The Jewish community of Persia, modern-day Iran,
is one of the oldest in the Diaspora, and its historical roots reach
back to the 6th century B.C.E.,
the time of the First Temple.
Their history in the pre-Islamic period is intertwined with that of
the Jews of neighboring Babylon.
Cyrus, the first of the Archemid dynasty, conquered Babylon in 539 B.C.E.
and permitted the Jewish exiles to return to the Land of Israel, bringing
the First Exile to an end. The Jewish colonies were scattered from centers
in Babylon to Persian provinces and cities such as Hamadan and Susa.
The books of Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel give a favorable description of the relationship of the Jews to the
court of the Achaemids at Susa.
Under the Sassanid dynasty (226-642 C.E.), the Jewish
population in Persia grew considerably and spread throughout the region;
nevertheless, Jews suffered intermittent oppression and persecution.
The invasion by Arab Muslims in 642 C.E. terminated the independence of Persia,
installed Islam as the state religion, and made a deep impact on the Jews by changing their sociopolitical status.
Throughout the 19th century, Jews were persecuted
and discriminated against. Sometimes whole communities were forced to
convert. During the 19th century, there was considerable emigration
to the Land of Israel, and the Zionist
movement spread throughout the community.
Under the Phalevi Dynasty, established in 1925, the
country was secularized and oriented toward the West. This greatly benefited
the Jews, who were emancipated and played an important role in the economy
and in cultural life. On the eve of the Islamic Revolution in 1979,
80,000 Jews lived in Iran. In the wake of the upheaval, tens of thousands
of Jews, especially the wealthy, left the country, leaving behind vast
amounts of property.
The Council of the Jewish Community, which was established
after World War II, is the representative body of the community. The Jews also have a representative in parliament who is obligated by law
to support Iranian foreign policy and its Anti-Zionist position.
Despite the official distinction between "Jews,"
"Zionists," and "Israel," the most common accusation
the Jews encounter is that of maintaining contacts with Zionists. The
Jewish community does enjoy a measure of religious freedom but is faced
with constant suspicion of cooperating with the Zionist state and with
"imperialistic America" both such activities are punishable
by death. Jews who apply for a passport to travel abroad must do so
in a special bureau and are immediately put under surveillance. The
government does not generally allow all members of a family to travel
abroad at the same time to prevent Jewish emigration. Again, the Jews live under the status of dhimmi,
with the restrictions im posed on religious minorities. Jewish leaders
fear government reprisals if they draw attention to official mistreatment
of their community.
Iran's official government-controlled media often issues anti-Semitic propaganda. A prime
example is the government's publishing of the Protocols
of the Elders of Zion, a notorious Czarist forgery, in 1994
and 1999.2 Jews also suffer varying degrees
of officially sanctioned discrimination, particularly in the areas of
employment, education, and public accommodations.3
The Islamization of the country has brought about
strict control over Jewish educational institutions. Before the revolution,
there were some 20 Jewish schools functioning throughout the country.
In recent years, most of these have been closed down. In the remaining
schools, Jewish principals have been replaced by Muslims. In Tehran
there are still three schools in which Jewish pupils constitute a majority.
The curriculum is Islamic, and Persian is forbidden as the language
of instruction for Jewish studies. Special Hebrew lessons are conducted
on Fridays by the Orthodox Otzar ha-Torah organization, which is responsible
for Jewish religious education. Saturday is no longer officially recognized
as the Jewish sabbath, and
Jewish pupils are compelled to attend school on that day. There are
three synagogues in Tehran, but since 1994, there has been no rabbi
in Iran, and the bet din does not function. 4
Following the overthrow of the shah and the declaration of an Islamic
state in 1979, Iran severed relations with Israel. The country has subsequently
supported many of the Islamic terrorist organizations that target Jews and Israelis, particularly the Lebanon-based, Hezbollah. Nevertheless,
Iran's Jewish community is the largest in the Middle East outside Israel.
After the Iranian revolution in early 1979 members of the Jewish community feared for their lives, afraid that they would be murdered or expelled by the new Iranian regime. After the execution of prominent Jewish businessman Habib Elghanian on May 9, 1979 was publicized in local news outlets, the leaders of the Jewish community in Iran knew that they had to act fast in order to guarantee the safety of all Iranian Jews. The community leaders quickly assembled a group of two rabbis and four prominent young intellectuals and set off to meet with Ayatollah Khomeini in the Iranian city of Qom. After the group congratulated the Ayatollah on his victory over the Shah in the recent revolution, the Ayatollah gave a long monologue concluding by comparing Christianity, Islam and Judaism and saying that they are the only religions that are truly descended from heaven. The Ayatollah stated that in the Qur'an Moses's name is mentioned more times than the name of any other Prophet. The discussion concluded with Ayatollah Khomeini claiming that "We recognize our Jews as separate from those godless, bloodsucking Zionists." This was the answer that the Jewish community leaders had been looking for, and the Iranian government has kept their word and kept the Jews physically safe (for the most part) ever since this moment. 8
On the eve of Passover in 1999, 13 Jews from Shiraz and Isfahan in southern Iran were arrested
and accused of spying for Israel and the United States. In September 2000, an Iranian appeals
court upheld a decision to imprison ten of the thirteen Jews accused
of spying for Israel. In the appeals court, ten of the accused were
found guilty of cooperating with Israel and were given prison terms
ranging from two to nine years. Three of the accused were found innocent
in the first trial.5 In March 2001, one
of the imprisoned Jews was released, a second was freed in January 2002,
the remaining eight were set free in late October 2002. The last five
apparently were released on furlough for an indefinite period, leaving
them vulnerable to future arrest. Three others were reportedly pardoned
by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.6
At least 13 Jews have been executed in Iran since
the Islamic revolution, most of them for either religious
reasons or their connection to Israel. For example, in May 1998, Jewish
businessman Ruhollah Kakhodah-Zadeh was hanged in prison without a public
charge or legal proceeding, apparently for assisting Jews to emigrate.7
Today, Iran's Jewish population
is the second largest in the Middle East,
after Israel. Reports vary as to the condition
and treatment of the small, tight-knit community,
and the population of Iranian Jews can
only be estimated due to the community’s
isolation from world Jewry. The Jewish community in Iran is alive and well, although they live under the oppressive Islamic regime. In Iran's capital city of Tehran there are 13 active synagogues that hold weekly services, five Jewish schools, two Jewish kindergartens, and a 100-bed capacity Jewish hospital. Although there are active Jewish communities all around the country, Tehran's community is the most significant.