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Ayatollah Khomeini

(1902 – 1989)

Ayatollah Khomeini was an Iranian religious leader. He was born on September 22, 1902, in the small town of Khomein, situated in central Iran. While an infant, Khomeini’s father was murdered, and he was raised by his mother, who passed away when he was 15. Raised in the study of the Koran, he learned many traditional Persian subjects in school and continued his religious education throughout his early years.

During World War I, Khomeini studied Islamic theology in Arāk, a town in central Iran. Years later, he completed his studies in the holy Iranian city of Qom.

In 1961 and 1963, Khomeini expressed opposition to Mohammad Reza Shah’s reforms, leading demonstrations and riots against the Shah. He consistently blamed the U.S. and Israel for all the corruption and backwardness in Iran.

On June 3, 1963, he gave a provocative speech railing against what he called the dependence of the Shah’s regime upon the U.S. and Israel. Two days later, he was arrested, which resulted in anti-Shah demonstrations in Qom and other Iranian cities.

The slogan “Death to the Shah, Death to America, and Death to Israel” was seen and heard almost everywhere. The Shah’s troops crushed the demonstrations; many were killed or wounded. On November 4, 1963, Khomeini was sent into exile, first to Turkey and then to Iraq, where he resided in the Shi’i holy city of Najaf.

Anti-regime demonstrations motivated by Khomeini’s speeches, recorded on cassettes and pamphlets in Najaf, continued to arrive in Iran. The unrest and commotions culminated in 1977/78. The shah requested the Iraqi Government to expel Khomeini from Iraq. Khomeini chose to go to France (October 5, 1978). His frequent speeches from there, too, agitated the people against the Shah, the U.S., and Israel.

The future of the Jewish community in Iran appeared in jeopardy. Several thousand Jews in Tehran, headed by well-known social and religious personalities, were “advised” to participate in demonstrations, which they did on December 11, 1978.

The revolution forced the Shah to flee Iran on January 16, 1979. Two weeks later, on February 1, Khomeini entered the country, being welcomed by millions of people. The Jews of Tehran were again “advised” to welcome Khomeini’s arrival on February 13.

Soon afterward, an Islamic Republic was formed with a new Islamic constitution. It contained many discriminatory provisions against non-Muslims but still granted second-class citizenship rights to Jews and other religious minorities as protected non-Muslim monotheists. However, the Bahais were persecuted, and over 200 were massacred. Though upon his return from Paris, Khomeini met with the heads of the Jewish community, declaring that Jews were to be protected by Islamic law; nevertheless, some 200 Jews were arrested and jailed.

In the first two to three years of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), about one-third of Iran’s 80,000 Jews left for Israel, Europe, and the U.S. IRI broke its relations with Israel. The regime adopted a pro-Palestinian policy declaring that Israel and Zionism must be destroyed. IRI also established Hezbollah as its proxy in Lebanon by providing money, arms, and military advisers.

During his rule, about 20 Jews were executed by the Revolutionary Courts, among them the former head of the Jewish Organization, the industrialist millionaire Habib Elghanaian. Many were deprived of their administrative, university, and high business positions. The regime confiscated Jewish property worth more than one billion dollars.

Later, the IRI tried to demonstrate some “friendly relations” with the remaining Jews, who were led by the former Tudeh Party member, Parviz (Haroon) Yeshayai, the head of the Jewish Central Organization in Tehran. The arrest of 13 Jews in the last decade of the 20th century, allegedly for spying for Israel, indicated the danger Jews faced.

Khomeini died in Tehran on June 3, 1989.


Sh. Bakhash, The Reign of the Ayatollas: Iran and the Islamic Revolution (1984); A. Netzer, “Be’ayot ha-Integraẓyah ha-Tarbutit, ha-Ḥevratit ve-ha-Politit shel Yehudei Iran,” in: Gesher, 25:1–2 (1979), 69–83; idem, “Yehudei Iran, Yisrael, ve-ha-Republikah ha-Islamit shel Iran,” ibid., 26:1–2 (1980), 45–57; idem, “Iran ve-Yehudeha be-Parashat Derakhim Historit,” ibid., 1:10 (1982), 96–111; R.K. Ramazani, Revolutionary Iran (1986), 282–85; B. Souresrafil, Khomeini and Israel (1988).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica . © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.