The Fascinating History and Politics of Jewish Life in Iran
After Israel, the Islamic Republic is home to the largest population of Jews in the Middle East.
On December 14, 2019, a white male entered the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills, vandalizing the sanctuary. He unrolled Torah scrolls, strewed them across the floor, and tore prayer books. Four days later, police arrested 24-year-old Anton Nathaniel Redding of Millersville, Pennsylvania, and charged him with vandalism of religious property, commercial burglary, and committing a hate crime. As I heard about this latest antisemitic attack, this time on a Persian synagogue, I thought back to my recent visit to the country of Iran this past October.
The first association that comes to mind when invoking Iran is not usually one of synagogues. Most would be surprised to know that after Israel, the Islamic Republic is home to the largest population of Jews in the Middle East. Iran’s Jewish population numbers somewhere between 9,000 (according to the 2012 Iranian census) and 15,000 (according to an August 2018 interview with the Iranian Jewish community published in USA Today). As I prepared to lead a CODEPINK peace delegation to Iran, one of my goals was to find out more about Iran’s Jewish community.
Given the Iranian state’s imposition of Islamic law on its entire population, the crippling sanctions imposed by the U.S., President Trump’s travel ban preventing Iranians from visiting their relatives in the U.S., and Israel’s open invitation to help Iranian Jews immigrate, I was anxious to discover why Iran’s population of Jews choose to remain.
On the first morning after our arrival, our group of 12, one-third of whom were Jewish, boarded our tour bus to visit Iran’s largest synagogue, the Yusef Abad synagogue in Tehran. The first thing we noticed was the lack of security. Walk by any synagogue in Manhattan and you will find at least one security guard, usually more. Last year walking by the København synagogue in Copenhagen, Denmark, I was struck by how the religious sanctuary was like an unwelcoming fortress. The entire building was surrounded by an iron gate, and the entrance had an armed guard and far more defenses than you find in most airports. Iran’s Yusef Abad synagogue, however, had no security guard, or even a local congregant posted at the front door. The door was unlocked, and we walked right in. The lack of security, we learned, was because synagogues in Iran are safe places.
Our visit took place on the last day of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, and we were able to witness the ceremony of shaking the lulav, while the worshipers circled around an ancient Torah in the prayer style of Sephardic Jews (Jews from Spain, Portugal, and other places in the Mediterranean).
A woman in the balcony with reasonably good English welcomed us and showed us around, including taking us to the sukkot outside the back door of the synagogue. About 500 Jews had been there the night before, she told us, as we marveled at the tent-like structure, its ceiling adorned with pomegranates, squash gourds, and citrus fruits. The synagogue’s warmth and hospitality washed over us.
The Yusef Abad synagogue was just the first of several Jewish experiences I had the pleasure of engaging in during the nine days I spent in Iran. In Isfahan, one of my tour guides and I went to a street lined with synagogues. It was dusk, so we popped in and caught the end of a weekday service. What struck me, again, was that there was no security of any kind.
On the last night of our stay in Iran, I was notified that an Iranian Jewish community leader wanted to meet with me. Jon Letman, an independent journalist and fellow Jew on our CODEPINK delegation, joined me as we sat down with Hamed Tavana, an Iranian Jew and manager of interreligious dialogue at the Iranian Ministry of Culture in the city of Shiraz. Speaking through an interpreter, Tavana welcomed us to his country, wished us a happy Rosh Hashanah, and encouraged us to visit some of the 20 synagogues in Shiraz. He explained that Shiraz, home to around 7,000 Sephardic Jews, is also the hometown of the Jewish member of Iran’s parliament, and that Iranian Jews are free to conduct whatever religious ceremonies and practices they choose. He referred to Shiraz as a “second Jerusalem” for Iranian Jews.
I asked Tavana, as I had asked in the Tehran and Isfahan synagogues, how safe the Jewish Iranian community feels and if they face any forms of hatred and antisemitism. He replied, like the others before him, that Iranian Jews are completely safe and respected in their country. He also explained that Iran guarantees a seat in parliament for the Jewish community, and invited us to meet with the Jewish representative on a future visit.
Unconvinced by Tavana’s assurances that Jews in Iran did not face discrimination, I pressed further, making sure he didn’t think that I was suggesting that Iran was more prone to antisemitism than other countries. “Antisemitism is rapidly rising right now in America and Europe,” I told him. “Donald Trump says vile things against Jews. When American Nazis marched after he was elected, he said there were ‘really fine people.’ He accuses Jews of being obsessed with money and says to American Jews that Netanyahu is ‘your prime minister,’” I said. I told Tavana and the people I spoke with at the synagogues that our meeting was occurring during the one-year anniversary of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue massacre, the largest attack against Jews in America’s history.
Tavana expressed sympathy and understanding, telling us he knew about the Pittsburgh killings and giving his condolences for the victims. But he insisted that this kind of hatred and violence against Jews was not a problem his community faces.
Of course, he—and the others I met with—may well have been afraid to say anything outside of approved government messaging. The meeting was facilitated by a translator, presumably sent from the Ministry of Tourism. My conversation in the Isfahan synagogue was also facilitated by a translator who was one of our tour guides. Though our host at the Tehran synagogue spoke excellent English and she and I have remained in touch, given her limited knowledge of me and her government’s disdain for dissent—think the country’s recent blacking out of the internet—it makes sense she has contained her conversations with me to discussions of our shared and diverging Jewish histories, practices, and values.
I did not want to endanger my friends in Iran by pressing further, like asking about the December 2017 vandalization of the Kenisa’eh Hadash synagogue in Shiraz or the 1999 arrest of 13 Iranian Jews from Shiraz who were convicted of spying for Israel and spent between two and four years in jail, finally being released thanks to international pressure. While there may well be more discrimination than the Jews I met admitted, it is remarkable that in a country that is such an ardent foe of Israel, Jews live peacefully, side-by-side with their Muslim neighbors.
Jewish history in Iran is long, rich, and varied, stretching back nearly 3,000 years. In 539 BC (3222-3223 in the Hebrew calendar), King Cyrus the Great authored what is widely regarded as the first-ever declaration of human rights. It advocates fighting oppression, defending the oppressed, and respecting human dignity and the principles of justice, liberty and free expression. It also includes an edict allowing the Jews living under his rule to return to their native lands. The Book of Ezra credits Cyrus with the Jews being able to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem, and the Book of Esther provides an early first glimpse of Jewish life in Iran as it chronicles the rise of a Persian Jewish woman in 478 BC (Hebrew years 3283-3284) to the rank of queen, enabling her to save her people from slaughter.
While the stories of Cyrus and Esther ended well for the Jews, by 651 AD (Hebrew years 4411-4412), with the Muslim conquest of Persia, the Jews were not faring well. Non-Muslims, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians (the religion of Cyrus the Great) were assigned the status of dhimmis, meaning inferior subjects. While they were allowed to practice their religions, they had to pay exorbitant taxes, were required to wear clothing distinguishing them as non-Muslims, and could not do such things as ride horses, bear arms, or testify against a Muslim in court.
The Safavid dynasty, from 1501 to 1736—often considered to be the beginning of modern Iranian history—saw the treatment of Jews and other non-Muslims deteriorate even further, as they were forbidden from leaving their homes on rainy days, lest their impurity transfer through the water and contaminate a Muslim. Shah Abbas, who reigned from 1588 to 1629, began his rule by relaxing some of the laws against non-Muslims, giving Jews some opportunities to prosper economically and even encouraging them to settle in the new capital of Isfahan. But his goodwill did not last long, and he later expelled Jews from Isfahan, required them to wear distinctive identifying badges (think an early version of the identifying yellow star patch), and ordered forced conversions.
By the middle of the 19th century, Iranian Jews were living in their own quarters in separate parts of towns. In 1830, there was a massacre and forced conversion of Jews in the cities of Tabriz and Shiraz, and in 1839, there was a massacre of Jews in Mashhad. Those who survived were forced to convert to Islam.
In October 1910, the Jewish community of Shiraz was accused of killing a young Muslim girl to obtain her blood. A crowd gathered demanding vengeance, and Iranian troops were sent in to halt the angry mob. But when the soldiers arrived in the Jewish quarter, rather than follow orders, they initiated the violence. The pogrom went on for six to seven hours, resulting in every single one of the 260 Jewish homes in the quarter being looted. Although most of the Jews found safety in Muslim friends’ homes, mosques, and inside the British consulate, 12 were killed, and 15 were injured by stabbing, bludgeoning or gunshots.
The Iranian Jewish community prospered financially during the Pahlavi Dynasty (1925 to 1979) as the laws and customs that had discriminated against them were lifted. But the dynasty’s first ruler, Reza Shah, was also an unapologetic fascist who strengthened Iranian ties with Nazi Germany. On the eve of WWII, Germany was Iran’s biggest trading partner, and Reza Shah accepted from Germany shipments of around 7,500 racist books advocating for greater collaboration between the Germans and “Aryan Persians.” Nazi newspapers were distributed in Tehran, and swastikas were graffitied on Jewish homes and shops. Inside Germany, there were nightly radio broadcasts in Persian, advocating such things as violent revenge for the 473 BC massacre of non-Jews during Queen Esther’s rule.
Maybe it was because of the paralyzing fear that must have gripped the Jewish community as Reza Shah supported Nazi Germany; maybe it was a continuation of Jewish participation in the Iranian Constitutional Revolution (1906-1911) resulting in, among other things, a parliament seat being set aside for a Jewish representative; or maybe it was thanks to the legacy of Cyrus the Great’s treatment of Jews, but in 1941 when the leftist socialist Tudeh party was established, Iranian Jews rushed to join.
Although “Jews comprised less than 2 percent of the Iranian population [in 1941], almost 50 percent of the members of the Tudeh party were Jewish,” as were a large number of the writers for the party’s publications. According to Medea Benjamin’s book Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in 1946, the Tudeh party-led Central Council of United Trade Unions organized a strike against the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, winning an eight-hour workday, overtime pay, higher wages, better housing and paid Fridays off. The Tudeh party also introduced the country’s first national labor laws that secured the above-listed rights for all workers, as well as a minimum wage, six annual national holidays, unemployment compensation, the right to organize unions, and the outlawing of child labor.
In 1946, Mohammad Reza Shah, who had replaced his father in 1941, outlawed the Tudeh party and, in 1957, with the help of the CIA and the Israeli Mossad, he established the brutal Iranian secret police, the SAVAK, which censored, disappeared, tortured, and killed anyone who dared criticize the Shah’s regime. According to Amnesty International, in 1975, there were between 25,000 and 100,000 political prisoners. The torture used in the prisons and by SAVAK was similar to that used against Jews and others during the Spanish Inquisition. Survivors describe such things as a “metal cage torture device” and “electric cables and wires for flogging my (feet) while I was blindfolded.”
Ironically, this period has been described by historian David Menashri as a golden era for Iranian Jewry: “Their part in economic, scientific, and professional life was disproportionate to their share in society… they may well have been one of the richest Jewish communities worldwide.” While undoubtedly some Jews enjoyed their wealth and achievements without feelings of guilt over the Shah’s repression, such attitudes certainly couldn’t be ascribed to the entire Jewish community. As the tumultuous 1979 revolution was approaching, the Jewish youth of Iran (not unlike young American Jews of today) were engaged in a battle for leadership against the old guard of their community, many of whom were affiliated with the Shah’s regime. What had been inspired by King Cyrus and had taken shape during the Constitutional Revolution, and in the Tudeh party became a commitment by many Iranian Jews to a revolution.
In March 1978, Jewish activists Harun Parviz Yesha’ya and ’Aziz Daneshrad, both of whom had been jailed for anti-monarchy activity under the Shah, gathered a dozen leftist Iranian Jews to establish the Association of Jewish Iranian Intellectuals (AJII). A specifically Jewish revolutionary group, AJII had bylaws that declared “war against imperialism, and any form of colonialism, including Zionism, and revealing the relationship between Zionism and world’s imperialism” and “[w]ar against any sort of racial discrimination, racism, and anti-Semitism.”
AJII created the weekly publication Tamuz, which quickly amassed high circulation and published prominent non-Jewish intellectuals and leftist figures alike. “We formed this group [AJII] in order to show the rest of the people in Iran that we Jews were not woven from a different fabric of society than other Iranians, but that we also supported… [the new post-1979 government’s professed] goals for democracy and freedom,” said Sa’id Banayan, one of AJII’s founders.
AJII wasn’t the only Jewish contribution to the Islamic revolution. With the protests and the Shah’s violent response came a vital need for medical care in an institution that would refuse to let SAVAK arrest their patients. The Jewish Sapir Hospital became that place.
December 11, 1978, saw one of the largest demonstrations of the revolution, with millions of citizens participating, including record numbers of Jews—somewhere between 5,000 and 12,000. “Our signs and chants were: Yahudi-musalman hambastigi-i mubarak [Jewish-Muslims blessed solidarity]. It was so exciting, I could not stop crying,” said one Jewish participant. The momentous occasion brings to mind Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s participation in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery and his reflection afterward: “I felt as if my legs were praying.”
While it is rumored the Shah requested and received soldiers from Israel to use against the protesters, ambulances from the Jewish Sapir Hospital scoured the streets looking for wounded protesters to pick up, and the Jewish hospital’s large staff of volunteer physicians, nurses, and others stayed on for more than 24 hours to treat and protect the injured.
Unfortunately, many of the aims of the revolution did not survive. In her book Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Medea Benjamin describes the struggle between Ayatollah Khomeini and the more liberal and democratic Prime Minister Bazargan over the creation of a new government. “We will never know” what could have been, she states. “Because at that critical moment the United States once again intervened in Iran’s affairs by admitting the Shah into the United States for cancer treatment.” This redirected the Iranian people’s anger from a focus on what the Shah’s regime had done to hatred directed at the U.S.:
“When Ayatollah Khomeini refused to order the students out of the [U.S.] embassy, Bazargan resigned, and the debate over his and Khomeini’s conflicting visions for the constitution and the future of Iran was effectively over. Khomeini had won.”
The brutal eight-year Iran-Iraq war, which began in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, enabled Ayatollah Khomeini to take even greater control. The legal age for girls to marry was lowered to 13, publications were censored, textbooks rewritten, and revenge was taken against both confirmed and alleged former supporters of the Shah’s regime. Tragically, some of the very same tactics that had been part of the Shah’s regime—execution, torture, the imprisonment of political critics—were then adopted by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran today executes the second-largest number of people in the world, and some of the very same prisons that were built under the Shah, such as the “notorious” Evin Prison, today operate with similar brutality.
According to Medea Benjamin, the first two years following the revolution, the Iranian government executed 500 political opponents, 93 former SAVAK officers, 205 members of the military and 35 practitioners of the Baha’i religion. It also executed a businessman and prominent member of the Jewish community, Habib Elghanian, who was convicted of being a “Zionist spy.”
After the execution of Elghanian, a delegation of Jewish leaders met with Ayatollah Khomeini. Although he promised that Jews would be protected, saying, “We make a distinction between the Jewish community and the Zionists,” two-thirds of the community chose to leave—30,000-40,000 to the U.S., 20,000 to Israel, and 10,000 to Europe.
The history of Jewish persecution in Iran should be placed within a larger global context. The suffering that Jews have endured in Iran pales in comparison to the treatment of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition, the pogroms of pre-WWII Eastern Europe, of course the Holocaust, and the history of Jewish persecution in other Middle Eastern countries, such as Iraq and Yemen.
We must also understand the experience of Iranian Jews within the current context of today’s surrounding countries. Iran guarantees one seat in their parliament for a Jewish representative and two seats for Christian representatives (proportional to the populations of each respective religious minority). Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia—a close U.S. ally—requires women to wear a full chador, executes people for leaving Islam, and forbids the construction of any synagogues or churches.
Back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the vast majority of Iranian Jews chose not to emigrate to the newly formed state of Israel. According to Trita Parsi, by 1951, only around 8,000 of Iran’s 100,000 Jews left. Meanwhile, almost all of Yemen’s Jewish population was transported to Israel, where—as dark-skinned Jews—they faced terrible discrimination, including having their babies kidnapped by the Jewish state to be adopted out to whiter, “more refined” Western Ashkenazi Jews from Europe. And compared to the status of Palestinians, Jews in Iran today enjoy far more protections and rights than Palestinians living in the West Bank under Israeli military control.
Iranian-American political scientist Majid Rafizadeh wrote for Tablet about the Jews that stayed: “Some of the Jews who have stayed in Iran are elderly and unable to tolerate travel or establishing a new home in a foreign country. Some Jews are determined to protect their sacred places and synagogues, or family homes.” But, Rafizadeh’s assessment ignores that elderly Jews in Iran today were 40 years younger at the time of the revolution. Sadly, he negates the political lives of Iranian Jews, limiting the community’s values to only individualism, sectarianism, and materialism and reducing the length and depth of their rich history.
While Rafizadeh and others assume that Iranian Jews today are simply surviving and suffering, I propose that they have much more agency and intention, including participation in civil society’s efforts to transform their society.
Protest in Iran does not necessarily look like the demonstrations that take place in the United States, and does not always rise to the scale of the November 2019 demonstrations that rocked Iran and were brutally repressed by the government. Some Iranian protests are subtle and specific: the young woman our peace delegation witnessed singing in public—an activity that is illegal for women in Iran—while her male partner filmed for social media; the white scarf protests against the compulsory hijab; and the pilgrimage for human rights every October 29 (7 of Aban on the Iranian calendar) to the site near Shiraz where Cyrus the Great was entombed. Perhaps Tavana or some of the other Jews I met in Iran participated in that pilgrimage two days after I left the country on October 27.
The U.S. government’s insistence that imposing economic sanctions on Iran is somehow benefiting the Iranian people is demonstrably false. The Trump administration’s campaign of “maximum pressure” is preventing life-saving medicines and vital technology from entering the country and emboldening the country’s hardliners. Iranians seeking to reform their government are suffering from this foreign intervention that is crippling their economy and making human rights goals and progressive reforms harder to achieve.
Just as American Jews who identify with social justice, civil rights, progressivism, and tikkun olam (repair of the world) have no intention of leaving their country even if—God forbid—Trump gets a second term, Jews in Iran today are internationally choosing to remain in their country. Perhaps they remain because they feel integrated into Iranian society and political movements, and see themselves as part of a long history of opposition to U.S., Israeli, British and other forms of imperialism. Perhaps they want to be on the ground for the next chapter of Iranian history, one in which they and their Muslim, Christian, Baha’i, Zoroastrian, and other Iranian brothers and sisters work hand-in-hand to create an Iran, and an entire Middle East, where all can live together in peace.
Iranian Jews are anything but trapped victims. They are full political actors with rich political histories and valuable interfaith allies. So how best can we support their efforts? As American Jews and non-Jews, we should be outraged at how the Trump administration is endangering Iranian civil society and making their efforts for change much harder. For the sake of all who live in Iran—Muslims, Christians, Jews, and more—we must push Congress and whoever gets sworn into office in January 2021 to lift the brutal inhumane sanctions, rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, and move toward normalizing relations.
This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.