Jews in Iran since the revolution of 1979

Caught between a rock and a hard place

Essay, 2008

16 Pages, Grade: 1st (70 %)


Table Of Contents


The Past

The Revolution of 1979 and its aftermath

The Present



When addressing Israel, Mr. Ahmadinejad's rhetoric is unmistakable. The Iranian President is quoted as calling for Israel to be wiped off the map[1], and he has publicly expressed his doubts as to the Holocaust having taken place. Although his rhetoric may appear extreme, it nevertheless broadly reflects the official policy of Iran towards Israel since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Given this hostility, it comes as a surprise, that the Islamic Republic of Iran is actually home of the biggest Jewish community in the Middle East outside Israel. The estimates for the number of Jews living in Iran differ greatly according to various sources and range from 25,000 members[2] ? to 35,000[3] ? . The history of the Jewish community in Iran reaches back into the 7th century BCE, making it the oldest Jewish Diaspora-community. Many places holy to Jews are located in Iran. The history of almost 3,000 years of Jewish presence in Iran and the influence the Jewish community had at different times on Iranian society and culture are far too complex to be retold in a short essay like the one I am presenting. Before I turn to the situation after the Revolution of 1979 I will therefore only shortly touch on two major historical events which have significantly altered the position of the Jewish community in Iran: The establishment of Twelver Shiism as state religion in 1501 by the Safavids and the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911.

The main body of this text deals with the situation of the Jewish community during and immediately after the constitution of the Islamic Republic until the present. The Iranian constitution grants all officially recognised religious minorities (Armenian Christians, Assyrians, Jews and Zoroastrians) specific rights including that to practise their religion freely[4]. The recognised religious minorities elect their own representatives to the parliament (Majles), run their own schools and are protected against discrimination by the law. However, there have been instances of 'spontaneous' attacks on Jews, their property and their schools. I will also research how much Iran's animosity towards Israel was and is being reflected in its treatment of the Jewish minority in Iran. Because of the relative scarcity of primary sources, I will use a variety of secondary sources of varying quality and will therefore specifically indicate if I am concerned with the reliability of a source I have used.

The Past

Jews are amongst the oldest communities in Iran. The earliest mention of Jews in what is today's Iran dates back to the time of the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III (727 BCE), under whose order thousands of Jews were deported from Israel and forced to settle in Medea[5] ?. Others followed in the centuries to come. The biggest wave of Jewish settlers arrived during the reign of Darius the Great. It appears that the Jews in Iran lived for many centuries in relative harmony, as a fully integrated part of society, with their neighbours from other religions. Freedom of religion, movement, occupation and marriage were guaranteed under the Achaemenian[6] ?. After the conquest of the old Persian empire by Islamic forces (633 – 651 CE), the official status of the Jewish religion changed from that of a fully emancipated and acknowledged religion amongst others to that of “Ahl al-Katab” (People of the book). Sanasarin describes the position of the People of the Book in Safavid Persia as follows:

“Ahl al-Katab were originally Jews and Christians based on the possession of divine books of revelation. Their privileged position was conditional based on the submission to Muslims and payment of jazieh (a special tax paid by the non-Muslims to the Muslim ruler)[7] ?.”

In Iran, the status of Ahl al-Katab was informally extended to the Zoroastrians, Iran's old indigenous religion. The immediate impact of Islam's arrival to Persia on Jewish life seems to have been minor at first. Like other religious communities officially acknowledged by the Quran, they were granted a kind of autonomy that was comparable to the millet-system[8] established in the Ottoman empire.

The big change in the status of the Jews in Iran came with the establishment of Twelver Shiism as the state religion by the Safavids in 1501. Jewish chronicles of the time tell of mistreatment, forced conversions to Islam and massacres. However, it is worth noting that the Jews had not been singled out for a particularly harsh treatment, but shared this fate with most other religious minorities[9] ?. One of the big changes Shiism introduced into the relationship between Muslims and non-believers, even when these belonged to the Ahl al-Katab, was the application of the concept of nejasat (pollution). Unlike in Sunni Islam, in Shiism there is the notion that contact with non-Muslims can pollute Muslim believers. Shiite theologians advocate therefore avoiding contact with non-Muslims (including physical contact and the consumption of food and drink prepared by non-Muslims and using utensils used by non-Muslims). Shiite theological writings offer detailed guidelines on cleansing in cases where contact had taken place[10] ?. The application of the concept of nejasat contributed to the continuing segregation between the Muslim majority and the religious minorities and to a steep decline in inter-faith marriages during the following centuries. Throughout the 19th Century the Jewish Community in Iran suffered repeatedly from persecution, discrimination and economic hardship.[11] The mistreatment Jews suffered, especially during the reign of the Qajar Shahs,[12] was so intense and extensive, that one theory concludes that Shiism may have been solely responsible for anti-Jewish sentiments.[13] ?

Iranian Jews took part in the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911. They formed, along with other minorities, the first multi-ethnic Secret Society in 1905, which initiated the debate on political change. Jews, Christians, Baha-i and Zoroastrians fought with the constitutionalists to form a National Consultative Majles (Parliament) instead of an Islamic Majles, which was demanded by those in the Islamic Ulama who took part in, or supported, the constitutional movement.[14]

The new constitution gave Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians the right to send one delegate each to the Majles. The constitution also granted the recognized religious minorities (excluded were Baha-i's, Hindus and Buddhists) equality to Muslim citizens. However, the delegates that represented them in the Majles were not of their own communities, but they were rather represented by Muslim clergymen. Still, the constitution was seen by many Jews as a positive development.

Following the foundation of the State of Israel, Iran experienced a mass emigration of its Jewish citizens to the new state. Between 1948 and 1953 more than one third of the Jewish population of Iran left the country. Most of the emigrants were from the provinces and belonged to the lower classes, whereas the wealthier Jews, the majority of whom were living in Tehran, preferred to stay. Those who remained, experienced the secular reign of the Pahlavi Shahs(1925 – 1979) as the most prosperous era for Iranian Jewry. They were widely emancipated and played an important role in the economy and in cultural life[15] ?. The main reasons for the remarkable improvements to the living conditions of the Jewish community were the pro-Western policy of the Pahlavis, their emphasis on secularism and nationalism instead of religion and, later, the country's amicable relationship with the newly founded state of Israel. Iranian Jews were well educated, enjoyed cultural autonomy and economic success[16] ?. Despite the emigration wave of the late 1940s and early 1950s, there were still an estimated 80,000 Jews living in Iran[17] ? when the revolution broke out in early 1979.


[1] In a speech at the World without Zionism conference in Tehran (2005) he said: “The regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time” (source: Guardian, 12.07.2007)

[2] David Shariatmadari, “Comment is free: Iran's forgotten religions.” Guardian Online, Comment is free.

[3] Eliz Sanasarian, Religious Minorities in Iran Cambridge Middle East Studies, 2 edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 13, p. 228.

[4] The main Article of the constitution warranting religious freedoms to certain religious minorities is Article 13. It states: “Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only recognized religious minorities, who, within the limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education.” (Translation provided by the Iranian Government, source: Notably, other religions including Hinduism, Baha-i and Buddhism are not protected by Article 13.

[5] Farshid Delshad, “A Short Review about Historical Backgrounds of Jews in Persia.”

[6] Farshid Delshad, “A Short Review about Historical Backgrounds of Jews in Persia.”

[7] Eliz Sanasarian, Religious Minorities in Iran, p. 19:

[8] In the Ottoman millet system, people were bound by their religious affiliations rather than by their ethnic origins. The millets enjoyed a high degree of autonomy and had separate courts which dealt with personal matters according to the rules and laws of the respective community. For more on the millet system read, amongst others, Stanford J. Shaw's “Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural Society” (New York: Holmes& Meier)

[9] Farshid Delshad, “A Short Review about Historical Backgrounds of Jews in Persia.”

[10] Eliz Sanasarian, Religious Minorities in Iran Cambridge Middle East Studies, 2 edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 13, p. 228.

[11] For a comprehensive history of the Jews in Iran see Habib Lavi's “Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran: The Outset of the Diaspora” (Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers)

[12] 1794 – 1925

[13] Eliz Sanasarian, Religious Minorities in Iran Cambridge Middle East Studies, 2 edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 13, p. 228.

[14] Farshid Delshad, “A Short Review about Historical Backgrounds of Jews in Persia.”

[15] Eliz Sanasarian, Religious Minorities in Iran Cambridge Middle East Studies, 2 edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 13, p. 228.

[16] Wahdathagh, Wahied“Juden im Iran: Fremd in der Heimat.” German translation of an Interview with David Menashri

[17] “Jews of Iran.”, Jewish Virtual Library. This figure is an estimate, other sources speak of 100,000 or even 120,000. But because the majority of estimates I have seen tend to be closer to 80,000 and because reliable demographic figures for this period don't seem to be available, I am using this one.

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Jews in Iran since the revolution of 1979
Caught between a rock and a hard place
University of Manchester  (School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures)
1st (70 %)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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771 KB
MA in Middle Eastern Studies, Postgrad Coursework, Course: Jews before and after 1948
Jews, Iran, Middle East, Israel, Jewish Communities, Tehran, Shiraz, Jewish Holy Places, Babylon, War, Islamic Republic, Conflict, People of the Book, Ahl al-Kitab, Khomeini, Ahmadinejad, Khatami, Khameini
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BA(Hons) Edgar Klüsener (Author), 2008, Jews in Iran since the revolution of 1979, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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