The Jews of Iran

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The Jewish community in Iran is among the oldest in the world. The first Jewish settlements near Ekbatana (Hamadan, western Iran) and Susa (southwest Iran) date to 721 BC. Jews fleeing persecution under the rule of the Assyrian King Nabuchadadnezzar II settled in Isfahan around 680BC.

In 539 BC, Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenian Empire, conquered Babylon and allowed the exiled Jews to go home and reconstruct the temple of Jerusalem. Some chose to remain and a movement of migration deeper into Persia began.

Jews in ancient Persia mostly lived in their own communities. Persian Jewish lived in the ancient (and until the mid-20th century still extant) communities not only of Iran, but of present-day Azerbaijan, Kirgizstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and north-western India. Scholars believe that during the peak of the Persian Empire, Jews may have comprised as much as 20% of the population.

According to 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." But the Library of Congress's 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."

The Achaemenian rulers of Persia treated their conquered subjects leniently and a significant number of Jews rose to prominence in the imperial Persian court. History has retained the names of Zerubbabel, Erza, Nehemiah, Daniel, "Mordecai the Jew" and his niece Esther.

Alexander's conquest and domination of the Persian Empire did not radically change the situation of the Jewish communities in Persia. The next rulers of Persia, the Parthians, ruled the country for five centuries and gave the Jews broad religious, cultural or even legal autonomy.  Jewish chronicles mention the Parthian period as one of the best in their history. Centres of Jewish life in the Parthian Empire were situated in Mesopotamia, in Nisibis and Nehardea. According to Jewish records, Jews enjoyed a long period of peace and maintained close and positive contacts with the ruling Parthians. Jews fought on the side of the Parthians against the Roman armies and took an active part in organizing the silk trade, an advantage they owed to the support of the Parthian kings.

The fall of Parthian dynasty and the rise of the Sassanids ushered in five centuries of repressive policies with regard to religious minorities. Most Sassanid kings promoted Zoroastrianism in the empire and persecuted other religious communities. As a result, Jews and other religious minorities suffered. But while much is known about the Christian, Manichean and Mazdaean persecutions, the persecution in the Jewish records appears only in the fifth century. It must also be noted that in the wars between Rome and the Sassanid kings, the Jews, unlike Christians, were decidedly loyal to the Persian king.

In the mid-seventh century, Persia became a province of the Arab-Muslim Empire. The Arab conquest substituted a state religion for another, but for Jews it was a step forward. As dhimmis, they enjoyed, as elsewhere under the rule of Islam, an inferior but protected status. Their economic role was not negligible. Jews in Persia were artisans, shopkeepers, merchants and manufacturers, and the growing urbanization of the Muslim East and the growth of international trade contributed to the emergence of a new class of wealthy Jewish merchants in urban centres like Baghdad, Ahvaz, Isfahan and Shiraz. During these early centuries of Muslim domination, social unrest and religious turmoil in Persia also affected the Jewish communities.

Muslim treatment of the religious minorities varied in accordance with the policies of the caliphs and attitudes of different governors. While the Umayyad governor of Iran, Hajjaj, was ruthless in persecution of non-Muslims, others were more lenient and did not follow all the discriminatory rules. There were many Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian philosophers, physicians, scientists, musicians and administrators in the first century of the Muslim Empire. The rise of the Abbasid caliphate improved the situation of the dhimmi for a while, especially during the reign of Al Mansur. He was a devoted follower of the sciences and supported the great translation movement of the eighth century. Thousands of books were translated into Arabic from Greek, Hebrew, Persian and other languages. Iranian Jews at the time were writing dari (new Persian) in Hebrew characters.

In the twelfth century, Iranian Jews were largely involved in trade. The Jewish traveller Benjamin of Tuleda reported large Jewish and Christian communities in many of the larger cities when he visited Iran in 1157 and mentioned Jewish communities in Hamadan, Isfahan, Nahavand, Shiraz, Nishapur and Baghdad. On the whole there appears to have been little discrimination against the dhimmis other than the usual restrictions. In one incident a prominent Jew, Abu Sad Samha, successfully made a claim against Abu Shuja, the minster responsible for dhimmis. He claimed Abu Shuja had failed to protect the Jews and managed to get the Minster sacked.

In 1258, the conquest of Baghdad by the Mongols of Hulagu Khan ended the Abbasid caliphate and dramatically changed the life of Jewish communities in the region. Those were good years for the Jews of Persia, more present than ever in the economy and political affairs of the empire, and quite at ease in their cultural environment to lay the foundations for a rich literature. For the first time a substantial Judeo-Persian literature emerged.

The advent of the Safavid kings (1501), who made Shiite Islam Iran's official religion, created a dramatic new turn. Massacres and forced conversions were now the lot of Persian Jews, whose population declined sharply to less than 100,000 people. The Safavids established a rigid religious hierarchy with unlimited power and influence in every sphere of life.  Jewish chronicles from this period are full of accounts of massacre, forced conversion into Islam and mistreatment. All relations between Iranian Jews and others outside the country were severed. Christians and Zoroastrians were subjected to the same harsh treatments and Sunnis suffered most. Segregation became a reality again for all minorities and Jewish ghettos were reinforced. Jews were forced to wear both a yellow badge and a headgear, and their oaths were not accepted in courts of justice. Any Jew who converted to Islam would be recognized as the sole inheritor of the family estate, to the exclusion of all Jewish relatives.

The Qajar dynasty (1794 - 1925) continued the repressive and intolerant policies of the Safavids and the Jewish community in Iran saw little change until the nineteenth century. In 1839, the Qajar king, Muhammad Shah, ordered the entire Jewish community in the city of Mashad to convert to Islam. Europeans powers intervened for the first time and the decree was reversed.

European pressure on the Iranian government also led to the opening of the first modern Jewish school in 1891 by a royal decree from Nasser-Eddin Shah. Teachers and students had to be escorted by the police to stop Shiite zealots from attacking them.

The end of the nineteenth century witnessed a fundamental change in Iran with the advent of the Constitutional Revolution. Jewish political activists, along with other minorities, actively 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, Zoroastrians and reformist Muslims fought hard in the ranks of the constitutionalists to form a National Consultative Assembly instead of an Islamic Majlis, as demanded by the religious hierarchy. Along with other religious minorities they succeeded in their efforts to ratify laws that gave equality to Muslim and non-Muslim (male) citizens and defined a new concept of citizenship not based on religious and ethnic identity. The 1906 constitution recognized Jews as a religious minority and allocated a seat in the Iranian parliament to a representative elected by the country's Jewish community.

In 1925, the advent of the Pahlavis changed the course of Iranian history. Reza Khan (1878 - 1944), the founder of the dynasty, was an officer in the Iranian army. A talented, ambitious and politically astute man, he ascended to the throne in December 1925. His rise to power marked a new era not only for the Iranian people, but also for the Jews of Iran. Under Reza Shah, the economic situation of the Jews improved. All discriminatory laws and decrees were repealed. Jews and members of other religious minorities could join the army, enrol in government schools, and live wherever they wanted. The ghettos (mahalleh) were a thing of the past.

Jews wanted to integrate themselves into Iranian society at all costs and identify with the symbols of secular nationalism, but they also wanted to remain Jewish. They loved Persian poetry and literature, appreciated Persian music and celebrated national holidays with genuine joy. They abandoned their Jewish names for Iranian names and glorified Iran's pre-Islamic past. The secular nationalist tendency, at least from the standpoint of historical and cultural consciousness, seemed to have paved the way for a rapprochement between Jews and the Iranian people.

For political reasons related to Iran's relations with the Soviet Union and Britain, Reza Shah decided to foster a closer relationship with Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Commercial and cultural ties between the two countries grew rapidly and numerous German engineers and technicians arrived in Iran to work on industrial and construction projects.

Nazi propaganda carried on Radio Berlin's Persian service emphasized the Aryan origins of the two peoples and called Jews "the inferior race" and "blood suckers of humanity." Local fascist and extreme right-wing groups collaborated with the Nazis, and all this exacerbated tensions between Jews and Muslims.

When U.S., Soviet and British forces occupied Iran in autumn 1941, the eldest son of Reza Shah, Mohammad Reza, succeeded his father. The occupation of Iran (1941-1946) marked the beginning of one of the most dynamic periods in the country's modern history. Like other composites of Iranian society, Jews resumed their political activities: they founded clubs, organized training groups and published their own newspapers. Many Persian Jews helped the "Tehran Children" and other Russian and Polish Jewish refugees who were escaping Nazi persecution by going to the British mandate of Palestine through Iran.

Iranian Jews lived through a happy and prosperous period after the Second World War and until the advent of the Islamic revolution in 1979. The Islamic Republic, hostile to the State of Israel, looked on Iranian Jews with suspicion. By the end of 2000, Islamic revolutionary courts had executed almost twenty Jews. The constitution of 1979, however, recognized the Jews as a religious minority and granted them a seat in Parliament. Iranian Jews have their own organizations, including Anjoman Kalimiyane Tehran (The Jewish Society of Tehran), which publishes a periodical, Persian Bina.

From early 1978 until the year 2000, more than 60,000 Jews left Iran, mostly from Tehran. Most of them have settled in the United States. An estimated 30,000 Jews still live in Iran today, the largest Jewish community in the Muslim world.