1948: 100,000 | 2018: 8,500
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 immigration to the Land of Israel, and the Zionist movement spread throughout the community.
Under the Pahlavi 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 imposed 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 Hebrew 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 beit 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
Two Synagogues in the Iranian city of Shiraz were vandalized during the last week of December 2017. The vandals ripped Torah scrolls, threw prayer books in toilets, soiled religious garments, and smashed various ritual objects. Shiraz has a Jewish population of approximately 2,000.
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.
Sources: Sergio DellaPergola, “World Jewish Population, 2018,” American Jewish Year Book 2018, Arnold Dashefsky and Ira M. Sheskin, Eds., (Springer Nature Switzerland, 2019), pp. 361-449.
1 U.S. Department of State, International Religious Freedom Report 2009, Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Washington, DC, (October 26, 2009)
2U.S. Department of State Report on Human Rights Practices for 1997.
3“Many Jews Choose to Stay in Iran,” Associated Press, (Jan. 18, 1998).
4Jewish Communities of the World. Reprinted with permission of the World Jewish Congress (WJC). Copyright 1997; Institute of the World Jewish Congress. U.S. State Department Report on Human Rights Practices for 1997.
5 Schneider, Howard. "Iran Court Reduces Penalties for Jews." Washington Post, (September 22, 2000).
6Jerusalem Post, (January 16, 2002); Washington Jewish Week, (October 31, 2002).
7U.S. Department of State, International Religious Freedom Report 2001 , Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Washington, DC, (October 26, 2001).
8Tablet Magazine, How Iran Kept Its Jews, (December 30, 2014).