Legacy of Jews in the MENA - World Jewish Congress
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The Jewish Legacy of Iran

Jews have inhabited Iran since 586 BCE, when Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed the First Temple in Jerusalem, forcing many Jews from Judea into Babylonia. According to the book of Ezra, the Persian king Cyrus the Great ended this exile in 538 BCE, allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem. Many, however, chose to remain in Persia. Even into the twenty-first century, Iranian Jews evoke the Babylonian exile and Cyrus the Great’s benevolence toward the Jews to demonstrate their longstanding presence in Iran. In 1945, some 100,000 Jews inhabited Iran. Today, Iran is home to over 8,000 Jews (Della Pergola, 2019), representing one of the largest Jewish communities in the Middle East outside of Israel. 

Students at one of the thirty Jewish schools in Tehran, 1960. (c) American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
Students at one of the thirty Jewish schools in Tehran, 1960. (c) American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee

While minimal information exists on Jewish life in medieval Persia, travelers’ accounts, such as those of Benjamin of Tudela and early Geniza documents, confirm the presence of numerous Jewish communities throughout the Persianate world. A defining event in pre-modern Iranian Jewish history was the Safavid Dynasty’s (1501–1736) adoption of Shi’ism as the state religion. Enshrined in Shi’i law is the concept of najasat, or ritual impurity, which views Jews and all other non-Shi’i Muslims as inherently impure. This notion, which dictated that any physical contact with Jews or with items touched by Jews would sully a Shi’i Muslim, had debilitating ramifications for Iran’s Jews. For example, it meant in theory that Shi’i Muslims could not eat food produced by Jews. Jewish Persian sources from the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, including the first known Judeo-Persian chronicle, Kitab-i Anusi [The Book of a Forced Convert] by Babai ben Lutf, deal with the periodic persecution and discrimination that Iranian Jews faced under Safavid rule (Moreen, 1987). Violence and persecution under the Safavids were not limited to the Jews, but were also directed toward Christians, Zoroastrians, and other non-Shi’i minorities.  

Jewish Community in the Nineteenth & Twentieth Century 

The Qajars (1789–1925) continued to enforce many of the same discriminatory laws against non-Muslim minorities that their predecessors had introduced, including the tenet of najasat. Moreover, the dynasty’s lack of a centralized government coupled with its refusal to punish those who attacked religious minorities resulted in minimal legal and physical protection for the Jews. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Iran’s Jews faced some of the same problems that all Iranians encountered due to political instability and rampant disease. However, Jews experienced additional hardships because of their low social standing (Yeroushalmi, 2009). Despite their inferior status, Iran’s Jews played a critical role in the country’s economy by performing the necessary, yet socially despised, jobs that Muslims would not perform, such as cleaning excrement, handling gold and silver objects, and serving as musicians and dancers (Tsadik, 2007). During the nineteenth century, Iranian Jews experienced persecution including ritual murder accusations, physical attacks and murders, the looting of Jewish property, and, notably, the 1839 forced conversion to Islam of all Iranian Jews in Mashhad. A significant development in the second half of the nineteenth century was European Jewish interest in the welfare of Iran’s Jews. By the 1870s, with increased means of communication between Europe and the Middle East, European Jews acted quickly to offer financial and political aid to their Iranian coreligionists, who faced famine and occasional discrimination (Farah, “Forming Iranian Jewish Identities,” 2021). 

Students at the coed Ettefagh school, a Jewish private school in Tehran before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. (c) Pirooz Abir
Students at the coed Ettefagh school, a Jewish private school in Tehran before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. (c) Pirooz Abir

By the turn of the twentieth century, forty thousand Jews were living in Iran, representing a steady growth from the estimated population of twenty thousand in the early nineteenth century. This occurred despite the conversion of a significant portion of the Jewish community to the Baha’i faith and the deaths of many Jews caused by rampant disease and famine in the late nineteenth century. By the early 1900s, Jews lived in dozens of villages, towns, and cities across Iran. The cities with the largest Jewish populations were Isfahan, Hamadan, Sanandaj, Shiraz, and Tehran. 

The Constitutional Revolution of 1906–1911 brought about major improvements in the lives of the recognized religious minorities, a category that included Jews, Zoroastrians, and Armenian and Nestorian Christians, but not Baha’is. The recognized religious minorities were declared legal equals to Muslims; each community was allowed to elect one member to parliament, and the poll tax [jizya] was revoked. These developments notwithstanding, these communities continued to face a certain degree of societal and professional limitations into the 1940s.  

The Pahlavi Dynasty (1925–1979) represented an auspicious era for Iran’s minorities. Reza Shah Pahlavi (1925–1941) and his son, Mohammad Reza Shah (1941–1979), implemented significant reforms in terms of modernization, centralization, and secularization that harkened back to the glories of pre-Islamic Iran. These reforms and the rulers’ tolerance of most religious minorities provided Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians with increased civil and religious rights and greater professional freedom. Moreover, the monarchs’ diminishment of Islam as a marker of Iranian identity offered Jews an alternative path toward belonging to the nation (Sternfeld, 2018). Under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s reign, Jews experienced tremendous upward mobility, interacted regularly with their non-Jewish brethren, and were active Iranian citizens. Jews became prominent in commerce and the medical and pharmaceutical fields, and were overrepresented in universities as students and professors. Jews operated their own schools, including Ruhi Shad, Ettefaq, and Kourosh; newspapers such as Alam’i Yahud, Israil, and Gozaresh; philanthropies and centers including the Iranian Jewish Ladies Organization and the Kourosh-e Kabir Cultural Center; and university associations (Farah, “Forming Iranian Jewish Identities,” 2021). Jews made important contributions in the medical field, with many serving as doctors, dentists, and pharmacists; tor example, in 1942, the Jewish doctor Rouhollah Sapir established the Kanoon Kheyr-Khah Clinic (Philanthropy Center Clinic), later renamed Bemarestan-e Sapir, which treated Jewish and non-Jewish patients until it was shut down in 2021.  

From a demographic perspective, in the late 1920s, some 60,000 Jews were living in Iran. By 1935 that number had risen to 70,000, and by the late 1940s, there were 100,000 Jews in Iran. Nearly 22,000 of them immigrated to Israel between 1948 and 1952, mainly to improve their economic situation, as the majority of the Jews who made aliyah in those years were desperately poor (Sternfeld, 2018). A unique feature of Iranian Jewish history vis-à-vis Israel is that due to the substandard living conditions and the professional and societal discrimination they faced upon arrival in Israel, thousands of Iranian Jews chose to repatriate to Iran. Parallel to the movement of Jews to Israel, following World War II, most Jews left the provinces and settled in Tehran. The rapid migration of Jews to Tehran occurred while Iran was already undergoing swift urbanization, and was part of a larger phenomenon of Iranians—Jews and non-Jews—moving from the provinces to urban areas.  

From an economic perspective, throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Iran’s Jews, like most Iranians, were impoverished. By 1945, Jews primarily worked as peddlers, refuse collectors, cloth sellers, grocers, and petty merchants. However, Iran’s Jews began to experience unprecedented upward mobility in the 1950s, and by the end of the 1970s, the majority were upper middle class and educated. A combination of interconnected factors facilitated this mobility, including increased access to education, a general economic boom that profited all educated Iranians, and a government committed to secularization  that made room for non-Muslims in the economy. Education was one critical element in the Jews’ upward mobility. The education offered by the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU) was particularly important. The AIU built its first school in Iran in 1898 in Tehran. At its inauguration, there were 220 boys and 90 girls enrolled. Between 1900 and 1930, it founded girls’, boys’, and co-ed schools in almost a dozen other cities in the country. On the most basic level, the acquisition of French they received in AIU schools enabled many Iranian Jews to establish business partnerships with European companies and to work in top government positions. An AIU education also eased the entry of many Jews into universities, where most studied medicine, pharmacy, science, engineering, or education (Farah, “The school is the link,” 2021). 

Positive Jewish/non-Jewish interactions intensified after World War II, leading to the further integration of Iran’s Jews throughout Iranian society. In the 1950s, as Jews climbed the socioeconomic ladder, they increasingly moved out of the predominantly Jewish neighborhoods (mahallehs) to wealthier ones in northern Tehran. There, Jews lived alongside Muslim, Christian, Zoroastrian, and Baha’i neighbors. Mandatory military service also facilitated encounters between Jewish and non-Jewish men and eased the Jews’ social acceptance into public life.  

Jews also interacted with non-Jews in the political arena. For example, in the 1940s and 1950s, a major subset of Iran’s Jewish youth was active in the Communist Tudeh Party, which appealed to Jews because it treated everyone equally, regardless of their religion, ethnicity, or socioeconomic standing. In addition, educational institutions represented significant sites at which Jews and non-Jews were able to interact. Over their eighty years of operation in Iran, AIU schools continually maintained a mixed student body that included Jews and non-Jews. In fact, many elite non-Jewish government officials sent their children to AIU schools. Letters, memoirs, and oral histories reveal that the multireligious environment of AIU schools reduced anti-Jewish discrimination and helped Jews build positive relationships with non-Jews that extended beyond the classroom. Interactions between Jews and non-Jews were not limited to AIU schools. The Tehran-based prestigious Jewish school Ettefaq also maintained a non-Jewish student body. Oral history interviews with one of its former principals, Dr. Beroukh Beroukhim, and interviews with several graduates confirm that Jews and non-Jews befriended each other at Ettefaq. Jewish/non-Jewish encounters also occurred at state schools, where upwardly mobile Jewish parents began to send their children in the 1950s and onward (Farah, “The school is the link,” 2021)

Board of Iranian Jewish Ladies in Tehran with American Joint Representative, Iranian Jewish Womens Organization, 1949. (c) University of Southern California - Los Angeles
Board of Iranian Jewish Ladies in Tehran with American Joint Representative, Iranian Jewish Womens Organization, 1949. (c) University of Southern California - Los Angeles

Dissolution of the Community 

The years following the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran represented a major rupture in Iranian Jewish life. At the start of the revolution, nearly 60,000 Jews resided in Iran. However, over the next decade, the majority left, and that mass emigration was part of a broader phenomenon of middle-class Iranians leaving the country: From 1978 to 1980, political turmoil and widespread uncertainty about the future prompted thousands of Iranian Jews and non-Jews alike to leave. While there were no organized assaults on the Jews as a community, on a few occasions, anti-Israel agitators attacked individuals and disseminated antisemitic propaganda through speeches and pamphlets. Furthermore, the government arrested and imprisoned several prominent Jews. The Jews’ emigration intensified following the May 1979 execution of the wealthy Jewish philanthropist Habib Elghanian, whom the state charged with spying for Israel and “economic imperialism.” Despite these distressing events, in the few years following the revolution, many Jews stayed in Iran, adopting a “wait-and-see” approach. This stance changed with the start of the Iran–Iraq War (1980–988), which compelled many Jews and non-Jews to leave the country. It was not only the fear of persecution that prompted Iranian Jews to leave. Like other middle-class Iranians, Jews left for socioeconomic reasons, viewing Iran as inhospitable to their professional prospects (Farah, “Forming Iranian Jewish Identities,” 2021)

Following the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini maintained a distinction between Jews and Zionists and demanded the loyalty of Iran’s minorities. Jews in Iran have publicly supported the Iranian government and sometimes openly criticize Israel and Zionism. Unfortunately, public Iranian discourse sometimes conflates Zionists with Jews, and several top Iranian Muslim politicians perpetuate antisemitic rhetoric. Furthermore, while Iranian law tolerates and protects the country’s recognized religious minorities, Jews are still subjected to several discriminatory practices and laws that restrict their access to certain economic opportunities (Sternfeld, 2023). Despite incentives to leave Iran, more than 8,000 Jews remain. They continue to live in mixed neighborhoods, operate dozens of synagogues, and maintain several Jewish schools and communal organizations.

The Persian Jewish Diaspora

Following the Islamic Revolution, while a few thousand Iranian Jews moved to Israel and Europe, the majority settled in Los Angeles and Great Neck, New York. Pockets of Iranian Jewish communities exist in a few other cities in North America, including Chicago and Montreal. Iranian Jews in North America are active in business, real estate, medicine, and law. They Jews run their own synagogues, schools, and communal associations. Los Angeles, which is home to approximately 600,000 Iranian immigrants and comprises the largest Iranian population outside of Iran, is home to several Iranian Jewish philanthropies and organizations, including the Iranian Jewish Women’s Organization, founded in 1976, and the Iranian American Jewish Federation, established in 1980. Over the last twenty years, several Iranian Jews, including Habib Levy, Roya Hakakian, Ilyas Ishaqyan, and Jacqueline Saper, have published memoirs about their time in Iran in multiple languages. These accounts are a testament to the diversity of the Jewish experience there and explore a variety of subjects, including Jewish life in a Muslim-majority country, the consequences of the Islamic Revolution on Iran’s Jews, and finally, the immigrant experience.   

A photo of Jews in Hamadan. (c) Library of Congress
A photo of Jews in Hamadan. (c) Library of Congress
Jews In Iran
Morteza Naydāvūd (1900– - 1990)

Morteza Naydāvūd (1900– 1990) was a Persian musician, composer, and master tār player, born in Isfahan in 1900. Despite his father's initial objections, Naydāvūd pursued music and trained with renowned musicians, becoming a master of the tār and a distinguished Persian classical musician by the age of twenty. Naydāvūd made significant technical and compositional contributions to Persian classical music, creating a unique style of tār playing that bears his name and composing famous works such as "Murgh-i Saḥar."

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