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



In summer 2016, I traveled to Paris for two final interviews—one with the first president of Iran’s Islamic Republic (following the 1979 revolution), Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, and the other with renowned Iranian intellectual and political lexicographer Daryoush Ashouri. At the outset of our conversation, Dr. Ashouri asked for a brief description of my book. I told him that, generally speaking, the book recounts the story of Iranian Jews in the twentieth century. A shrewd humorist, Ashouri immediately replied, “What about the other 2,600 years?” Ashouri was alluding to the fact that every Iranian Jew begins his or her personal and family history with the Babylonian exile. In a sense, Ashouri’s question reflects the current status of scholarship on that sensitive topic, and one of the major reasons I embarked on this journey to write Between Iran and Zion.

Writing the story of Iranian Jews in the twentieth century requires juxtaposing 2,700 years of history alongside a mélange of oral traditions, autobiographies, and microhistories. These family accounts and microhistories allow for the refashioning of a contemporary narrative, one that defies the compression of history into a neat, linear record. This new narrative necessarily takes into account social and political developments both in Iran and in the Jewish world and, of course, in the broader Middle East.

Between Iran and Zion examines the development of the Jewish community in Iran, and especially in Tehran, since the early twentieth century. In 1941, following the invasion of the Allied armies as part of World War II, emissaries of the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee in Tehran reported to their organization’s New York headquarters that about 80 percent of the Jewish communities in Iran were impoverished members of the lower and lower middle classes. These Jews lived in rural areas or on the outskirts of big cities and, although generally literate, were unable to break professional and social glass ceilings. Exclusionary practices, while affecting many individuals in Iran’s hierarchical society (regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation), applied most particularly to Jews. Only 10 percent, according to this 1941 report, belonged to the urban middle class, and an additional 10 percent were affluent Iranian industrialists and bankers.1

By the late 1970s, reports from the same organization offered a radically different picture: 80 percent of Jews belonged to the upper middle class, 10 percent belonged to the economic elite and upper class, and only 10 percent were still classified as belonging to the impoverished lower class. This change occurred in the course of less than four decades, which is especially astounding in a community of one hundred thousand individuals. Equally intriguing is that in the 1940s Jews were not thought of as having any political agency. Conversely, in the 1970s they appeared simultaneously as avowed Communists or Iranian nationalists, maintained sincere and close relationships with the Shah and his court, and at the same time also remained sympathetic to Zionism in its various forms. Such facts allow us to begin to see the fluidity of identity boundaries within Iran’s sociopolitical environment.

This book links the Iranian case to revisionist histories of other Middle Eastern studies of local Jewish pasts. It demonstrates how minorities should be examined as part of broader Iranian contexts rather than secluded in space and consciousness. Hence, despite focusing on the Jewish population of Iran, this research is relevant to Iranian history in general, particularly to the history of the state and its many minorities. While an overwhelming number of these minorities are ethnic minorities, some are both ethnic and religious, and they are insufficiently treated in the narratives of Iranian history. By writing the story of Iran’s Jewry more fully into the Iranian national narrative, this study contributes to a better understanding of Iran’s unique social tapestry.

I do not mean for this book to be a definitive history of twentieth-century Iranian Jews. It is neither a written institutional history of Iranian Jews nor a comprehensive corpus of modern Jewish history. Rather, Between Iran and Zion seeks to explore the interrelationship of Jewish communities—and individuals residing in those communities—with the broader Iranian society; that is, to illuminate the diverse aspects of Jewish Iranian identity. Should one consider these individuals more Iranian or Jewish, Zionist or Communist? Are they patriots or reluctant participants, or perhaps a combination of all the above, depending on the era and occasion? This book primarily focuses on the historical period following 1941—years of unprecedented urbanization within Iran that translated to new and significant roles for members of the Jewish community. Necessarily, the book’s narrative gravitates toward the Jewish population of Tehran primarily and other cities secondarily. Indeed, for the better part of the twentieth century, approximately half of Iran’s Jews lived in the capital city.

Between Iran and Zion highlights the social and political transformations Iranian Jews experienced during the twentieth century—and it attempts to shed light on the interconnections between different groups within the Jewish population, as well as their relationships to the greater Iranian society and state. Within each chapter the reader will discover that relevant sociopolitical developments and events almost always had a broader context—one not grounded solely in a Jewish context but also rooted deeply in Iranian contexts.


1. Amnon Netzer added that compared to Jews from other Middle Eastern countries, Iranian Jews were significantly less literate and poorly trained. Amnon Netzer, “Ha’aretz ve’yehudiy’ha,” in Iran, ed. Haim Saadoun (Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi, 2005), 9–26.