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Iran: The History Of Jews In Persia/Iran

By Charles Recknagel and Azam Gorgin

Iran's trial of 13 Jews on espionage charges has put new focus on the situation of Jews in the Islamic Republic. RFE/RL's Azam Gorgin presents a brief historical overview of the Jewish community in Iran.

Prague, 3 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The ancient Persian empire was established in the sixth century B.C. by King Cyrus, who conquered Babylonia. The empire's religion was Zoroastrianism.

The origin of the Jewish diaspora in Persia is connected to the deportation of Israelites in 727 B.C. from Samaria to Media and Persia. The famous "Cyrus Declaration" allowed the Jews who were living in exile by the river of Babylon to return to their homeland, Judea, to rebuild their lives. But some who had established themselves economically and socially preferred to remain on Babylonian-Persian soil.

These remaining exiles can be regarded as the nucleus of the permanent Jewish settlements that gradually expanded from the center to the provinces. The tolerant attitude of the rulers toward Jewish subjects brought gratitude from the Jews and found expression in subsequent generations. The Talmud says a picture of Susa, the capital of the Persian kings, should be carved on the eastern gate of the temple in Jerusalem. Many scholars say this was intended in memory of good relations with Persia's Achaemenid kings.

The overthrow of the Achaemenid dynasty by Alexander the Great was a setback to Jewish life in Iran, but later, during the Sassanid dynasty, the Jewish population of Iran grew considerably.

The battle of Nehavend in 642 A.D. and the defeat of the Sassanid by Arab-Muslims ended the independence of Persia after nearly 12 centuries and it became a part of the Arab-Islamic entity. The Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs of Damascus and Baghdad controlled Persia. Arabic words infiltrated the Persian language, and Islam replaced Zorastrianism as the state religion.

These changes had a profound impact on the many religious minorities within Persia. Through a covenant of Omar (a Sunni Muslim leader), non-Muslims were deprived of social and political equality, and became, in effect, second-class citizens. Jews were made to wear a yellow ribbon on their arms and Christians a blue ribbon to distinguish them from Muslims.

Professor Amnon Netzer of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem told RFE/RL that the yellow patch as a distinctive mark for Iranian Jews reappeared a number of times through Iranian history, most recently at the beginning of the 20th century.

"Sometimes it wasn't really yellow, it was red. And we don't know precisely its beginning. But some of the poems of the classical period [mention the ribbon], and these [poems] more or less belong to sometime before the invasion of the Mongols into Iran. We know, more or less, that the last period [in which] this patch was worn by the Jews by force was at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th."

From the 10th century, Jewish merchants began participating in banking and moneylending. Although they were mainly engaged in trade, during the dynasty of some kings (Ghaznavid) they were entrusted with the administration of lead mines in Balkh in Khorasan. But they were not permitted employment in government offices.

In the 13th century, Mongols defeated the Abbasid caliphs and ruled and devastated western Asia (1258-1336). The Jews did not escape the Mongol atrocities. Jewish settlements were decimated through warfare.

During the Safavid dynasty in the 16th and 17th centuries (1502-1736), the form of Islam called Shiism was the state religion, and the clergy had unlimited power in every sphere of life. Shiism introduced the concept of uncleanness of nonbelievers. Jews were compelled to abandon their religion, and their synagogues were closed. They were forced to proclaim publicly that they had converted to Islam, and were given the name "Jadid-al-Islam" (New Muslims).

Of course, after conversion to Islam, the Jews no longer had to pay the poll tax or wear a badge. But they led double lives, pretending to be Muslims but adhering secretly to Judaism. Finally, in 1661, authorities put an end to the deception, issuing an edict to allow the Jews to practice their religion openly.

During the reign of the last years of the Qajar dynasty (1794-1925), in the early 20th century, Iran experienced a constitutional movement. In 1908, the constitution granted equal rights to the three accepted minority religions in Iran: Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. All three communities had the right to elect one delegate to the parliament, although they could not participate in the election of other delegates.

In 1898, as part of a campaign by European Jews, the first "Alliance Israelite" school was opened in Tehran. By 1958, there were 34 alliance schools in addition to 38 other Jewish schools.

Netzer says the schools aimed to teach Iranian Jews modern sciences. He says the schools did not teach Biblical or Hebrew studies, and therefore were also attractive to Muslim students. Netzer says:

"The purpose was to educate the Jews of Iran in modern sciences, because previously they had studied Biblical subjects. But the doors of the schools were open to the non-Jews as well, and many Muslims took advantage of studying there. Some of [the students] even rose to high ranks in Iran and became ministers of the cabinet and members of the parliament and so on."

Under the Pahlavi dynasty in the 20th century, the political and social conditions of the Jews changed fundamentally. Reza Shah prohibited mass conversion of Jews and eliminated the Shiite concept of uncleanness of non-Muslims.

Modern Hebrew was incorporated into the curriculum of Jewish schools and Jewish newspapers were published. Jews were also allowed to hold government jobs. But the rise of Hitler in Germany caused anti-Semitic propaganda to intensify once more.

When Reza Shah's son, Mohammad Reza Shah, succeeded him, the economy boomed and the Jews who previously lived mostly as peddlers and moneylenders benefited tremendously. In 1950, the Shah granted Israel de facto recognition, much to the calamity of the religious establishment of Iran and the Arab states.

In 1979 the Shah was toppled and Ayatollah Khomeini established the Islamic Republic. He attacked Israel, Zionism, and world Jewry. But he also tried to ease the anxieties of Iran's Jewish community by issuing a fatwa saying the Jews are people of the book and are to be protected and permitted freedom of religion. He also said "the Iranian government differentiates between Iranian Jews and the Zionist government of Israel."

Netzer says that Jews have fared in the Islamic Republic better than some other minorities in Iran. The Jews are considered monotheists, can run for parliament, can have one representative, and even are exempted from bans on alcohol. But they also have faced serious difficulties. Netzer says:

"Compared to their Muslim brethren and compared to the Bahais and other religious and ethnic sects, the Jews of Iran during the Islamic Republic have not been treated worse than others. But there were also a lot of difficulties and more than 12 Iranian Jews were executed in Iran, most of them, perhaps all of them, because of ties to the [Shah's] royal court and what [the Islamic Republic] called Zionism or some economic issues. The Jews left Iran because of the Islamic regime, they were afraid of the Islamic regime."

Revolutionary courts have proved arbitrary in their crackdowns on wealthy individuals. The Jewish community's fear of these courts has led to a mass migration out of Iran. In the 20 years of the Islamic Republic, the Jewish population has dropped from 80,000 to just 30,000 today.