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A Brief History of Iranian Jews
Last Updated: October, 2009

Jews in Modern Iran

The Jewish community of Iran saw little change until the 19th century. In one incident, the Jewish quarters were looted in Mashad. The anti-Jewish sentiment reached its peak when the whole Jewish community in the city was forced to convert into Islam in 1839, at the time of Muhammad Shah Qajar. Entire inhabitants of Jewish villages were forced in different areas to convert to Islam and their businesses were confiscated. Europeans intervened and the decree was reversed. The first modern Jewish School, Alliance, was opened in 1891 after a long and frustrating debate and with heavy pressure from Europeans and the International Jewish Alliance by an order from Nasir al-din Shah. Once Jewish girls’ schools were opened, the students and the teachers would have to be escorted by the police to stop the mob from attacking them. In fact, all modern schools especially girls’ schools were subjected to the same attacks by religious fatwas. Jewish chronicles identify the Qajar period as one of the worst in their history.

The end of the 19th century was the start of fundamental changes in Iran and the beginning of the Constitutional Revolution. Iranian Jews along with other minorities participated in the movement. They were instrumental in forming the first multiethnic Secret Society of 1905, which began the debate on political change. Jews, Christians, Babi, Baha’i and Zoroastrians fought hard with the constitutionalists to form a National Consultative parliament (Majlis) instead of an Islamic one, as demanded by the religious leaders. Along with other religious minorities, they succeeded in their efforts to ratify laws that gave equality to Muslim and non-Muslim (male) citizens in 1907 and defined a new concept of nationality not based on religious origins (with the exception of the Baha’i who were not recognized). The success of the movement reduced the powers of the monarchy and the clergy and paved the way for the introduction of modern legal systems. Such changes restricted the power of the Muslim clergy and benefited the religious minorities.

The Jewish community historically had more affiliation with the Iranians but, since the Safavid period, they have been subjected to more routine persecutions. Following the upheavals of the early twentieth century many fearing persecutions that were common during periods of instability immigrated to Jerusalem. Their fears were justified; from 1906 to 1921 anti-Semitic riots in Isfahan, Kashan, Shiraz and Kirman devastated the Jewish communities. Many of their leaders also moved and as a result the Jewish community remained without strong leadership for decades.

The constitutional movement improved their situation and opened the way for their active participation in the country. According to the new constitution, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians had the right to elect one delegate each to the parliament, but they could not participate in elections of Muslim delegates. The Muslims could not elect non-Muslims either. However, with the first parliament, the Jews and Christians were asked to refrain from sending their elected representative to the parliament and instead two Muslim clergymen represented them. The constitution also prohibited non-Shi’ite Muslims from occupying key positions in the government. This was ignored by the Pahlavi regime and there were non-Muslim high government officials, including Baha’i, by the 1970s. Though the constitution of 1907 put an end to the segregation of religious minorities and Jewish Ghettos, it was at the time of Reza Shah and with the emergence of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925 that they were able to integrate in the larger Iranian society without fear of persecution.

Pahlavi policies of secularization, westernization and modernization helped the revival of the non-Muslim communities in Iran. Modern penal and civil codes were introduced, which further strengthened the position of non-Muslims and improved their life conditions. The Jewish population of Iran prospered greatly after the Second World War. Their assimilation in the mainstream Iranian society was slow but steady. Jewish schools flourished and they had their own curriculum in addition to the Persian one. Modern Hebrew was incorporated into the curriculum at the Jewish schools. Publications in their own language existed, new synagogues were built and they held government jobs. Iranian Jews regard the Pahlavi period as their golden age.

Links were established with international Jewish agencies. They received support from the Alliance Israelite Universelle and a number of other international organizations including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. This organization was established in Iran in 1947 and laid the foundation for many social, medical, and educational activities for the Jews in Teheran and the rest of the country. The “Center for Jewish Yout” (Kanoun e Javanan Yahudi), formed in 1938, was the first Jewish youth organization in Iran. The first Iranian Jewish women’s organization (Sazman Banovan Yahud i Iran) was established in 1947. Headed by Mrs. Shamsi Hekmat, the organization provided help to the needy and established branches in several towns. The first Jewish hospital opened in Tehran in 1958.

Though strong links existed between the Iranian Jews and Israel, on the whole, the remaining Jewish population of Iran did not support Zionism. The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 had a significant impact on the Jewish population in Iran and promoted emigration to Israel. In 1948, there was a high concentration of Jewish communities in Kurdistan; around 12,000 Jews were scattered in approximately 15 Jewish settlements in Iranian Kurdistan. After the formation of the State of Israel, many Jews in the area left for Tehran, in transit towards Israel. The move angered the Muslim authorities. In March 1950, 12 Jews were murdered in Kurdistan. As a result, more Jews moved to Tehran and demanded protection. The Iranian government guaranteed their safe passage. By March 1951, 8,000 Iranian Jews had moved to Israel, the first major immigration in the 20th century. By 1966, the number of Jews who had immigrated to Israel had reached 22,000.

After the formation of Israel, most Muslim countries in the region expelled their local Jewish population except Iran. The Iranian government provided safe passage for the Iraqi Jews who were expelled from Iraq and were on their way to Israel. Some of the wealthier Iraqi Jews remained in Iran and were given residency by the Iranians. At the time anti-Jewish sentiments appeared in the bazaars and some businesses boycotted trading with Iranian Jewish merchants. In 1950, the Iranian government recognized Israel, much to the dismay of the religious establishment in Iran and the rest of the Arab world. It is estimated that between 1948 and 1953, close to one third of the Jews in Iran left for Israel. During the Dr. Mosaddiq era (early 1950s) anti-Jewish sentiments appeared once again. The weakness of the central government meant more power for the clergy and they used the occasion to attack Iranian Jews and Israel. They also demanded that Iranians should join the anti-Israel struggles and war by the Arab nations. Once the central government solidified its power, such activities ended.

By the early 1960s, close to eight thousand Iranian Jews were attending Jewish schools, some sponsored by the Alliance Israelite Universelle. They had a council in charge of their community affairs and since the constitution had permitted them to conduct private and judicial affairs in their own courts, they had their own institutions to deal with such issues. The support of Israel by the Iranian government created close ties between the two countries. They were permitted to hold the Tehran Jewish Congress in 1957 and the World Jewish Congress opened up an office in Iran. By 1948, the Jewish population of Iran was around sixty thousand and by the 1970s there were around eighty thousand Jews in Iran. Despite earlier emigration to Israel, their numbers remained more or less the same. By the 1970s, around fifty-five percent of the Iranian Jews lived in Tehran and enjoyed freedom and equality with many prominent Jews in the country. There was also immigration of Jews from Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, Poland and Germany into Iran. Some of the European Jews who immigrated to Iran were heavily involved in improving the lives of Iranian Jews and made substantial contributions.

By 1979, around half of the Jewish children in elementary schools attended Hebrew classes. Like the rest of the Iranians, many Jews were becoming more secular and did not insist on religious education. By the late sixties, with the exception of Israel and South Africa, Iran had the wealthiest Jewish community in all of Asia and Africa. The majority of the Jews were middle class by this time; they were very well educated and ten percent of the Jewish population was regarded as extremely wealthy. However, despite civil and economic progress, some anti-Jewish sentiments remained amongst the less educated and some members of the clergy.

In Iranian folklore, Jews are portrayed as mean, misery and polluted (najes). Children were warned not to go to Jewish quarters because they would be kidnapped by Jews who would drink their blood. They are used as stereotypes to portray evil characters by the likes of renowned Iranian poets; Jalaledin Rumi, Nizami, Sad’i and many other literary figures. They could not touch water sources and when it rained they stayed in doors, since rain touching them was believed to pollute the soil. At the times of persecution their water sources would be cut off. The Jewish quarter of Kirman had preserved many characteristics of these segregated ghettos until recently. The lanes were extremely narrow, rarely more than five feet wide. The compound walls on either side were 10 to 12 feet high, with jagged glass and stone set in the top to discourage entry. Massive oaken doors strengthened by metal studs guarded the entrances to the houses. One had to stoop to enter the low portals since the height should be lower than that of the Muslim homes. These details were also designed to prevent mounted horsemen from effectively attacking its residents. All facilities necessary were inside the quarter. The synagogues bore no external symbols, so they were difficult to locate. At times all transaction with Jews would be through special intermediaries not to pollute Muslim tradesmen.

Some of these notions remained and the association of the Iranian Jews with Israel proved detrimental in the long run. In the 1970s, when they showed up to support the Iranian Football team against Israel in the Asian games in Tehran, some were beaten up by the mob. Following the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, many were accused of being Zionists and some prominent Jews were executed for having close relationships with Israel.

Like Armenians, the Jews of Iran regard the period from the 1950s to 1979 as their golden age. Their economic status improved significantly and many assimilated well into the larger Iranian society. By 1979, around half of the Jewish children in elementary schools attended Hebrew schools and learned Hebrew. Like the rest of the Iranians, many Jews were becoming more secular and did not insist on religious education. By the late sixties, with the exception of Israel and South Africa, Iran had the wealthiest Jewish community in all of Asia and Africa. The majority of the Jews were middle class by this time; they were very well educated and ten percent of the Jewish population was regarded as extremely wealthy. The rapid improvement in the life of the Jewish population of Iran is attributed to the policies of the government and specifically to the very close relationship between Iran and Israel. Such association proved to be detrimental to the Jews of Iran following the Islamic Revolution.

The Islamic Revolution of 1979 made Shari’athe legal code and, therefore, gender and religious discriminations are an integral part of the system. Article 13 of the constitution clearly defines their position:

Zoroastrians, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only legitimate religious minorities, who within the limits of Islamic laws, are free to perform their religious rites, and to act according to their own canon in personal matters and religious education.

After the revolution, the constitutional rights of the religious minorities did not change much. There has been no systematic persecution of Jews. However, they lost equality with Muslims in the Criminal and Civil Codes. Baha’i are not recognized at all; Jews, and Zoroastrians each have one representative in the Parliament. Christians have two. Jews are not legally forbidden from employment in the government sector. But, since the authorities only employ Muslims and demand a Islamic test, these people are once again barred from working for the government. They are accepted into Universities, but their access to post graduate studies is more difficult, though no law prohibits them from applying.

Within one year after the revolution their numbers declined drastically from 80,000 to 50,000-60,000. By mid-1990s, their numbers were estimated to be around 35,000. The government’s census of 1986 and 1996 records their numbers to have been 26354 and 12737 respectably.  However, the actual numbers are normally expected to be higher than the government statistics. Many Jewish teachers, professors and government officials were expelled or were forced or voluntarily decided to retire early. A chief rabbi left Iran in 1980 and encouraged Jews to leave Iran. Travel restrictions were harsher for Iranian Jews. Originally they were refused passports and exit visas. Some authorities were careful to make a distinction between the Iranian Jews and the Zionists, but nevertheless, charges of treason and conspiracy continued.

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