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

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Introduction

THE INTENSE RELATIONS BETWEEN IRAN AND ISRAEL since 1979 have given prominence to false dichotomies and wrong assumptions that dominate the discourse instead of facts. Relatively few people realize that in the Middle East, Iran’s Jewish population is second in size only to that of Israel. The number of Jews in Iran has fluctuated significantly from the early twentieth century to the present time. Due to natural growth on the one hand and migration—mostly out of Iran—on the other, the Jewish population hovered at around one hundred thousand for the better part of the past century; following the 1979 revolution, it dwindled down to twenty thousand to thirty thousand. Today, it is estimated that the number of Jews still living in the country is roughly twenty-five thousand.1 The reason that this knowledge is scarce stems from our reading of contemporary politics as one-dimensional instead of in the context of the long historical axis of Jewish Iranian history. Iranian animosity toward Israel, necessarily interpreted as anti-Jewish sentiments arising from an acceptance of the Zionist narrative, leads us to think that there is no redemption for (especially Middle Eastern) Jews anywhere but in Israel. Adding the dwindling number of the Jewish population in Iran and the Iranian animosity toward Israel together leaves no choice but to see Iran as inherently anti-Semitic, and Jews, if living in Iran, are locked, oppressed, isolated, and forced to stay put in this long exile.

Iranian historiography, for its part, does not always help us understand Iran better either. Iran is also—to a large extent—a country of minorities. There are dozens of ethnic and religious minorities in the country, and only about half of the population belongs to the Persian-speaking Shi‘a majority.2 Yet the historiography tends to overlook the significance of the ethnic-religious tapestry of Iranian society, and it gives far greater historical agency to the Persian Muslim majority.3 Every historiographical tradition faces hurdles in regard to Iranian minorities and the state. For example, acknowledging the mere existence of so many minority groups could undermine the century-long project to unify the country under Persian nationalist identity, be it designed along more ethnic-linguistic (pre-1979) or more Islamic lines (post-1979). The same thing goes for other large minorities, such as the Kurds. What kind of minority rights do Iranian Kurds possess compared with their brethren in Iraq or Turkey? How do Kurdish affairs in other Middle Eastern countries impact the Kurdish minority in Iran, if it gets recognized as a national minority?

When studying the history of the Jewish minority, the hurdles are complicated to overcome. Except for a few notable exceptions, Jewish communities in Iran have been studied as a single isolated community (rather than taking into account the differences between the many urban and rural communities, such as their different experiences in different times), one that rarely interacted with the broader Iranian society, the majority’s society, and other minority communities. Per Iranian Jewish historiography, the community won its redemption, in various forms and ways, with the appearance of Zionism and the “modern secularism” imposed by the Pahlavi monarchy. This book offers an integrative account of Jewish history, one that examines the many Jewish communities as parts of Iranian society and at the same time looks at the intersection of two other historical trajectories: the emergence of Zionism and the subsequent establishment of Israel, and the modern history of Middle Eastern Jewish communities outside Iran. Iran is a country of ethnic diversity, and so are the Jewish communities. This book reveals the inner diversity of Persian, Arab, Kurdish, and Ashkenazi Jews who lived in that mix of Iranian communities. Social movements for the advancement of democracy, socialism, and revolutionary ideals were dominant among Iranian youths and the emerging professional middle class. The same trends took root in the Jewish communities in the cities. With its relations to the Jewish world and Israel, we can see that Zionism did in fact impact Iranian Jews, but it attracted various responses from various groups in the Jewish communities.

Leading to the Twentieth Century

In order to set the stage for a deeper analysis of Jews in twentieth-century Iran, let us briefly explore the pertinent historical events leading up to the beginning of that eventful century. Conceding to older historiographical traditions, I shall begin 2,700 years ago.

The Jewish presence in Iran is usually said to date back to the Assyrian exile in 722 BCE. While being relatively incorporated into society, Jews routinely suffered harassment and forced conversions from the Zoroastrian clergy.4 It is believed that as a result, in 651 CE Jews welcomed the Arab Muslim conquerors, albeit with mixed feelings, hoping their presence would end institutional discrimination and persecution.5 The rule of Islam, at least nominally, protected Jews, along with Christians and Zoroastrians, as “People of the Book,” in exchange for increased taxation (specifically the poll tax that was levied on all non-Muslim subjects in the Muslim empire, the Jezyeh, or Jizya in Arabic pronunciation) and relegation of Jews to an inferior sociopolitical status. Being defined as People of the Book allowed these recognized religious minorities to practice their religion relatively freely, as long as they acknowledged the superior legal status of Islam and complied with restrictions on clothing, possession of weapons, and building churches, shrines, and synagogues. They were also spared from forced conversion to Islam, which was obligatory for nonmonotheistic believers who lived under the rule of Islam in the early days. For the following millennium, Jews were not singled out more than any other religious minority, either positively or negatively. Early in the Islamic period, in some parts of Iran (mostly in Khorasan), Iranian Christians and Jews converted to Islam for a host of reasons—among them, to avoid the special taxes, to enjoy the benefit of inheritance laws for Muslims in non-Muslim families, and to get better professional prospects; they even converted for theological reasons, such as the Abrahamic roots of the new religion, which was partly perceived to be an updated message for the religion they were already holding.6

A major turning point for Iran and its Jewish population was the establishment of the Safavid dynasty (1501–1736) by Shah Isma‘il I, who unified Iran and instituted Twelver Shi‘ism as the state religion around 1501. He did so, at least in part, to distinguish his kingdom from the major Sunni forces bordering Iran (namely, the Ottoman Empire).7 Arguably, the power behind the Safavid project was the formation of religious unity as a source of solidarity, and on these foundations hatred was spread toward anything that was not Shi‘i.8 Very little has been written about Jewish history in the Safavid, Zand (1751–1794) and Afshari (1736–1796), and early Qajar eras (1794–1925). A number of documents, mostly written in Judeo-Persian, survive from that period and describe persecution and forced conversions, especially during the reign of Shah Abbas I (r. 1571–1629), Shah Safi I (r. 1629–1642), and Shah Abbas II (r. 1642–1666).9 However, according to Vera B. Moreen, “the Safavid era cannot be considered a period of total disaster for Iran Jewry. On the contrary, there were numerous Jewish communities throughout the kingdom and most of them thrived under fairly vigorous and autonomous communal structure.”10

The Qajar period brought mixed experiences to the different Jewish communities in Iran. Some communities endured persecution, whereas others enjoyed a period of relative tranquility. Most importantly, Jews did not live primarily in isolation from the broader Iranian society. Therefore, times of hardship for the Jews tended to be times of hardship for other religious minorities as well. One of the most notorious affairs of the Qajar period is the forced conversion of the Jews of Mashhad, who had become Anusei Mashhad (the crypto-Jews of Mashhad).11 However, this was not an emblematic experience for the majority of the Jewish population.

The nineteenth century ushered in significant social changes for Iran’s minority communities. The religious minorities accounted for less than 2 percent of the population and lived in cities such as Tehran, Hamedan, Isfahan, Shiraz, Kashan, Yazd, Kermanshah, and Tabriz. These social transformations stemmed primarily from the arrival of European and American Christian missions. Beginning in 1834, missionaries started to work primarily with Nestorian Christians, but later they extended their work to include almost every religious minority in the major cities in the country, such as Tabriz, Tehran, Kermanshah, and Hamedan. The missionaries introduced vast opportunities for social mobility that were contingent on religious belief.12 One interesting phenomenon of that period was the fluidity of religious identity. Vast numbers of Jews voluntarily converted to Islam, Christianity, and Baha’ism to enjoy these opportunities. Conversion became socially acceptable despite some negative connotations, and the emergence of Baha’ism in that period attracted many Jews.13 In the nineteenth century, under Nasir al-Din Shah and his son Mozaffar al-Din Shah, Jews enjoyed more comprehensive legal protection and advancement. With European Jewry’s support, they also opened and expanded the network of Alliance Israélite Universelle and other Jewish educational institutions.14

In keeping with the development of constitutional trends in the Ottoman Empire, the Constitutional Revolution of 1906–1911 introduced a new civil discourse in which minorities became legally equal to Muslim citizens.15 A parliament was formed and, after a power struggle with the palace, the governing body wrote and ratified a constitution. After having been requested to withdraw their right to elect representatives in the first Majlis (parliament; 1906–1908), Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, not without pains, finally claimed representatives on a national level in the second Majlis (1909–1911), and the political sphere slowly opened for them.16

A major turning point arrived after Reza Khan’s ascendance to throne in the 1920s. Reza established the last royal dynasty to rule over Iran, the Pahlavi dynasty. Attempting to establish a secular state and society, Reza Shah led a fierce fight against the religious establishment. In the first years of his rule, Jewish institutions enjoyed unprecedented freedoms. However, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Reza Shah sought to reform and unify Iran’s education systems and, in doing so, closed Jewish schools. Overall, the Pahlavi period, with its emphasis on a secular society, brought relief to the Jews of Iran. The Pahlavi return to Persian roots allowed Iranian Jews to claim older and greater belonging to the nation, and they enthusiastically adopted the narrative that portrayed the Iranian Jews as an almost indigenous group that preceded Islam in this land.17 The tensions that arose between Reza Shah and the Muslim clergy during his struggle to establish a secular state, in which he had the upper hand, emboldened the Jews in their new national path.18 They now could relate to Iranian culture as a common denominator of Pahlavi society. They felt they could assimilate, as they were able to practice their religion, and they even started leaving the Mahallah (Jewish neighborhood) in greater numbers. In this period Jews started to give their children less Jewish and more Persian names to avoid their being automatically categorized as Jews. The ever-broadening interactions with non-Jews ironically encouraged the communities to invest in Jewish institutions so that the younger generation would still develop a solid Jewish identity.19 The periodic recurrence of anti-Jewish attacks decreased and tended to be local and isolated.

In addition to education reform, Reza Shah’s modernization policies included many infrastructural projects, such as railroads and various industrial developments in which foreign consortiums took part. Germany became one of Iran’s major industrial partners, a relationship that led Reza Shah to announce Iran’s neutral position at the outset of World War II. Nazi propaganda appeared in Iranian public discourse in the late 1930s and early 1940s, but not to the extent that Britain and the Soviet Union claimed in order to justify a military invasion in August 1941.

Notes

1. Today, the estimated number of Jews in Iran greatly fluctuates. The numbers are between ten thousand and thirty-five thousand, although most sources agree on twenty-five thousand, based on membership in synagogues and clubs. Charles London, Far from Zion: In Search of a Global Jewish Community (New York: William Morrow, 2009), 192–226; Scott Peterson, “In Ahmadinejad’s Iran, Jews Still Find a Space,” Christian Science Monitor, April 27, 2007, http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0427/p01s03-wome.html.

2. For example, see the following discussions on the Azeris, Kurds, Zoroastrians, Armenians, Assyrians, and more: Adam H. Becker, Revival and Awakening: American Evangelical Missionaries in Iran and the Origins of Assyrian Nationalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015); Rasmus Christian Elling, Minorities in Iran: Nationalism and Ethnicity After Khomeini (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Denise Natali, The Kurds and the State: Evolving National Identity in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, Modern Intellectual and Political History of the Middle East (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2005); Monica Ringer, Pious Citizens: Reforming Zoroastrianism in India and Iran (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2014); and Eliz Sanasarian, Religious Minorities in Iran (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

3. These two books show the dominant trends in writing national history in Iran in the formative years: Farzin Vejdani, Making History in Iran: Education, Nationalism, and Print Culture (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015); Reza Zia-Ebrahimi, The Emergence of Iranian Nationalism: Race and the Politics of Dislocation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

4. For more on the settlement of Jews in Iran in the late antiquity, see Parvaneh Pourshriati, “New Vistas on the History of Iranian Jewry in Late Antiquity, Part I: Patterns of Jewish Settlement in Iran,” in The Jews of Iran: The History, Religion, and Culture of a Community in the Islamic World, ed. Houman M. Sarshar (London: I. B. Tauris, 2014), 1–32.

5. Amnon Netzer, “Ha-Kehila Ha-Yehudit Be-Iran,” in Yehudei Iran: Avaram, Morashtam ve-Zikatam Le-Eretz Ha-Kodesh, ed. Amnon Netzer (Jerusalem: Beit Koresh, 1988), 3–4.

6. During the Mongol Ilkhanid period (1258–1335), in which Iran suffered devastating destruction, unparalleled in that time, that is identified by historians as the greatest disaster Iran had encountered, Jews and Christians had a mixed experience. Before they had converted to Islam, the Mongols practiced a more tolerant policy and did not charge minorities the Jezyeh tax. We have less information on the second part of the Mongol rule in Iran, but it is reasonable to believe that following the ascendance of Abu Sa‘id, the approach to minorities changed as well. Homa Katouzian, The Persians: Ancient, Medieval and Modern Iran (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 100–104. Netzer adds that although Jews suffered, just like other non-Jewish Iranians, from the horrors of the Mongol occupation, and many of them died, in parts of the Mongol period Jews enjoyed an economic and cultural blossoming, as well as relative religious tolerance. Netzer, “Ha-Kehila Ha-Yehudit Be-Iran,” 6.

7. Vera B. Moreen, “The Safavid Era,” in Esther’s Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews, ed. Houman Sarshar (Beverly Hills, CA: Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2002), 63.

8. Habib Levy, Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran: The Outset of the Diaspora (Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers in association with the Cultural Foundation of Habib Levy, 1999), 260.

9. Moreen, “Safavid Era,” 64.

10. Moreen, 73.

11. There is an abundance of scholarship on the story of the crypto-Jews of Mashhad. The forced conversions had shaped the community for over a century, and in many ways they still serve as an identifier for the Mashhadi community in Israel and the United States. For example, see Hilda Nissimi, “Memory, Community, and the Mashhadi Jews During the Underground Period,” Jewish Social Studies 9, no. 3 (2003): 76–106; Hilda Nissimi, “Individual Redemption and Family Commitment: The Influence of Mass Immigration to Israel on the Crypto-Jewish Women of Mashhad,” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues, no. 18 (2009): 39; and Haideh Sahim, “Two War, Two Cities, Two Religions: The Jews of Mashhad and the Herat Wars,” in The Jews of Iran: The History, Religion, and Culture of a Community in the Islamic World, ed. Houman M. Sarshar (London: I. B. Tauris, 2014), 75–108.

12. See the following sources for more about the professional and social opportunities introduced by the missionaries: Michael P. Zirinsky, “Imperial Power and Dictatorship: Britain and the Rise of Reza Shah, 1921–1926,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 24, no. 4 (November 1992): 639–63; Michael P. Zirinsky, “Harbingers of Change: Presbyterian Women in Iran, 1883–1949,” American Presbyterians 70, no. 3 (1992): 173–86; Michael P. Zirinsky, “A Panacea for the Ills of the Country: American Presbyterian Education in Inter-war Iran,” Iranian Studies 26, no. 1/2 (1993): 119–37; Michael P. Zirinsky, “Inculcate Tehran: Opening a Dialogue of Civilizations in the Shadow of God and the Alborz,” Iranian Studies 44, no. 5 (September 2011): 657–69; Thomas M. Ricks, “Alborz College of Tehran, Dr. Samuel Martin Jordan and the American Faculty: Twentieth-Century Presbyterian Mission Education and Modernism in Iran (Persia),” Iranian Studies 44, no. 5 (September 2011): 627–46; and Becker, Revival and Awakening.

13. Mehrdad Amanat explains the enchantment of Baha’ism as an opportunity to convert to a sort of indigenous religion without being labeled as a “new convert” (jadid ul-Islam), as well as an opportunity to preserve family history as part of the individual identity. Mehrdad Amanat, Jewish Identities in Iran: Resistance and Conversion to Islam and the Baha’i Faith, Library of Modern Religion 9 (London: I. B. Tauris, 2011), 3–6.

14. Janet Afary, “From Outcastes to Citizens: Jews in Qajar Iran,” in Sarshar, Esther’s Children, 154.

15. Rubin identifies epistemological differences between the Ottoman perceptions of the codification process and the mostly Western understanding of it. The gaps are applicable to some of the discussion on the Iranian movement. Avi Rubin, “Modernity as a Code: The Ottoman Empire and the Global Movement of Codification,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 59, no. 5 (November 7, 2016): 828–56; Avi Rubin, Falling Stars: Ottoman Rule of Law and the Modern Political Trial (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2018); See Fariba Zarinebaf’s illuminating research on the influence of the Ottoman movement on the Iranian constitutional movement. Fariba Zarinebaf, “From Istanbul to Tabriz: Modernity and Constitutionalism in the Ottoman Empire and Iran,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 28, no. 1 (July 5, 2008): 154–69.

16. The Zoroastrians were indeed represented by their own representative, whereas Jews and Armenians were asked to allow Sayyid ‘Abdullah Bihbahani and Sayyid Muhammad Tabataba’i to represent them. In the second Majlis, all the recognized minority communities were allowed to send their own representatives. Janet Afary, The Iranian Constitutional Revolution, 1906–1911: Grassroots Democracy, Social Democracy and the Origins of Feminism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 70; Afary, “From Outcastes to Citizens,” 164–73.

17. For a fuller discussion of the connection between the Pahlavi nation-building project and religious reforms that gave room for religious minorities’ integration, see Janet Afary, “Foundations for Religious Reform in the First Pahlavi Era,” Iran Nameh 30, no. 3 (Fall 2015): 46–87.

18. Netzer, “Ha-Kehila Ha-Yehudit Be-Iran,” 12.

19. Saba Soomekh, From the Shahs to Los Angeles: Three Generations of Iranian Jewish Women Between Religion and Culture (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012), 42–43.