Jews of Iran: A Modern History

Iranian Jewry under the Islamic Republic of Iran.

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Jews began settling in Iran about 2,700 years ago. Throughout their history, the Iranian Jews have coped with significant challenges, especially during the Safavid era (1501-1736) and under the Qajar rulers (1796-1925).

The years of the Pahlavi dynasty, however--especially the reign of Muhammad Reza Shah (1941-1979)--are often considered a "Golden Age" for Iranian Jewry. The Iranian Jewish community thrived economically under the Shah's reform plan, the "White Revolution" (1964-1979). The White Revolution's rapid modernization provided exceptional opportunities for the Jewish community in Iran. 

recent history of iranian jewsOn the eve of the Islamic Revolution in 1978, the Jewish community in Iran numbered around 80,000 with 60,000 living in the capital, Tehran. Although the Jews constituted less than a quarter of a percent of the total Iranian population of 35 million, their economic, professional, and cultural impact on the country was great.

At this time, the vast majority of the Jewish population in Iran was middle class or upper middle class. There were Jewish schools, active social and cultural organizations, and about 30 synagogues in Tehran alone.

The Islamic Revolution

With the outbreak of opposition to the Shah in the autumn of 1977, what had been considered the strength of the Jewish community quickly transformed into its principal weaknesses: their socio-economic status, identification with the Shah and his policies, and ties to Israel and the United States.

Expressions of anti-Jewish animosity soon intensified. In Tehran, pamphlets were circulated threatening to take revenge upon the Jews for plundering Iran's treasures. Slogans scribbled on the walls of synagogues and Jewish institutions proclaimed "Death to the Jews." Iranian Muslims began ostracizing their Jewish neighbors, whose newfound insecurity and desire to liquidate their property was met with hostile responses.

During the revolution itself, a wave of anti-Israel sentiment swept over Iran, impacting the Jewish community. Private wealth was confiscated on a large scale, which sent thousands of affluent Jews fleeing to the United States or Israel.

But at the same time, Jews were optimistic about the regime change. When Ayatallah Khomeini--a senior Shi'a Muslim cleric and the future Supreme Leader of the country, returned to Iran on the February 1, 1979, 5,000 Jews, led by Iranian Chief Rabbi Yedidia Shofet, were among those welcoming him. Some of them held pictures of Khomeini and signs proclaiming: "Jews and Muslims are brothers."

On May 14, 1979, five days after the execution of Jewish community head Habib Elghanian, who was accused of Zionist espionage and activities, a delegation of Jewish leaders set out for Qom to meet with Khomeini, who allayed their fears with the following words:

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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.