The complex story of Iran and its Jews

19/11/2020

Did you know that Iran has the biggest Jewish community in the Middle East outside of Israel?

At a synagogue in Tehran. (FOR-USA Fellowship of Reconciliation/Flick

The Iranian Jewish community is one of the oldest in the world and is also the largest in the Middle East outside of Israel. In the decades before Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979, the time considered the golden age of Iranian Jewry, about 100,000 Jews lived here scattered all across the country. The Jews of Iran were fully integrated into every sector of society and they saw themselves as an integral part of the Iranian nation. This was a very heterogeneous community with multiple identities, voices and worldviews. There were Zionists and anti-Zionists, Iranian nationalists, communists and liberals. Adding another layer of cosmopolitanism to this community, many European Jews found refuge here during and after World War II, establishing the only Ashkenazi synagogue in Tehran.

This sense of national belonging based on 2600 years of presence in the country meant that less than 10% left after the establishment of the State of Israel, while the vast majority decided to remain. But after the ayatollahs took power things started to change. It's true that Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic's founder and Iran's first supreme leader, issued a fatwa declaring Iran's Jews to be a fully protected minority community and forbade any attacks on them declaring "We make a distinction between the Jewish community and the Zionists". However, two-thirds of the community chose to leave anyway, especially after the execution of Habib Elghanian, a businessman and prominent member of the Jewish community accused of being a "Zionist spy". Approximately 30,000-40,000 went to the US, 20,000 to Israel, and 10,000 to Europe.

Today, the Jewish community in Iran is estimated to number between 8,000-15,000, most of them living in Tehran and Shiraz. Those who stayed can lead a very active Jewish religious and communal life, as long as they explicitly dissociate themselves from Israel and Zionism. They have synagogues, clubs, schools, a Jewish hospital and institutions where Hebrew is taught and religious studies take place. There are kosher restaurants and a matza factory in Tehran. The community has a publishing house, students' associations and an allocated seat in parliament for a Jewish representative.

But Jews in Iran do face discrimination, and some have been harshly punished after having had contacts with Israel (this includes visiting, helping Iranian Jews immigrate or having been accused of spying). The Jewish leadership is vocal about the multiple forms of discrimination under which its members live, but without questioning the legitimacy of the regime or the system of Sharia, or Islamic law, by which it governs. For example, it has openly protested against the International Holocaust Cartoon Competition organised in Iran. In the past few years the Jewish community has also had several achievements, such as an exemption from attending school on Shabbat for Jewish children in the public schools, an inheritance law that prevents discrimination toward Jewish heirs if there is also a Muslim heir, and gaining equality in "blood money" compensation (the amount a person must pay to a family when he is responsible for an accident that caused a family member's death)

For many different reasons which vary from family to family, and despite the dangers of being the occasional target of anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli sentiments, most Jews in Iran do not have plans to leave any time soon, which seems to guarantee the continuity of this community's life that stretches uninterruptedly since Biblical times.