Iran and Israel could once again find themselves with a common adversary...As Benjamin Disraeli famously observed, "nations have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests." Though hard to imagine today, the permanent interests between Persian Iran and Jewish Israel will, in time, make these enemies friends again.” +/+

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Library of Congress, CNN, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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