Jews of Iran: A Modern History

Iranian Jewry under the Islamic Republic of Iran.

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Despite his supposed distinction between Jews and Zionists, Ayatollah Khomeini's doctrine contained anti-Jewish elements, including an emphasis on Shi'ite doctrine pertaining to the impurity (najasat) of non-Muslims. According to traditional Islamic law, religious minorities are impure elements that pollute the Shiite believers with whom they come into contact. Historically, najasat was highly influential in governing daily relations between Jews and Shi'ites. In his writings, Khomeini also attacked the Jews and accused them of distorting Islam, mistranslating the Koran, and taking over Iran's economy.

Still, official recognition of minorities was rooted in the Iranian constitution: Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only recognized religious minorities who, within the limits of the law, are free to perform the religious rites and ceremonies and to act according to their own cannon in matters of personal affairs and religious education. Within this framework, the Jewish minority was guaranteed permanent representation in the Iranian parliament. The constitution also dictates that the Islamic Republican government and Iranian Muslims must treat non-Muslims according to Muslim principles of ethics and justice.

In practice, Jewish freedom of worship has not been limited in a meaningful way, and to this day Jewish holidays receive coverage in the media. Each year, local television stations broadcast programs on Jewish holidays--especially Passover, when the state media carries the blessings of the Jewish community head and Majles representative. The community has continued administering its own schools, synagogues, and other institutions, including Jewish hospitals, nursing homes, cemeteries, and libraries.

Today, Jews participate in Iranian civic and political life. Many Jews join the Iranian masses in protesting the State of Israel on the annual "Qods Day" (Jerusalem Day), and during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), Iranian Jews supported the war effort by donating ambulances and surplus goods as well as making hospital visits. Some Jewish youth even took part in the fighting and were wounded in combat.

Anti-Semitism, however, remains. In 1999, 13 Jews from Shiraz and Isfahan were arrested on charges of spying for Israel, and they were convicted in 2000. By February 2003 all of them had been released, but the arrests planted fear in the heart of the Jewish community, bringing its loyalty under question.

Despite all these difficulties, most of the remaining Jews of Iran feel an unbreakable bond to their homeland and continue to live there. In a gathering of Iranian Jews in Shiraz at the end of 2002, several months after the release of some of the detainees, one of the leaders of the Jewish community made the following speech:

"We are not the same subdued people as before. We are alive, joyful, active and Iran-lovers. We've been inhabitants of Iran for the past 2,700 years … and Iran is our native country. We are essentially Iranians first and then Jews. We are proud to be Iranians. Long live Iran. Long live Iranians Jews." (From the movie "Jews of Iran," directed by Ramin Farahani)

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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.