Between Iran and Zion
Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran
Lior B. Sternfeld


Contents and Abstracts
chapter abstract

The introduction sets the background for the situation of the Jews in Iran at the turn of the twentieth century. This initial chapter provides a brief history of Jews in Iran and in the Middle East and touches on the creation of transnational networks that became increasingly important in the twentieth century. It seeks to introduce and contextualize for the reader Iran's Jewish community and the manner in which it has been addressed in past works. It provides an overview of the political, social, and cultural changes the community experienced, including the implementation of a constitution, urbanization, and a different perception of the "nation" in terms of postimperial identity and structure.

1 Shifting Demographics: The Arrival of Ashkenazi and Iraqi Jews
chapter abstract

Chapter 1 explores ways that the Jewish community became more diverse following World War II. It examines the sociological and demographic transformations that the Jewish population experienced during the war. This chapter argues that the 1941 invasion of Iran by Allied forces and the subsequent collapse of the rigid state structure facilitated social mobility and redefinition. At the same time, a wave of Iraqi Jews arrived in Iran and added another layer of identity to the growing Jewish population. This chapter also debunks the traditional portrayal of Iran as passive in the war historiography, where it is usually examined in an insufficiently complex or nuanced way, and analyzes the ways in which the war and its aftermath shaped Iran. Contrary to the traditional historiography's stagnant or, rather, declining analysis of Iranian Jewry, the Jewish population in Iran witnessed a golden age in terms of becoming Iranian citizens.

2 The Iranian Political Sphere: Shaping a National Identity
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Chapter 2 examines the politicization of Jews in Iran during World War II and through the early 1950s. Traditional historiography distances Jews from politics in Iran. When mentioned at all, Jewish political activity usually references support of the Shah, especially in relation to his close alliance with Israel. However, this chapter argues that political activism became a means for Iranian Jews to impact their future role and sociopolitical position in Iran. Many Jews were adamant supporters and members of the Tudeh, the Iranian Communist Party, and later engaged in many other political initiatives (such as student movements and intellectual associations). The Tudeh was the most vocal opponent of fascism in the 1940s and arguably the most popular political force in Iran. The Tudeh's enduring defense of the Jewish community, combined with its message of equality, attracted many young Jews from the Iranian middle and lower middle classes.

3 Iranian Jews and Israel: From Indigenous to State-Sponsored Zionism
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This chapter examines the roots and effects of Zionism in Iran. It analyzes Zionism first as an indigenous movement that emerged in Iran as a response to the needs of Iranian Jews (with relation to the global movement of Zionism) and transformed itself as the needs of Iranian Jews changed in the course of the century. After 1948 and the establishment of Israel, Zionism could no longer be taken as a local movement alone. The contact with Israel and Israeli emissaries and the impact of state-sponsored Zionist activities ignited a new set of emotions and means of identification with or antagonism to Zionism, and a range of reactions in between. This chapter examines the way Israel dealt with the case of Iranian Jews, which was atypical compared with other Middle Eastern communities. In addition, this chapter examines the responses to Zionism among the non-Jewish intellectual elites in Iran.

4 Unintended Consequences: The Lead-Up to the Iranian Revolution
chapter abstract

The ultimate success of the nation-building project, led by the Shah, was evident in the decade leading up to the revolution—when the Jewish community in Iran finally achieved its release from traditional loyalties and viewed itself, first and foremost, as Iranian. This chapter explores the first manifestations of Jewish revolutionary discourse and actions and discusses postrevolutionary Iran and a new nation-building paradigm that Jews faced following the Islamic revolution. This chapter follows the Jewish response to the rapidly unfolding events: from the Shah's overthrow through the redefinition of the Iranian national identity, from the Iran-Iraq War to the post-Khomeini period. In the post-Khomeini era, Iranian Jews had to navigate between their religious ancestral homeland (Israel) and their national and political homeland (Iran). They had to deftly maneuver between the misinterpretations and deceptions that characterized the harsh rhetoric between Israel and Iran.

chapter abstract

This concluding chapter shows that the trajectory of the Jews of Iran from the early twentieth century led them ultimately to integration into each of the nation-building projects of that era.