History of the Jews in Iran
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The beginnings of Jewish history in Iran date back to late biblical times. The biblical books of Isaiah, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, contain references to the life and experiences of Jews in Persia. In the book of Ezra, the Persian kings are credited with permitting and enabling the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple; its reconstruction was carried out "according to the decree of Cyrus, and Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia" (Ezra 6:14). This great event in Jewish history took place in the late 6th century BC, by which time there was a well-established and influential Jewish community in Persia.
Persian Jews have lived in the territories of today's Iran for over 2,700 years, since the first Jewish diaspora when the Assyrian king Shalmaneser V conquered the (Northern) Kingdom of Israel (722 BC) and sent the Israelites (the Ten Lost Tribes) into captivity at Khorasan. In 586 BC, the Babylonians expelled large populations of Jews from Judea to the Babylonian captivity.
Jews who migrated to ancient Persia mostly lived in their own communities. The Persian Jewish communities include the ancient (and until the mid-20th century still-extant) communities not only of Iran, but also the Armenian, Georgian, Iraqi, Bukharan, and Mountain Jewish communities.
Some of the communities were isolated from other Jewish communities, to the extent that their classification as "Persian Jews" is a matter of linguistic or geographical convenience rather than actual historical relationship with one another. During the peak of the Persian Empire, Jews are thought to have comprised as much as 20% of the population.
According to the Encyclopædia Britannica: "The Jews trace their heritage in Iran to the Babylonian Exile of the 6th century BC and, like the Armenians, have retained their ethnic, linguistic, and religious identity." However, a Library of Congress country study on Iran states that "Over the centuries the Jews of Iran became physically, culturally, and linguistically indistinguishable from the non-Jewish population. The overwhelming majority of Jews speak Persian as their mother language, and a tiny minority, Kurdish." In 2012, Iran's official census reported 8,756 Jewish citizens, a decline from 25,000 in 2009.
Assyrian exile of Northern Kingdom
According to the Bible, the Kingdom of Israel (or Northern Kingdom) was one of the successor states to the older United Monarchy (also called the Kingdom of Israel), which came into existence in about the 930s BC after the northern Tribes of Israel rejected Solomon's son Rehoboam as their king. In c. 732 BC, the Assyrian king, Tiglath-Pileser III sacked Damascus and Israel, annexing Aramea and territory of the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh in Gilead including the desert outposts of Jetur, Naphish and Nodab.Israel continued to exist within the reduced territory as an independent kingdom subject to Assyria until around 725-720 BC, when it was again invaded by Assyria and the rest of the population deported. From this time, no trace exists of the Kingdom of Israel and its population are commonly referred as Ten Lost Tribes. The Bible (2 Kings 18:11) reports that part of these ten lost tribes were expelled to the land of the Medes in modern-day Iran. The book of Tobit, which is part of the Apocrypha suggests that there were people from the tribe of Naphtali living in Rhages (Rey, Iran) and Ecbatana (Hamedan) at the time of the Assyrians (Book of Tobit 6:12).
Persian Jewry under Cyrus the Great
Three times during the 6th century BC, the Jews (Hebrews) of the ancient Kingdom of Judah were exiled to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. These three separate occasions are mentioned in Jeremiah (52:28-30). The first exile was in the time of Jehoiachin in 597 BC, when the Temple of Jerusalem was partially despoiled and a number of the leading citizens exiled. After eleven years (in the reign of Zedekiah) a new Judean uprising took place; the city was razed to the ground, and a further exile ensued. Finally, five years later, Jeremiah records a third exile. After the overthrow of Babylonia by the Achaemenid Empire, Cyrus the Great gave the Jews permission to return to their native land (537 BC). According to the Hebrew Bible (See Jehoiakim; Ezra; Nehemiah and Jews) more than forty thousand are said to have availed themselves of the privilege, however this is not supported by modern scholarship. Lester Grabbe argues that the immigration would probably only have amounted to a trickle over decades, with the archaeological record showing no evidence of large scale increases in population at any time during the Persian period. Cyrus also allowed them to practice their religion freely (See Cyrus Cylinder) unlike the previous Assyrian and Babylonian rulers.
In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing:“This is what Cyrus king of Persia says:“‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them. And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.’” - Book of Ezra, 1:1-4
The Second Temple period
Cyrus ordered the rebuilding of the Second Temple in the same place as the first but died before it was completed. Darius the Great, after the short-lived rule of Cambyses, came to power over the Persian Empire and ordered the completion of the Temple. This was undertaken with the stimulus of the earnest counsels and admonitions of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. It was ready for consecration in the spring of 515 BC, more than twenty years after the Jews' return from exile.
Haman and the Jews
In the Book of Esther, Haman is described as an Agagite noble and vizier of the Persian Empire under Persian King Ahasuerus, generally identified by biblical scholars as possibly being Xerxes I in the 6th century BCE. Haman and his wife Zeresh instigated a plot to murder all the Jews of ancient Persia. The plot was foiled by Queen Esther and Mordechai; and, as a result, Haman and his ten sons were hanged. The events of the Book of Esther are celebrated on the Jewish holiday Purim.
The Parthian Period
Jewish sources contain no mention of the Parthian influence and the name "Parthia" does not occur. The Armenian prince Sanatroces, of the royal house of the Arsacides, is mentioned in the "Small Chronicle" as one of the successors (diadochoi) of Alexander. Among other Asiatic princes, the Roman rescript in favor of the Jews reached a Prince Arsaces as well (I Macc. xv. 22); it is not, however, specified which Arsaces. Not long after, the Partho-Babylonian country was invaded by a Jewish army. The Syrian king, Antiochus Sidetes, marched against the Parthians in company with Hyrcanus I. When the allied armies defeated the Parthians (129 BC) at the Great Zab (Lycus), the king ordered a ceasefire of two days on account of the Jewish Sabbath and Shavuot. In 40 BC, the Jewish puppet-king, Hyrcanus II., fell into the hands of the Parthians cut off his ears in order to render him unfit for rulership. The Jews of Babylonia, it seems, intended to create a high-priesthood for the exiled Hyrcanus, independent of the Land of Israel. However, the reverse happened: the Judean Jews accepted a Babylonian Jew, Ananel, as their High Priest which indicates the high esteem in which the Jews of Babylonia were held. In religious matters the Babylonians, like the rest of the Diaspora, were dependent upon the Land of Israel and Jerusalem in particular, to which they were expected to travel in order to observe the festivals.
The Parthian Empire was an enduring empire based on a loosely configured system of vassal kings. This lack of a rigidly centralized rule over the empire had its drawbacks, such as the rise of a Jewish bandit-state in Nehardea (see Anilai and Asinai). Yet, the tolerance of the Arsacid dynasty was as legendary as the first Persian dynasty, the Achaemenids. There is even an account that indicates the conversion of a small number of Parthian vassal kings of Adiabene to Judaism. These instances and others show not only the tolerance of Parthian kings, but is also a testament to the extent to which the Parthians saw themselves as the heir to the preceding empire of Cyrus the Great. The Parthians were very protective of the Jewish minority as reflected in old Jewish saying “When you see a Parthian charger chained to a tombstone in the Land of Israel, the hour of the Messiah will be near”.
The Babylonian Jews wanted to fight in common cause with their Judean brethren against Vespasian; but it was not until the Romans waged war under Trajan against Parthia that they acted. To a large extent, the revolt of the Babylonian Jews meant that the Romans did not become masters of Babylonia. Philo speaks of the large number of Jews resident in that country, a population which was no doubt considerably swelled by new immigrants after the destruction of Jerusalem. Accustomed in Jerusalem from early times to look to the East for help, and aware, as the Roman procurator Petronius was, that the Jews of Babylon could render effectual assistance, Babylonia became with the fall of Jerusalem the very bulwark of Judaism. The collapse of the Bar Kochba revolt no doubt added to the number of Jewish refugees in Babylon.
Possibly it was recognition of services thus rendered by the Jews of Babylonia, and by the House of David in particular, that induced the Parthian kings to elevate the princes of the Exile, who until then had been little more than mere tax collectors, to the dignity of real princes, called Resh Galuta. Thus, then, the numerous Jewish subjects were provided with a central authority which assured an undisturbed development of their own internal affairs.
By the early 3rd century, Persian influences were on the rise again. In the winter of 226 AD, Ardashir I overthrew the last Parthian king (Artabanus IV), destroyed the rule of the Arsacids, and founded the illustrious dynasty of the Sassanids. While Hellenistic influence had been felt amongst the religiously tolerant Parthians, the Sassanids intensified the Persian side of life, favored the Pahlavi language, and restored the old monotheistic religion of Zoroastrianism which became the official state religion. This resulted in the suppression of other religions. A priestly Zoroastrian inscription from the time of King Bahram II (276–293 AD) contains a list of religions (including Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism etc.) that Sassanid rule claimed to have "smashed".
Shapur I (Or Shvor Malka, which is the Aramaic form of the name) was friendly to the Jews. His friendship with Shmuel gained many advantages for the Jewish community. According to rabbinical sources Shapur II's mother was Jewish, and this gave the Jewish community relative freedom of religion and many advantages. He was also friend of a Babylonian rabbi in the Talmud named Raba (Talmud), Raba's friendship with Shapur II enabled him to secure a relaxation of the oppressive laws enacted against the Jews in the Persian Empire. In addition, Raba sometimes referred to his top student Abaye with the term Shvur Malka meaning "Shaput [the] King" because of his quick intellect. The wife of Yazdgerd I and the mother of Bahram V was Shushandukht who was the daughter of Exilarch Huna b. Nathan. Shushandukht secured many benefits for the Jewish community and ordered construction of Jewish neighborhoods in Shushtar, Susa, Hamedan and Isfahan. Some historians such as Ernst Herzfeld suggested that the Tomb of Esther and Mordechai in Hamedan might be the tomb of Shushandukht.
Both Christians and Jews suffered occasional persecution; but the latter, dwelling in more compact masses in cities like Isfahan, were not exposed to such general persecutions as broke out against the more isolated Christians. Generally, this was a period of occasional persecutions for the Jews, followed by long periods of benign neglect in which Jewish learning thrived. In the 5th century, the Jews suffered from persecution during the reigns of Yazdegerd II and Peroz.
Early Islamic period (634 to 1255)
At the time of Islamic conquest of Persia Jews were heavily under the pressure of the Sassanid rulers. Several Jewish religious figures were executed and the Jewish community was under pressure. Thus, many Jews welcomed the Arab armies with open arms. One of the Jews of Isfahan, "Abu Naeem", wrote in the "stories of the news of Isfahan" that Jews rushed to the gates of Isfahan to open the gates for the Arabs. He further wrote that many took musical instruments to make a feast. These Jews believed that the time of the Messiah is coming. Amnon Netzer believes that this story demonstrates that the Jews were the majority of the population of Isfahan at the time, since this act was likely to enrage the local Zoroastrians.
After the Islamic conquest of Persia, Jews, along with Christians and Zoroastrians, were assigned the status of dhimmis, inferior subjects of the Islamic empire. Dhimmis were allowed to practice their religion, but were forced to pay taxes (jizya, a poll tax, and initially also kharaj, a land tax) in favor of the Arab Muslim conquerors, and as a compensation for being excused from military service and payment of poor tax incumbent on Muslims. Dhimmis were also required to submit to a number of social and legal disabilities; they were prohibited from bearing arms, riding horses, testifying in courts in cases involving a Muslim, and frequently required to wear clothes that clearly distinguished them from Muslims. Although some of these restrictions were sometimes relaxed, the overall condition of inequality remained in force until the Mongol invasion. The 10th-century Persian historian Estakhri reports that :
All of the land from Isfahan to Tustar(Shushtar) was settled by Jews in such large numbers that the whole area was called Yahudistan (land of the Jews).
Mongol rule (1256 to 1318)
In 1255, Mongols led by Hulagu Khan began a charge on Persia, and in 1257 they captured Baghdad, thus ending the Abbasid caliphate. In Persia and surrounding areas, the Mongols established a division of the Mongol Empire known as the Ilkhanate. The Ilkhanate considered all religions equal, and Mongol rulers abolished the unequal status of the dhimmi classes. One of the Ilkhanate rulers, Arghun Khan, even preferred Jews and Christians for administrative positions and appointed Sa'd al-Daula, a Jew, as his vizier. The appointment, however, provoked resentment from the Muslim clergy, and after Arghun's death in 1291, al-Daula was murdered and Persian Jews suffered a period of violent clergy-instigated persecutions from the Muslim populace. The contemporary Christian historian Bar Hebraeus wrote that of the violence committed against the Jews during that period "neither tongue can utter, nor the pen write down".
Ghazan Khan's conversion to Islam in 1295 heralded for Persian Jews a pronounced turn for the worse, as they were once again relegated to the status of dhimmis. Öljeitü, Ghazan Khan's successor, pressured some Jews to convert to Islam. The most famous such convert was Rashid-al-Din Hamadani, a physician, historian and statesman, who adopted Islam in order to advance his career at Öljeitü's court. However, in 1318 he was executed on fake charges of poisoning Öljeitü and for several days crowds carried his head around his native city of Tabriz, chanting "This is the head of the Jew who abused the name of God; may God's curse be upon him!" About 100 years later, Miranshah destroyed Rashid al-Din's tomb, and his remains were reburied at the Jewish cemetery. Rashid al-Din's case illustrates a pattern that differentiated the treatment of Jewish converts in Persia from their treatment in most other Muslim lands, where converts were welcomed and easily assimilated into the Muslim population. In Persia, however, Jewish converts were usually stigmatized on account of their Jewish ancestry for many generations.
Safavid and Qajar dynasties (1502 to 1925)
Further deterioration in the treatment of Persian Jews occurred during the reign of the Safavids who proclaimed Shi'a Islam the state religion. Shi'ism assigns great importance to the issues of ritual purity ― tahara, and non-Muslims, including Jews, were deemed to be ritually unclean ― najis ― so that physical contact with them would require Shi'as to undertake ritual purification before doing regular prayers. Thus, Persian rulers, and to an even larger extent, the populace, sought to limit physical contact between Muslims and Jews. Jews were not allowed to attend public baths with Muslims or even to go outside in rain or snow, ostensibly because some impurity could be washed from them upon a Muslim. Jews were often only permitted to pursue trades that were undesirable to the general Muslim population. They were expected to "undertake dirty work of every kind." Examples of such professions included dyeing (which contained strong unpleasant odors), scavenger work, cleaning excrement pits, singers, musicians, dancers and so on. By 1905, many Jews of Isfahan were trading opium. This commerce which was very profitable, involved trade with India and China. The head of Isfahan Jewry was known to have contacts with house of David Sassoon.
The reign of Shah Abbas I (1588–1629) was initially benign. Jews prospered throughout Persia and were even encouraged to settle in Isfahan, which was made a new capital. However, toward the end of his rule, the treatment of Jews became harsher; upon advice from a Jewish convert and Shi'a clergy, the Shah forced Jews to wear a distinctive badge on clothing and headgear. In 1656, all Jews were expelled from Isfahan because of the common belief of their impurity and forced to convert to Islam. However, as it became known that the converts continued to practice Judaism in secret and because the treasury suffered from the loss of jizya collected from the Jews, they were allowed to revert to Judaism in 1661. However, they were still required to wear a distinctive patch upon their clothings.
Under Nadir Shah (1736–1747), an ostensibly Sunni leader, Jews experienced a period of relative tolerance when they were allowed to settle in the Shi'ite holy city of Mashhad. Nader even employed many Jews in sensitive positions and he brought Jewish administrators as protectors of his treasures from India. Nader also ordered Jewish holy books to be translated into Persian.
Upon the completion of the translation, Nadir Shah presented the sages of Israel with robes of honor and gifts and thereafter he dismissed them. At nights in the royal assembly, the chief Mulla (Rabbi) of the kingdom [Mulla-Bashi] would read and interpret for the king, sometimes from the Torah and sometimes from the Psalms and king enjoyed this greatly. He had sworn saying "I will take Russia, I will rebuiled Jerusalem and I will gather all the Children of Israel together" However death overtook him and did not allow him to do so
The Jews became prominent in trade in Mashhad, and established commercial relationships with the British, who favored dealing with them. After the assassination of Nader in 1747, Jews turned to the British traders and Sunni Turkomens for political support. At the time Jews formed close ties with the British and provided banking support and intelligence for them. The Zand dynasty had a more complex relationship with the Jewish community. They enjoyed the Shah's protection in Shiraz, but when the forces of Karim Khan took Basra in 1773, many Jews were killed, their properties looted and their women were raped. A document named "The Scroll of Persia" by Rabbi Ya'cov Elyashar compares the protected status of Jews in Ottoman Empire, with the weak condition of Jews in Iran. A Dutch traveller to Shiraz at the time of Karim Khan states:"Like most of the cities of the east, the Jews of Shiraz dwell in a separate quarter of their own, and they live, at least outwardly, in great poverty." The British officer William Francklin who visited Shiraz after Karim Khan's death wrote :"The Jews of Shiraz have a quarter of the city allotted to themselves, for which they pay a considerable tax to the government,and are obliged to make frequent presents. These people are more odious to the Persians than any other faith, and every opportunity is taken to oppress and extort money from them, the very boys on the street are accustomed to beat and insult them, of which treatment they dare not complain" The Zand dynasty came to an end when Lotf Ali Khan Zand was murdered by the Aqa Muhammad Khan Qajar. An instrumental figure in ascension of Aqa Muhammad Khan Qajar to the throne and defeat of Lotf Ali Khan was Hajj Ebrahim Khan Kalantar, whom Naser al-Din Shah Qajar always referred to as Jewish. However Aqa Muhammad Khan's successor, Fath-Ali Shah Qajar did not trust Haji Ebrahim and had him executed. Later Hajj Ebrahim's daughter married the new prime minister and formed the influential Qavam family which remained influential in Iran for at least two centuries. Despite the early cooperation between Jews and Qajars, the Jews eventually suffered under their leadership. The Qajars were also Shia Muslims and many Shia anti-Jewish laws were reinstated. Rabbi David Hillel who visited Persia in 1827 wrote of a forced conversion shortly before his trip. Stern who was a Jewish-Christian missionary wrote that all merchants in Vakil Bazaar are ethnic Jews who in order to save themselves from death rebuke the faith of their fathers constantly.
In the middle of the 19th century, J. J. Benjamin wrote about the life of Persian Jews: "…they are obliged to live in a separate part of town…; for they are considered as unclean creatures… Under the pretext of their being unclean, they are treated with the greatest severity and should they enter a street, inhabited by Mussulmans, they are pelted by the boys and mobs with stones and dirt… For the same reason, they are prohibited to go out when it rains; for it is said the rain would wash dirt off them, which would sully the feet of the Mussulmans… If a Jew is recognized as such in the streets, he is subjected to the greatest insults. The passers-by spit in his face, and sometimes beat him… unmercifully… If a Jew enters a shop for anything, he is forbidden to inspect the goods… Should his hand incautiously touch the goods, he must take them at any price the seller chooses to ask for them... Sometimes the Persians intrude into the dwellings of the Jews and take possession of whatever please them. Should the owner make the least opposition in defense of his property, he incurs the danger of atoning for it with his life... If... a Jew shows himself in the street during the three days of the Katel (Muharram)…, he is sure to be murdered."
in 1868 British charge d'affairs in Iran Sir William Taylour Thomson wrote Iranian Jews are "mostly very poor and excepting in Tehran and some major cities, are much prosecuted and oppressed by the Mahometans (muslims)." After a trip to Europe in 1873 Naser al-Din Shah Qajar improved his relationship towards the Jewish community and relaxed certain restrictions. However this relaxation was not perceived positively by the masses and the Shia clergy. Writing in 1875 a letter from Tehran Jewish community indicates although the Shah is a "righteous king and a lover of all the seed of the Jews as the apple of his eye" and he and his deputy are Jews' Lovers the gentile masses are accustomed to mistreating the Jews. In 1876 in accordance to pressure from Moses Montefiore the Iranian government improved the living conditions of the Jews and reduced their taxes. In 1881 Sir William Taylour Thomson finally succeeded to force the Shah to abolish the Jizya tax for the Persian Jewry Many times Iranian central government wished to help the Jews but did not have enough influence in places where local rulers and Shia clergy were powerful. In one incident of this type in Hamedan in 1875, an argument occurred between a Jewish goldsmith and a customer, eventually a crowd gathered and the goldsmith was accused of blaspheming Islam, a crime worthy of capital punishment in Islamic legal law. People started beating the Jew. He fled to a Mujtahid’s (Islamic Scholar) house who sought to send him to the government authorities. However people were so angry, that they broke into the house and killed him and burned his body. Sir William Taylour Thomson contacted Iranian authorities about this matter and a levy tax was imposed on all Muslim population of the city. This angered the population even more and all of them gathered to stone the Jew, the governor and Shah’s agents. Jewish board of deputees sent gratitude to William Taylour Thomson for intervening on behalf of the Jews.
The following street song which was common in Tehran in the 19th century demonstrates the negative view of average Persian Muslim towards the Persian Jews:
The Jew (Originally Juhud (Persian:جهود), a negative term meaning Jew) who is without honor, Is a nuisance from head to toe, He is a lie from toe to head, May scum cover his father's grave, He is an enemy of the religion of Islam, Don't call him a Jew, he is an infidel, His scarf, his gown and his shirt, His property, his children and his wife, Don't say they are bad, for they belong to you, Take them and screw them, they are lawful to you.
Lord Curzon described the regional differences in the situation of the Persian Jews in the 19th century: "In Isfahan, where they are said to be 3,700 and where they occupy a relatively better status than elsewhere in Persia, they are not permitted to wear kolah or Persian headdress, to have shops in the bazaar, to build the walls of their houses as high as a Moslem neighbour's, or to ride in the street. In Teheran and Kashan they are also to be found in large numbers and enjoying a fair position. In Shiraz they are very badly off. In Bushire they are prosperous and free from persecution." One European traveler in 1880 wrote : “Hatred [harboured by the gentiles of Kermanshah] toward the Jews is not as overdone as in central Persia”. In 1860 Rabbi Y. Fischel said about the Jews of Isfahan as beaten “from all sides by the gentiles.”
Another European traveler reported a degrading ritual to which Jews were subjected for public amusement:
At every public festival — even at the royal salaam [salute], before the King’s face — the Jews are collected, and a number of them are flung into the hauz or tank, that King and mob may be amused by seeing them crawl out half-drowned and covered with mud. The same kindly ceremony is witnessed whenever a provincial governor holds high festival: there are fireworks and Jews.
In other times, the attacks on the Jews were related to their association with the foreigners. An event of this sort occurred in 1836, when Elyas a Jewish banker for the British Residency in Bushehr "was attacked for doing it's business in the bazaar." Anti-Jewish acts were sometimes linked to resentment of European powers. In this time Iranian Jews who were aware of the growing influence of European Jews in global affairs turned to them for assistance. In 1840 the Jewish community of Hamedan sent an envoy, Nissim Bar Selomah, to meet Western Jewry. He went to England and met with Moses Montefiore, who provided "certificates" against the accusations of the Jews.
From 1860 many attempts were made by the Persian Jewish community to secure assistance from European Jews against Muslims. These requests were full of descriptions of poverty and persecution faced by Jews in Persia. The following is one example of such requests :"Allow us to present our supplications to you. You would not want your brethren, your own flesh and blood, to perish in frightful penury, to be victims of renewed persecutions which awaits them with each passing day. We are subject to the scorn of our enemies (Muslims) who view us as defenseless and do with us whatever they like. We live every day, hour and moment of our lives in constant dread of some new tragedy which they might bring upon us. our lives, property, honor, everything that is dear to us is at the mercy of their anger and hostility, a situation which is worse than slavery. Apostate Jews have the right to inherit their parents entire estate, the widow and orphans who did not abandon their faith must hand over their property to the apostate. A Muslim who kills a Jew will not go to a trial, even if there were witnesses to the crime, the Muslim will pay at most a fine for his deed. We are groaning under the burden of disgraceful taxes.
In the 19th century, there were many instances of forced conversions and massacres, usually inspired by the Shi'a clergy. A representative of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, a Jewish humanitarian and educational organization, wrote from Tehran in 1894: "…every time that a priest wishes to emerge from obscurity and win a reputation for piety, he preaches war against the Jews". In 1830, the Jews of Tabriz were massacred; the same year saw a forcible conversion of the Jews of Shiraz. In 1839, the Allahdad occurred, many Jews were massacred in Mashhad and survivors were forcibly converted. However, European travellers later reported that the Jews of Tabriz and Shiraz continued to practice Judaism in secret despite a fear of further persecutions. In 1860 Jews of Hamedan were accused of mocking the Ta'zieh ceremonies for Imam Husain, several of them were fined and some had their ears and noses cut off as punishment. Jews of Barforush were forcibly converted in 1866; when they were allowed to revert to Judaism thanks to an intervention by the French and British ambassadors, a mob killed 18 Jews of Barforush, burning two of them alive. In 1910, the Jews of Shiraz were accused of ritually murdering a Muslim girl. Muslim dwellers of the city plundered the whole Jewish quarter, the first to start looting were the soldiers sent by the local governor to defend the Jews against the enraged mob. Twelve Jews, who tried to defend their property, were killed, and many others were injured. Representatives of the Alliance Israélite Universelle recorded other numerous instances of persecution and debasement of Persian Jews. In many of these cases envoys from foreign governments such as British, French and Ottoman intervened on behalf of the Jews to avoid more serious repercussions. Three international Jewish organizations of Alliance Israélite Universelle, Anglo-Jewish Association and Board of Deputies of British Jews and two key people Adolphe Crémieux and Moses Montefiore were instrumental in securing equal rights for the Iranian Jews and protecting Jews in anti-semitic incidents.
Driven by persecutions, thousands of Persian Jews emigrated to Palestine in the late 19th and early 20th century. Many Jews who decided to stay in Iran moved to Tehran to be close to the Shah and enjoy his protection.
Pahlavi dynasty (1925 to 1979)
The Pahlavi dynasty implemented modernizing reforms, which greatly improved the life of Jews. The influence of the Shi'a clergy was weakened, and the restrictions on Jews and other religious minorities were abolished. Reza Shah prohibited mass conversion of Jews and eliminated the Shi'ite concept of ritual uncleanness of non-Muslims. Modern Hebrew was incorporated into the curriculum of Jewish schools and Jewish newspapers were published. Jews were also allowed to hold government jobs. In 1915 two Jewish brothers, Mordechai and Asher ben Avaraham, opened the first Jewish newspaper called "Shalom". These changes moved the balance of power in the Jewish community from elders and Rabbis to the youth. Establishment of Zionist Organization of Persia further accelerated this transfer of power to the young Jews. The Jews of Persia understood that "Zion" is the biblical name of Jerusalem and Zionism demonstrates that end of exile and the beginning of redemption. The Persian Zionist Aziz ben Yona Naim wrote in early 1920s :"Zionism is nothing but a new name and new institution, for the Zionist idea has been present in Jewish thought for over two thousands years." In the wake of Zionist activity, many Jews emigrated to Palestine. Many Persian Jews were poorer than their European brethren but nevertheless they enthusiastically bought Shekels, contributed to the national funds, and sought to be represented at Zionist Congress held in Europe. However this Zionist awakening led to bitter rivalry between two leaders of Jewish community: Loqman Nehourai and Shmuel Hayyim. Furthermore, even though Reza Shah was sympathetic to the Jews in the beginning, he became distrusted of Jewish movements with the growth of Zionism. Reza Shah sought to unite the different ethnic groups in Iran under the flag of nationalism. His main purpose was to fight communism but he distrusted the zionism as well. Shah did not like the growing connection between European Jewry and Persian Jews. He further arrested Shmuel Hayyim and had him executed in 1931 under the charges of conspiracy to murder the Shah and change the form of government from constitutional monarchy to a republic. Jewish schools were closed in the 1920s. In addition, Reza Shah sympathized with Nazi Germany, making the Jewish community fearful of possible persecutions, and the public sentiment at the time was definitely anti-Jewish During the time of Hitler there were many rumors in Iran that he secretly has converted to Islam and has taken the name Heydar (the title of Imam Ali). The rumors stated that Hitler had a necklace depicting the picture of Imam Ali and was planning to reveal his true religion after defeating the deceitful British, the godless Russians and the Jews. A popular folk poem at the time said: "Imam is our supporter, Hossein is our master. If Germany doesn't arrive, dirt on our heads."
In 1936 head of Reichbank and the financial mastermind of Nazi Germany travelled to Tehran and many important commercial agreements were signed between the two countries. In 1939, Nazi Germany sent over 7500 books with racial tones advocating for greater collaboration between Aryan Persians and Germans. In 1936, Iranians were called pure Aryans and were excluded from Nurenberg laws. Iranian railway was constructed by German engineers. The neighborhood in Tehran is today known as Nazi-abad (Neighborhood of the Nazi's). Railway company was specifically ordered to avoid employing any person of Jewish origin in any of its subdivisions. Hitler personally promised that if he defeats Russia, he will return all of the Persian land taken by Russians during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many gentile anti-Semites were preparing for Johoudkoshan (Massacre of the Jews) and were warning Jews in the streets to leave Iran while they can. Nazi Germany had nightly broadcasts in Persian and was calling many of the leading Iranian politicians who had anti-German tendencies cryptojews. Bahram Shahrukh who was employed by German radio performed fiery anti-Jewish broadcasts every night. In Purim 1941, Shahrukh promoted the idea of revenge for the massacre of the Purim in biblical times, and suggested his Iranian followers to attack the Jews. Nightly newspapers were distributed in Tehran and swastikas were often painted on Jewish homes and shops. Thus many Persian Jews welcomed the British troops to capture Iran in 1942, since the alternative was to be taken over by Germans.
In order to fight the growing racial antisemitism among the Iranian population, many Jews joined the Tudeh party and advocated for communism. Even though Jews comprised less than 2 percent of Iranian population, almost fifty percent of the members of the Tudeh party were Jewish. Tudeh party was the only party among the Iranian political parties that accepted Jews with open arms. Most writers for publications of the Tudeh party were Jewish. Furthermore, many Iranian Jews viewed communism as a Jewish movement since many leading members of the communist revolution in Russia were Jewish and were looked upon favorably by Persian Jews.
With the growing influence of United States in international affairs many American Jewish organizations such as American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee actively intervened on behalf of Persian Jews. During the great famine of Persia in 1917-1919 Albert Lucas the representative of JDC successfully convinced US government to donate 15000 dollars (200000 in 2015 USD) to Persian Jewry. In September 1918 10000 dollars more was donated by the JDC of Philadelphia. Thus the casualty of famine amongst the Persian Jews was minimal in comparison to Persian gentiles. Furthermore, when the Jewish neighborhood of Broujerd was attacked by Loures JDC sent large number of donations. US ambassador Caldwell was also instrumental in helping the Jews of Broujerd.
In 1921, United States appointed Joseph Saul Kornfeld, a Jewish Rabbi, as it's ambassador to Persia. This was the first time in the history of United States in which a Rabbi was appointed as an Ambassador. Kornfeld actively intervened on the behalf of Persian Jewry on many occasions. In one such event, when Reza Shah ordered water to be cut off from Jewish Ghetto of Tehran and Kornfeld successfully convinced Shah to resolve the matter.
Mohammad Ali Foroughi who was a powerful figure during the reign of Reza Shah was of Baghdadi Jewish origin and was looked upon with suspicion among the Iranian elite circles. Mohammad-Taqi Bahar wrote the following to warn Mohammad Reza Pahlavi about him:
O King, let me tell you about the wickedness of Foroughi, that vile Jew will make you suffer greatly - he will write your coronation and dismissal speech, the same way he wrote them for your father (Reza Shah)
A spike in anti-Jewish sentiment occurred after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and continued until 1953 due to the weakening of the central government and strengthening of the clergy in the course of political struggles between the Shah and Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Mossadegh himself although viewed the establishment of the state of Israel as a form of colonialism, had good relationship with the Jewish community. On his trip to United States, a Jewish journalist, Rabbi Moshfegh Hamedani, was accompanying him and giving advice. The most prominent anti-Israeli member of the government was Hossein Fatemi. Hossein Fatemi closed the office of the Jewish Agency on Israel's independence day in 1953. He also annulled an agreement permitting Israeli El Al airplanes to land in Iran. Fatemi from time to time published semi official documents hinting that Iran no longer recognizes the state of Israel. However Mossadegh himself continued commercial ties with the state of Israel and allowed the negotiations between the Bank Melli and Bank Leumi in Israel to continue. Eliz Sanasarian estimates that in 1948–1953, about one-third of Iranian Jews, most of them poor, emigrated to Israel. David Littman puts the total figure of emigrants to Israel in 1948-1978 at 70,000.
From the beginning of the 20th century, the literacy rate among the Jewish minority was significantly higher than the Muslim masses. In 1945 about 80 percent of the Jewish population were literate, whereas most Muslims could not read and write. In 1968 only 30 percent of Muslims were literate, whereas this figure was more than 80 percent for the Jews. The Six-Day War between Arabs and Israel in 1967 created a tense environment for Persian Jewry. During this time, the synagogues in Shiraz remained closed for more than ten weeks until Tisha B'Av for fear of attacks from Muslims masses. Jewish sources report that many gentiles tried to invade the Jewish ghetto and were dispersed by the police. The reign of shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi after the deposition of Mossadegh in 1953, was the most prosperous era for the Jews of Iran. In the 1970s, only 10 percent of Iranian Jews were classified as impoverished; 80 percent were middle class and 10 percent wealthy. Although Jews accounted for only a small percentage of Iran's population, in 1979 two of the 18 members of the Iranian Academy of Sciences, 80 of the 4,000 university lecturers, and 600 of the 10,000 physicians in Iran were Jews. An important factor in economic improvement of the Jews was close relations between the Shah and the state of Israel. Details of this connection and how the condition of Iranian Jews improved dramatically in a few short years still awaits rigorous exploration.
Prior to the Islamic Revolution in 1979, there were 80,000 Jews in Iran, concentrated in Teheran (60,000), Shiraz (8,000), Kermanshah (4,000), Isfahan (3,000), the cities of Khuzistan, as well as Kashan, Tabriz, and Hamedan.
During the Islamic Revolution, many of the Iranian Jews, especially wealthy Jewish leaders in Tehran and many Jewish villages surrounding Esfahan and Kerman, left the country. In late 1979s, the people who left was estimated at 50,000–90,000.
Prior to the independence of Israel in 1948, Urmia was home to 700 Aramaic-speaking Jewish families. As of 2006, only two sisters remain.
Islamic Republic (since 1979)
During the Iranian revolution many Iranian Jews joined the revolutionaries in order to lose their Jewish identity and be part of the utopia that the revolution promised. In summer of 1979, 7000 Jews protested against the Shah in Ashura protests. Leaders of the Jewish community such as Yosef Hamadani Cohen and Yedidia Shofet were instrumental in managing the collaborations between the Jews and the revolutionaries.
At the time of the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, there were approximately 140,000–150,000 Jews living in Iran, the historical center of Persian Jewry. About 95% have since migrated, with the immigration accelerating after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when the population dropped from 100,000 to about 40,000. Following the Iranian Revolution, some 30,000 Iranian Jews immigrated to Israel, while many others went to the United States and Western Europe.
On March 16, 1979, Habib Elghanian, the honorary leader of the Jewish community, was arrested on charges of "corruption", "contacts with Israel and Zionism", "friendship with the enemies of God", "warring with God and his emissaries", and "economic imperialism". He was tried by an Islamic Revolutionary Tribunal, sentenced to death, and executed on May 8, one of 17 Iranian Jews executed as spies since the revolution.
Even though the new revolutionary government promoted heated anti-Israeli sentiments among its followers, many commercial ties were still maintained even after the revolution. After the revolution, selling Iranian oil was extremely difficult due to sanctions. Marc Rich an Israeli-Swiss businessman sent his Glencore executives to Tehran and established major commercial ties with the new government. Rich was the only businessman able to export Iranian oil from 1979 to 1995. He claimed in his biography that he exported Iranian oil to Israel through a secret pipeline between the two countries. He further claimed that both countries were aware of this transaction. Rich obtained military weapons for Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. On many occasions Rich helped Mossad agents in Iran. For his actions on breaking the US sanctions, US government found Marc Rich guilty and sentenced him. However Rich was later pardoned by Bill Clinton in his last day in office. Former Mossad heads Avner Azoulay and Shabtai Shavit personally wrote to Clinton to argue for his pardon. Furthermore, many other commercial ties still exist between Iran and Israel. Israel imports most of its pistachio from Iran and this matter has angered California pistachio producers and US government on many occasions. In 2011 Israeli company Ofer Brothers Group was on the list of companies that broke Iranian sanctions. Ynet reported that Israeli-Iranian trade, conducted covertly and illegally by dozens of Israeli companies, totals tens of millions of dollars a year. Much of this trade is conducted through a third country. Israel supplies Iran with fertilizer, irrigation pipes, hormones for milk production, seeds, and fruit; Iran, meanwhile, provides Israel with marble, cashews, and pistachios. Based on the same report in November 2000, the Iranian government asked an Israeli company, which built Tehran's sewage pipes 30 years earlier, to visit the country for renovations. Shortly afterwards, the assistant director-general of Iran's Ministry of Agriculture visited Israel secretly and stayed at the Tel Aviv Hilton Hotel. He expressed an interest in purchasing irrigation pipes, pesticides and fertilizers.
Estimates of the Jewish population in Iran until the census 2011 vary. In mid- and late 1980s, it was estimated at 20,000–30,000, rising to around 35,000 in the mid-1990s. The current Jewish population of Iran is 8,756 according to the most recent Iranian census.
Opinion over the condition of Jews in Iran is divided. One Jew active in arguing on behalf of a benevolence view of the Iranian Islamic government and society toward Jews is film producer Haroun Yashyaei, who tells visitors and reporters the Ayatollah "Ruhollah Khomeini didn't mix up our community with Israel and Zionism," and "Take it from me, the Jewish community here faces no difficulties." Privately many Jews complain to foreign reporters of "discrimination, much of it of a social or bureaucratic nature." The Islamic government appoints the officials who run Jewish schools, most of these being Muslims and requires that those schools must open on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath. (This has apparently been changed as of February 4, 2015.) Criticism of this policy was the downfall of the last remaining newspaper of the Iranian Jewish community which was closed in 1991 after it criticized government control of Jewish schools. Instead of expelling Jews en masse like in Libya, Iraq, Egypt, and Yemen, the Iranians have adopted a policy of keeping Jews in Iran.
Iranian Jews might be related to their desire for survival and led to their overselling of their anti-Israel positions. Their response to the questions regarding Israel have been outright denial of Israel or staying quiet. An example of the dilemma of Iranian Jews can be observed in this example :"We hear the ayatollah say that Israel was cooperating with the Shah and SAVAK, and we would be fools to say we support Israel. So we just keep quiet about it... Maybe it will work out. Anyway, what can we do? This is our home."
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