Sad Fate of Iran's Jews
“Ten years might pass before a wedding takes place in the Jewish community here,” said Haroun, who is one of the nearly 40 members of the Jewish community in Yazd.
“Even though the Jewish population in Yazd has decreased considerably over the past few years, we try to keep the synagogues open and teach our children Hebrew and educate them in the religion.”
The Jews of Iran trace their history back 2,600 years, when members of the tribes of Israel were taken into captivity by the Assyrian king and exiled. The Giliard region of Damavand, near Tehran, where some settled, still houses a Jewish cemetery which is a sacred burial place to pious Jews.
Peyman, a young man from Tehran who with the help of his father raised money to build a protective wall around the cemetery, said, “Sometimes they smash the tombstones, and sometimes they write anti-Israeli slogans on them but the majority of Iranians respect the Jewish culture and have no problems with the Jews.”
Tehran has the largest Jewish population in Iran with nearly 15,000 people and 30 synagogues. The Dr Sapir Hospital, which is a Jewish charity, has predominantly Muslim staff and patients and is highly respected. Jewish businesspeople also run a nursing home, schools and kindergartens as well as a Jewish library, a number of butcheries and a kosher restaurant.
The Jews of Iran have been best known for certain professions like making gold jewellery and antique dealing, textiles and carpets. Most Shia regard Jews as ritually unclean so Jews are unable to sell food.
During the reign of Mohammad-Reza Shah Pahlavi, when Iran-Israel relations were amicable, Jewish people founded a number of important businesses like the Roghan Nabati (vegetable oil) factory, Khorous-Neshan gum business and the Chitsazi-e-Tehran textile firm and played an important role in the economic development of Iran.
Before World War Two, many Jewish people left the Tehran ghetto called Oudlajan, which had become unsanitary. Today, the only inhabitants left are three men, Raheleh, Shamsi and Behnam, who live in the Ezra Yaghoub synagogue, the city’s oldest.
Behnam, an elderly man from Kermanshah who cleans the synagogue, says the place stays open only because Jews from other areas come to ensure that the quorum of ten males needed for worship is maintained, “This is why Jewish people from the far corners of north Tehran come here every week to prevent the synagogue from being closed down. Jewish people show unique solidarity when it comes to protecting their community and their religious and ethnic heritage.”
Iranian Jews believe themselves to be the descendants of Esther, the wife of the Persian King Xerxes, who helped save the lives of Jewish people in the vast Persian empire that encompassed much of the Middle East.
Esther is buried in the city of Hamadan next to her cousin Mordecai. Every year, Iranian Jews flock to their mausoleum on the Jewish festival of Purim, which celebrates the deliverance. Some women make wishes there, believing she can work miracles.
It was King Cyrus, founder of the Persian empire, who released the Jews from captivity in the sixth century BC - mentioned in the Old Testament as their deliverer.
While Iran’s history bears witness to the tolerance of Iranians for Jewish people, the 1979 Islamic Revolution spawned mixed feelings among Iranian Jews about their identity and nationality, not least because of the Islamic regime’s enmity towards Israel.
Even though Ayatollah Khomeini, in his first public speech in 1979, announced the Jewish community would be regarded differently from Israel, Habibollah Elghanian, head of the Tehran Jewish community and one of the wealthiest Iranian Jews, was accused of corruption and contacts with Israel and was executed in 1979.
That led to a wave of emigration by Iranian Jews. Over the past 30 years, the Israeli flag has been repeatedly torched and the Star of David desecrated in Palestine Square in Tehran. The government has also funded the production of countless anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli films and TV series.
The arrest of 13 Isfahani and Shirazi Jews on charges of spying for Israel in 2000 brought fears of a new wave of repression. The accused, mainly clothing or shoe salesmen, were finally released after international pressure.
After Israel and Turkey, Iran has the third largest Jewish population in the Middle East. However, the numbers, estimated to stand at 150,000 in 1979 when many had important positions in society, have fallen to a nominal 30,000, though in practice it may be far less.
Outside Tehran, there are smaller populations in Shiraz (8,000), Isfahan (900), Sanandaj (500), Kermanshah, Rafsanjan, Hamadan, Yazd and Kerman. All live in a permanent state of fear given what has happened to their co-religionists in recent years.
Many tell with horror the story of how the Jews of Mashhad were forced to convert to Islam in March 1839, in what is known as the Allahdad incident.
Over the years, some felt so threatened that they chose to convert to Islam, but continued to practice Judaism in secret – becoming so-called crypto-Jews.
One of the latter, Moshe Hakimi, from Mashhad, spoke to IWPR about this community’s dual identity.
“Every newborn was told from his first years of life that we are living in times of crisis and that they must lead a double life. They told us that we must not talk about our personal lives in front of non-Jewish people. This absolute secrecy became second nature after reaching puberty,” he said.
“Therefore, all Jewish converts to Islam had two names: for example, my grandfather’s Muslim name was Sheikh Aboulghasem and his Hebrew name was Benjamin. My father’s Muslim name was Ebrahim and his Hebrew name was Abraham. Outside they call me Mousa and at home, I'm called Moshe. In my father’s lifetime, many of the Jews had very Muslim names. They even went to Mecca on pilgrimage and became Hadjis.”
Some of these crypto-Jews observed Islamic creeds more zealously than the Muslims.
The Mozafarian and Froughi families are among the Jews who have embraced Islam in the past 100 years and found important social and political status for themselves.
Nasser Makarem-Shirazi, one of the Shia Grand Ayatollahs, who is close to the government, had Jewish ancestors. He is now known as a radical cleric. The Asgaroladi brothers, influential figures in the Islamic Republic, are also of Jewish descent. Habibollah Asgaroladi has for years been the secretary-general of the powerful Islamic Coalition Party. His brother Asaddollah is a powerful merchant, who is also the head of the Iran-Russia and Iran-China chambers of commerce.
The motive behind such conversions might be seen as an attempt to lead a peaceful life in predominantly Muslim Iranian society. Through such conversions, Jews were able to get different jobs, interact, trade and live more freely.
Nevertheless, traditional Iranian society tends to look down on such converts. Opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad even spread a false rumour that he was of Jewish origin to try to discredit him and arouse public opposition to the regime.
Despite having Hebrew names, Jewish Iranians use their Persian names in their identification papers and do not practice their religious rites in public. Unlike churches, which are clearly marked, synagogues are mostly located anonymously in back alleys and side streets.
Iranian Jews, like Christians and Zoroastrians, have a representative in the Majlis (parliament). But only in 2003 was the blood money for Jewish people and other religious minorities made equal to that of a Muslim. Previously, blood money, the compensation that relatives of a murder victim can claim in lieu of the death sentence for the perpetrator, was half for the minorities.
The efforts the Jewish community makes to remind Jewish people of their rich culture include tours to important sites. Among these are Shush-Daniel, the presumed tomb of Daniel located in Khuzestan province and the grave of Jacob’s granddaughter in the Lenjan cemetery in Isfahan as well as Queen Esther’s mausoleum. Visits to various cities across Iran as well as musical performances, hiking and other activities all aim to promote solidarity among Jewish youth.
But none of this has succeeded in reversing the minority’s trend towards emigration to the United States, Israel and European countries in recent years.
Sepideh, a female Jewish student is both anxious about not being able to get married and the problems her people face in general, said, “There are almost no educated Jewish boys left in Iran to consider for marriage. Emigration is the last resort that we must consider so that maybe we can experience a future free of restrictions.”
Parvaneh Vahidmanesh is an Iranian journalist and expert in the modern history of Iran.
Her family includes Iranian Jewish ancestors forced to convert to Islam. She is now based in Washington DC.
Hasan Sarbakhshian is an Iranian photographer who worked for Associated Press for almost a decade.
His book, Time Pulse, contains daily photographic reports and notes from the period of reformist president Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). He has recently left Tehran for Washington DC.
Parvaneh Vahidmanesh and Hasan Sarbakhshian have worked together for two years on a book about the life of Iranian Jews.