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Ayatollah Khomeini

(1902 – 1989)

Ayatollah Khomeini was an Iranian religious leader. He was born in the small town of Khomein situated in the central part of Iran and died in Tehran. He lost his father when he was an infant and later his mother when he was 15. He studied Islamic theology in Arāk, a town in central Iran, and years later completed his studies in the holy city of Qom.

In 1961 and 1963, Khomeini showed strong 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 mainly 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 in other cities of Iran. The slogan “Death to the Shah, Death to America, and Death to Israel” was seen and heard almost everywhere. The demonstrations were crushed by the Shah’s troops; 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 however 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 was in jeopardy. Several thousand Jews in Teheran, headed by some well-known social and religious personalities were “advised” to take part in demonstrations, which they did (December 11, 1978).

Finally the Shah left Iran on January 16, 1979, and two weeks later Khomeini entered the country, being welcomed by millions of people; the Jews of Teheran once again were “advised” to join the demonstration to welcome Khomeini’s arrival (February 13, 1979). Soon afterward, an Islamic Republic was formed with a new Islamic constitution. Though it contained many discriminatory provisions against non-Muslims, it still granted second-class citizenship rights to Jews and other religious minorities, as protected non-Muslim monotheists – with the exception of the Bahais who were persecuted and over 200 of them were massacred all over Iran. The treatment of the Jews was ambivalent.

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 adapted a pro-Palestinian policy declaring that Israel and Zionism must be destroyed. IRI also encouraged the foundation of Hezbollah in Lebanon by supporting it with money, arms, and military advisers. Any tie with Israel was considered war against Islam. 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, some 200 Jews were arrested and jailed.

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 (May 9, 1979). Many were deprived of their administrative, university, and high business positions. Jewish property on a large scale, amounting to more than one billion dollars, was confiscated by the regime. Later, the IRI tried to demonstrate some “friendly relations” with the remaining Jews of Iran who were led by the former Tudeh Party member, Parviz (Haroon) Yeshayai, the head of the Jewish Central Organization in Tehran. Nevertheless, events, such the arrest of 13 Jews in the last decade of the 20th century, allegedly spying for Israel, show the true face of these relations. If the hatred against Israel and Zionism and the support of terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah continue to fuel the foreign policy of Iran, the situation of Jews in IRI will remain precarious.


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.