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Up to 1948 Jews were scattered in about 100 towns and villages, their number was then estimated at between 100,000 and 120,000.

The name Iran for the entire Iranian plateau has been in usage since the Sasanian period (224–650 C.E.) and also in classical literature, e.g., in the Shāhnāmeh of Ferdawsi (about 10th century). Persia as a name for the country was used by foreigners; geographically it referred to the Province of Fārs in the south from which the Achaemenian kingdom of Cyrus the Great emerged. It was officially changed to Iran in 1935, most probably under the influence of strong German-Iranian relations during the 1930s. The many German agents in Iran emphasized the so-called Aryan origin of the Iranians, which appealed to the nationalist mood of the time. This type of nationalism in Iran did not allow any social and political activities with ties to foreign countries, and thus Communist and Zionist activities were forbidden in Iran during Reza Shah's reign (1925–41). There were also difficulties faced by Jews who wanted to immigrate to the Land of Israel. However, it must be said that Reza Shah's reign proved to be the beginning of an era of relative freedom and socioeconomic opportunities for Jews and other non-Muslim communities. In this period, Jews were active in trade, industry, and tourism. Several Jews reached the highest levels of fame and prosperity in the modern history of Iran. Among them were Haim Moreh, Morteza Mo'allem, and Soleiman Haim in education and scholarship; Iraj Lālehzāri and Shemooil Rahbar in science; Morteza Ney-Dāvoud and Yonah Dardashti in music; Morād Ariyeh, Habib Elghanaian, Ebrāhim Rād, and many others in economics.

With the occupation of Iran by Russia and Britain in August 1941 and the abdication of Reza Shah in September, Iran experienced a new era of relative democracy and freedom such as it had never had before. Jews began to take advantage of the situation and from 1942 on they started to renew their Zionist and social activities. During the 1940s, a dozen Jewish organizations emerged in *Teheran and in other major cities, such as *Shiraz, *Isfahan, *Hamadan, *Kermanshah, and Sanandaj. Among these organizations were the following: several youth organizations named Kānun-e Javānān; Ha-Histadrut ha-Ẓiyyonit; the Ḥalutz Movement; the Jewish Hospital; the Oẓar ha-Torah Educational Schools; the Women's Organization; ORT Schools; newspapers, such as 'Ālam-e Yahud, Yisrāel, Sinā, and so on. State universities, colleges, elementary and high schools became more accessible to Jewish students and teachers. Jews were able to find employment in governmental offices with less difficulty than before. This relative freedom also gave rise to fascist parties such as the Pan-Iranism Party that regarded the Jews as an undesirable Semitic foreign element in Iran. The Tudeh Party favored the Jews, whose intellectuals, in general, were sympathetic to it, and a few hundred of them became active members of the party.


The earliest report of a Jewish population in Iran goes back to the 12th century. It was *Benjamin of Tudela who claimed that there was a population of about 600,000 Jews. This number was later reduced to 100,000 in the Safavid period (1501–1736), and it further diminished to 50,000 at the beginning of the 20th century, as reported by the *Alliance Israélite Universelle

(AIU) emissaries in Iran. The drastic decrease in number was the result of persecution, forced conversions, Muslim laws of inheritance (which encouraged conversion and allowed the convert to inherit the properties of his Jewish family), and massacres. These problems continued at least up to the Constitutional Revolution in Iran (1905–09). According to unofficial statistics released by the Jewish Agency in Teheran, there were between 100,000 to 120,000 Jews living in Iran in 1948. The following numbers, with some variation, were reported for the Jews of major cities: Teheran, about 50,000 Jews; all Iranian Kurdistan, between 15,000 to 20,000; Shiraz, 17,000; Isfahan, 10,000; Hamadan, 3,000; Kashan, 1,200; *Meshed, 2,500; Kermanshah, 2,864; Yazd/Yezd, 2,000 (uncertain). There are no reliable statistics for other communities scattered in many small towns and villages, such as Borujerd, Dārāb, Fasā, Golpāygān, Gorgān, Kāzrun, Khunsār, Lahijān, Malāyer, Nowbandegān, Rasht, and many more. There were also censuses carried out once every 10 years by the government, beginning in 1956. These censuses usually were not reliable as far as the Jewish communities were concerned, since Jews were not enthusiastic about being identified as such. For example, the official census of 1966 cites 60,683 Jews in Iran, but the Jewish sources put the number much higher than 70,000. The data provided by different sources, especially by those involved or interested in Iran's Jewish community affairs, differ greatly from one another.


We do not possess a reliable source regarding the occupations of the Jews in different towns and settlements in Iran. The data varies in time and place, but one may nevertheless find similarities in the reports. We have more reliable statistics concerning the second largest community in Iran, the Jews of Shiraz which may, to some degree, represent the Jewish occupations in other major cities – with the exception of the goldsmiths and musicians who made Shirazi Jews famous. The following was reported by Dr. Laurence Loeb, who resided in Shiraz from August 1967 through December 1968, as investigated and reported on the distribution of occupations. (See table: Occupations in Shiraz.)

In addition to what was reported above, Loeb found in Shiraz 41 persons who were dentists, cooks, carpenters, barbers, seed merchants, laborers, librarians, mullas, restaurant workers, bath attendants, leather tanners, photographers, beauty parlor attendants, appliance store clerks, lambswool merchants or dairy store attendants. They constituted 10.12 percent of the work force of the community. There were also 8 unemployed persons (1.98%).


Modern Jewish education in Iran was in general in the hands of the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU) from 1898. The AIU was active only in major cities such as Teheran (from 1898), Hamadan (1900), Isfahan (1901), Shiraz (1903), Sanandaj (1903), and Kermanshah (1904). In the second decade of the 20th century it opened schools in Kashan and Yazd, and also in some small towns close to Hamadan, such as Tuyserkān, Borujerd, and Nehāvand. Parallel to the AIU schools, community schools were established in a few towns, such as Koresh in Teheran and Koresh in Rasht. During the Pahlavi regime, some Jews also studied in non-Jewish schools.

In 1946/47, the Oẓar ha-Torah schools were opened in Teheran and other cities. Rabbi Isaac Meir Levi, a Polish Jew who had come to Iran in 1941 to organize the dispatch of parcels to rabbis and synagogues in Russia, was appointed by the Oẓar ha-Torah center in New York to establish a network of schools in Iran.

Given the great wave of immigration to Israel which swept the Jews of Iran in the 1950s, most immigrants being poor and unskilled, the economic prosperity which Iran enjoyed in the 1960s and 1970s, and the rise to wealth of a large segment of the remaining Jewish community, more attention was devoted to education. In 1977/78 there were in Teheran 11 Oẓar ha-Torah schools, 7 AIU schools, and 6 community schools, including one ORT vocational school and the Ettefāq school belonging to Iraqi Jews resident in Teheran. This picture changed drastically with the mass exodus of Jews resulting from the Islamic revolution. Prior to the Islamic Republic of Iran (= IRI) there were three Jewish schools in Shiraz and one Jewish school in each major city. By the end of the 20th century there were generally three Jewish schools in Teheran, one in Shiraz, and one in Isfahan. Most of these schools were funded and sponsored by Oẓar ha-Torah (Netzer, 1996).


Immigration to Israel was facilitated and accelerated through the Zionist Association in Teheran (founded in 1918) and its branches in 18 major cities. The following official statistics published by the Government of Israel show the rate of Iranian Jewish immigration to Israel (the number 3,536 below for the years 1919–1948 does not accurately reflect reality, since thousands of Iranian Jews immigrated to Israel illegally and were consequently not registered by the British Mandate or the Jewish Agency). It is believed that on the eve of independence there were about 20,000 Iranian Jews living in Israel.

In the past, the majority of Iranian Jews lived in Jerusalem, while at the beginning of the 21st century they were to be found primarily in Tel Aviv, Holon, Bat-Yam, Rishon le-Zion, Kefar Saba, Nes Ẓiyyonah, and Reḥovot. A smaller number chose to reside in Jerusalem, Netanyah, Haifa, Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Beersheba. Since 1948, the Jews of Iran have founded several moshavim: Agur, Amishav (now a quarter in Petaḥ Tikvah), Avdon, Dovev, Eshbol, Givati, Givolim, Hodayah, Margaliyyot, Maslul, Melilot, Nes-Harim, Netiv ha-Shayarah, Neveh Yamin, Nogah, Pa'mei TaShaZ, Patish, Kadimah, Talmei Bilu, Ẓerufah, and others.

With the change of the regime and *Khomeini's rise to power, about three-quarters of Iran's 80,000 Jews left. Many immigrated to Israel and the United States, but a part preferred to settle in European countries. The official statistics of Israel show that in 2001 there were 135,200 Jews who were considered Iranian either as olim or as individuals one of whose parents was Iranian-Jewish. The above figure includes 51,300 who were born in Iran and 83,900 who were born in Israel. Iranian Jews in Israel became active and reached high ranks in academic life, in the socioeconomic realm, politics, and the military. Since 1955, they have had about a score of university teachers; Rabbi Ezra Zion *Melamed, professor of Talmud at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was granted the Israel Prize. There have been several Knesset members, two chief commanders of the Air Force (General Eitan Ben-Eliyahu and General Dan Ḥaluẓ), two army chiefs of staff (Major-General Shaul *Mofaz and Major-General Dan Ḥaluẓ); one defense minister, Shaul Mofaz; one Sephardi chief rabbi (Rabbi *Bakshi Doron); and the president of the State of Israel, Moshe *Katzav.

Jewish Representation in the Majles

The Jewish representatives in the Iranian Parliament (Majles) since its inception (1907) were the following: Azizollah Simāni, a merchant (replaced by Ayatollah Behbāhni after only a few months); Dr. Loqmān Nehoray, a physician (1909–23); Shemuel Haim, a journalist (1923–26); Dr. Loqmān Nehoray (1926–43), Morād Ariyeh, a merchant (1945–56); Dr. Mussa Berāl, a pharmacologist (1956–1960), Morād Ariyeh, (1960–64), Jamshid Kashfi, a merchant (1964–68), Lotfollah Hay, a merchant (1968–75), and Yosef Cohen, a lawyer (1975–79).

Iran-Israel Relations

Relations between the Yishuv and Iran began in 1942, when the Jewish Agency opened a Palestine Office in Teheran, with the aim of assisting the Jewish-Polish refugees from Russia and arranging for their immigration to the Land of Israel. This office continued to function until 1979. Iran voted, together with the Muslim and Arab states in the UN against the partition of Palestine (November 29, 1947). In the Israel-Arab conflict, Iran sided with the Arabs. However, Iran's need for socioeconomic reforms drove it to establish closer relations with the West, especially with the U.S. Consequently, after the Shah's trip to the U.S. in 1949, Iran recognized Israel de-facto in March 1950. The relations between the two countries remained "discreetly unofficial," even though diplomatic missions were operating in Teheran and Tel Aviv. These continued to function until early 1979. Practical relations between the two states existed in a variety of fields such as trade, export-import, regular El-Al flights to Teheran, supply of Iranian oil to Israel, and student exchanges. They developed especially strong relations in three major fields: agriculture, medicine, and the military. Israeli experts assisted Iran in various development projects such as the Qazvin project in the 1960s. The Six-Day War is regarded as the high point of friendly Israel-Iran relations, particularly in the area of the Intelligence Service. The Shah and his military were surprised by the swift Israeli victory over *Syria, *Jordan, and *Egypt. Likewise, the Israeli setback in the Yom Kippur War (1973) induced the Shah's pragmatic diplomacy to develop amicable relations with Anwar *Sadat of Egypt. It has been said that it was this policy of the Shah that encouraged Sadat to make peace with Israel. With the coming to power of Khomeini in February 1979, the friendly relations between the two states changed into strong enmity. In 2006 the growing Iranian nuclear threat and President Ahmadinejad's declaration that Israel should be wiped off the face of the earth led to increasing talk of a preemptive military strike against Iran.

Jews in the Last Year of the Pahlavi Regime

The economic boom of the 1960s and the 1970s in Iran benefited the Jews too. Many Jews became rich, which enabled them to provide higher education for their children. In 1978 there were about 80,000 Jews in the country, constituting one-quarter of one percent of the general population. Of these Jews, 10 percent were very rich, the same percentage were poor (aided by the Joint Distribution Committee) and the rest were classified as from middle class to rich. Approximately, 70 out of 4,000 academicians teaching at Iran's universities were Jews; 600 Jewish physicians constituted six percent of the country's medical doctors. There were 4,000 Jewish students studying in all the universities, representing four percent of the total number of students. Never in their history were the Jews of Iran elevated to such a degree of affluence, education, and professionally as they were in the last decade of the Shah's regime. All this changed with the emergence of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI).

Iranian Jews in the IRaI

On January 16, 1979, the Shah was forced to leave Iran. Two weeks later Ayatollah Khomeini entered Teheran to assume power, after having lived in exile for almost 15 years. On February 11, 1979, for the first time in the history of Iran, the government of the Ayatollahs came into being, and the kingdom of Iran turned into the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). This political phenomenon has significantly changed the demographic map of the Jewish community of Iran. By the end of 20th century – that is to say, at the end of 20 years of the Islamic regime in Iran – taking into consideration the birthrate, there were about 30,000 Jews in Iran, of which 25,000 lived in Teheran, 3,000 in Shiraz, 1,500 in Isfahan, while the rest were scattered in other cities and settlements. In the IRI, Jews as well as other religious minorities were regarded as the supporters of the royal regime, because it was under the Pahlavi dynasty that they had enjoyed prosperity and some measure of relative freedom. When the revolution broke out, Israel-Iran relations and the diplomatic, economic, and military cooperation between the countries were markedly strong. Consequently the situation of the Jews became precarious, because of the anti-Zionist attitude and character of the revolution. The Jews of Iran were accused of being the supporters of the Shah, Israel, the Mossad, the CIA and the U.S. All were defined as "Satan." A few wealthy Jews, among them the former head of the Jewish Community of Teheran, Habib Elghanian, were tried by the revolutionary courts and sentenced to death (May 9, 1979). Jewish-owned property worth at least one billion dollars was confiscated by the regime. This alarming situation caused many Jews to leave Iran.

Under the Islamic Republic of Iran, the following persons represented the Jewish community in the Majles: Eshāq Farahmandpour, a teacher (a few months in 1979 and then Jews had no representative until 1982); Khosrow Nāqi, a lawyer (1982–84); Dr. Manouchehr Nikruz (1984–92); Dr. Kuros Keyvāni (1992–96); Dr. Manouchehr Elyāsi (1996–2000); Moris Mo'tamed, an engineer (2000– ).

Iranian Jews Abroad

It is estimated that during the first 10 years of the Islamic regime about 60,000 Jews left Iran; the rest, some 20,000, remained in Teheran, Shiraz, Isfahan, and other provincial cities. Of the 60,000 Jews who emigrated, about 35,000 preferred to immigrate to the U.S.; some 20,000 left for Israel, and the remaining 5,000 chose to live in Europe, mainly in England, France, Germany, Italy, or Switzerland. The spread of the Iranian Jews in the U.S. provides us with the following demographic map: of the total 35,000, some 25,000 live in California, of whom about 20,000 prefer to dwell in Los Angeles; 8,000 Iranian Jews live in the city of New York and on Long Island; the remaining 2,000 live in other cities, mainly in Boston, Baltimore, Washington, Detroit, or Chicago.

In every city abroad, the Jews of Iran tried to establish themselves in their own newly founded organizations and synagogues. In Los Angeles alone, they set up more than 40 organizations, 10 synagogues, about 6 magazines, and one television station. The Iranian Jewish community in the U.S. is, for the most part, well-educated and financially stable. Education is one of the strongest values stressed by the Iranian Jewish community, which considers itself the cream of all immigrant groups in the U.S. The Iranian Jews brought with them money, doctors, engineers, upper-class educated businessmen, and professionals in almost all fields. Many of them became wealthy in their new homes in the U.S., Europe, and Israel.


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Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.