Jews of Iran: A Modern History

Iranian Jewry under the Islamic Republic of Iran.

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"We make a distinction between the Jewish community and the Zionists--and we know that these are two different things. We are against [the Zionists] because they are not Jews, but politicians...but as for the Jewish community and the rest of the [minority] communities in Iran--they are members of this nation. Islam will treat them in the same manner as it does with all other layers of society." (Radio Tehran, May 15, 1979)

Indeed, since the establishment of the Islamic Republic and its declaration of Islam as the all-encompassing state religion in 1979, the regime has officially distinguished between the Jews of Iran, considered loyal citizens, and other Jews--Israelis, Zionists, and world Jewry, toward whom the regime did not conceal its hostility. Zionist activity was made a crime, punishable by severe penalties.

This brought about changes in internal Jewish communal affairs. At the end of March 1978, a new generation of progressive Jewish Iranian intellectuals supplanted the old Jewish council, Anjumān-i Kalīmīan (Jewish Committee), with the founding of the anti-Zionist radical Jāme-yi Rowshanfikrān-i Yahūd-i Irān (The Organization of Iranian Jewish Intellectuals), whose platform included full support of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, religious and cultural revival, and community protection. Since its founding this organization has struggled to preserve the community from disintegration.

Leaving Iran

Indeed, the revolution aroused fears among Iranian Jews and around two thirds of the community left the country. The emigrants included the majority of the community's leaders, philanthropists, and professionals. According to estimates, 30,000-40,000 Iranian Jews emigrated to the United States, 20,000 to Israel, and 10,000 to Europe, notably the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. Of those Iranian Jews who made their way to the United States, around 25,000 live in California (20,000 in Los Angeles alone) and 8,000 live in the New York area. Today, the number of Jews still residing in Iran is estimated at between 25,000 and 30,000.

Jews who wished to emigrate during the first decade and a half of the Islamic republic encountered many problems as the special government office responsible for granting passports to Jews refused numerous applicants. Many Jews ended up fleeing through Pakistan or Turkey. These emigrants often left most of their property behind, under the assumption that their relatives would liquidate the assets. But even when this did happen, it was very difficult to send the money abroad.

Jewish Life in Iran

In many ways, the revolution was also a revolution in the lives of Persian Jews. The new leaders of Iran sought to create a country modeled after their particular perception of the ideal Islamic society; it was inevitable that this model would affect the lives of religious minorities.

While Islam's attitude towards other monotheistic faiths is, in principle, a fairly tolerant one, the writings and speeches of Ayatollah Khomeini and those close to him are full of vitriolic denunciations of Jews. Unlike the Pahlavi regime, which placed nationalism as its highest priority and saw Jews as equals, Khomeini's Islamic doctrine forced Jews into a position of inferiority vis-à-vis the Muslim majority.

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Orly R. Rahimiyan

Orly R. Rahimiyan is a PhD candidate in the Middle Eastern Department at Ben-Gurion University, Israel and a Fulbright scholar. Her doctoral dissertation is titled The Images of the Jews in 20th-century Iran.