|Regions with significant populations|
|Historically: Persian languages, Judeo-Persian languages, Judeo-Aramaic
Modern: Hebrew, Persian, English
|Related ethnic groups|
|Mountain Jews, Mizrahi Jews, Persians, Jews, Bukharan Jews, Kurdish Jews|
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|Jews and Judaism|
Judaism is among the oldest religions practiced in Iran and the Biblical Book of Esther contains references to the experiences of the Jews in Persia. Jews have had a continuous presence in Iran since the time of Cyrus the Great of the Achaemenid Empire. Cyrus invaded Babylon and freed the Jews from Babylonian captivity. The history of immigrant Jews in Iran goes back more than 3000 years, during which time they were part of a society which included adherents of many other religions, such as Zoroastrians, Christians, etc.
Today, the vast majority of Persian Jews live in Israel and the United States, with a smaller community found in Canada. According to the most recent Iranian census, the remaining Jewish population of Iran is 8,756, while the number of crypto-Jews is unknown.
- 1 Terminology
- 2 History
- 2.1 Under Achaemenids
- 2.2 Parthian period
- 2.3 Sassanian period (226–634 CE)
- 2.4 Early Islamic period (634–1255)
- 2.5 Mongol rule (1256–1318)
- 2.6 Safavid, Afsharid and Qajar dynasties (1502–1925)
- 2.7 Pahlavi dynasty (1925–1979)
- 2.8 Islamic Republic (1979–present)
- 3 Current status in Iran
- 4 Demographics
- 5 Related Jewish communities
- 6 Languages
- 7 Notable Persian Jews
- 8 See also
- 9 Notes
- 10 References
- 11 External links
Today the term Iranian Jews is mostly used to refer to Jews from the country of Iran. In various scholarly and historical texts, the term is used to refer to Jews who speak various Iranian languages. Iranian immigrants in Israel (nearly all of whom are Jewish) are referred to as Parsim (Hebrew: פרסים meaning "Persians"). In Iran, Jews and Jewish people in general are referred to by four common terms: Kalīmī (Persian: کلیمی), which is considered the most proper term; Yahūdī (یهودی), which is less formal but correct; Israel (اسرائل) the term by which the Jews refer to themselves; and Johūd (جهود), a term having negative connotations and considered by many Jews as offensive.
The beginnings of Jewish history in the area of present-day Iran date back to late biblical times. The biblical books of Isaiah, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles, and Esther contain references to the life and experiences of Jews in Persia. In the book of Ezra, the Persian kings are credited with permitting and enabling the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple; its reconstruction was affected "according to the decree of Cyrus, and Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia" (Ezra 6:14). This great event in Jewish history took place in the late sixth century BCE, by which time there was a well-established and influential Jewish community in Persia.
Jews in ancient Persia mostly lived in their own communities. Persian Jews lived in the ancient (and until the mid-20th century still extant) communities not only of Iran, but also the Armenian, Georgian, Iraqi, Bukharan, and Mountain Jewish communities.
Some of the communities have been isolated from other Jewish communities, to the extent that their classification as "Persian Jews" is a matter of linguistic or geographical convenience rather than actual historical relationship with one another. Scholars believe that during the peak of the Persian Empire, Jews may have comprised as much as 20% of the population.
According to Encyclopædia Britannica: "The Jews trace their heritage in Iran to the Babylonian Exile of the 6th century BC and, like the Armenians, have retained their ethnic, linguistic, and religious identity." But the Library of Congress's country study on Iran states that "Over the centuries the Jews of Iran became physically, culturally, and linguistically indistinguishable from the non-Jewish population. The overwhelming majority of Jews speak Persian as their mother language, and a tiny minority, Kurdish."
Cyrus the Great and Jews
According to the Bible, three times during the 6th century BCE, Nebuchadnezzar exiled the Jews (Hebrews) of the ancient Kingdom of Judah to Babylon. These three separate occasions are mentioned in Jeremiah (52:28–30). The first exile was in the time of Jehoiachin in 597 BCE, when the Temple of Jerusalem was partially despoiled and a number of the leading citizens removed. After eleven years (during the reign of Zedekiah), a fresh rising of the Judaeans occurred. Jerusalem was razed to the ground, and deportation ensued. Finally, five years later, Jeremiah recorded a third captivity.
After the overthrow of Babylonia by the Persian (Iranian) Achaemenid Empire, Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews to return to their native land (537 BCE). More than forty thousand were said to have done so, (See Jehoiakim; Ezra; Nehemiah and Jews). Unlike the previous Assyrian and Babylonian rulers, Cyrus also allowed the Jews to practice their religion freely (See Cyrus Cylinder).
Cyrus ordered rebuilding the Second Temple in the same place as the first; however, he died before it was completed. Darius the Great came to power in the Persian empire and ordered the completion of the temple. According to the Bible, the prophets Haggai and Zechariah urged this work. The temple was ready for consecration in the spring of 515 BCE, more than twenty years after the Jews' return to Jerusalem.
According to the Book of Esther, in the Tanakh, Haman was an Agagite noble and vizier of the empire under Persian King Ahasuerus, generally identified as Xerxes the Great (son of Darius the Great) in 6th century BCE. Haman and his wife Zeresh instigated a plot to kill all the Jews of ancient Persia. The plot was foiled by Queen Esther, the Jewish Queen of Persia. As a result, Esther ordered the hanging of Haman and his ten sons. The events of the Book of Esther are celebrated as the holiday of Purim. There is no external historical evidence in support of these events, though.
Jewish sources contain no mention of the Parthian influence; "Parthia" does not appear in the texts. The Armenian prince Sanatroces, of the royal house of the Arsacides, is mentioned in the "Small Chronicle" as one of the successors (diadochoi) of Alexander. Among other Asiatic princes, the Roman rescript in favor of the Jews reached Arsaces as well (I Macc. xv. 22); it is not, however, specified which Arsaces. Not long after this, the Partho-Babylonian country was trodden by the army of a Jewish prince; the Syrian king, Antiochus Sidetes, marched, in company with Hyrcanus I., against the Parthians; and when the allied armies defeated the Parthians (129 BC) at the Great Zab (Lycus), the king ordered a halt of two days on account of the Jewish Sabbath and Feast of Weeks. In 40 BC the Jewish puppet-king, Hyrcanus II., fell into the hands of the Parthians, who, according to their custom, cut off his ears in order to render him unfit for rulership. The Jews of Babylonia, it seems, had the intention of founding a high-priesthood for the exiled Hyrcanus, which they would have made quite independent of the Land of Israel. But the reverse was to come about: the Judeans received a Babylonian, Ananel by name, as their high priest which indicates the importance enjoyed by the Jews of Babylonia. Still in religious matters the Babylonians, as indeed the whole diaspora, were in many regards dependent upon the Land of Israel. They went on pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the festivals.
The Parthian Empire was based on a loosely configured system of vassal kings. The lack of rigidly centralized rule over the empire had drawbacks, for instance, allowing the rise of a Jewish robber-state in Nehardea (see Anilai and Asinai). Yet, the tolerance of the Arsacid dynasty was as legendary as that of the first Persian dynasty, the Achaemenids. One account suggests the conversion of a small number of Parthian vassal kings of Adiabene to Judaism. These instances and others show not only the tolerance of Parthian kings, but are also a testament to the extent at which the Parthians saw themselves as the heir to the preceding empire of Cyrus the Great. So protective were the Parthians of the minority over whom they ruled, that an old Jewish saying tells, "When you see a Parthian charger tied up to a tomb-stone in the Land of Israel, the hour of the Messiah will be near".
The Babylonian Jews wanted to fight in common cause with their Judean brethren against Vespasian; but it was not until the Romans waged war under Trajan against Parthia that they made their hatred felt; so, the revolt of the Babylonian Jews helped prevent Rome from becoming master there. Philo speaks of the numerous Jews resident in that country, a population that was likely increased by immigrants after the destruction of Jerusalem. In Jerusalem from early times, Jews had looked to the east for help. With the fall of Jerusalem, Babylonia became a kind of bulwark of Judaism. The collapse of the Bar Kochba revolt likely also added to Jewish refugees in Babylon.
In the struggles between the Parthians and the Romans, the Jews had reason to side with the Parthians, their protectors. Parthian kings elevated the princes of the Exile to a kind of nobility, called Resh Galuta. Until then they had used the Jews as collectors of revenue. The Parthians may have given them recognition for services, especially by the Davidic house. Establishment of the Resh Galuta provided a central authority over the numerous Jewish subjects, who proceeded to develop their own internal affairs.
Sassanian period (226–634 CE)
By the early Third Century, Persian Empire influences were on the rise again. In the winter of 226 CE, Ardashir I overthrew the last Parthian king (Artabanus IV), destroyed the rule of the Arsacids, and founded the dynasty of the Sassanids. While Hellenistic influence had been felt amongst the religiously tolerant Parthians, the Sassanids intensified the Persian side of life, favored the Pahlavi language, and restored the old monotheistic religion of Zoroastrianism which became the official state religion. This resulted in the suppression of other religions. A priestly Zoroastrian inscription from the time of King Bahram II (276–293 CE) contains a list of religions (including Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism etc.) that Sassanid rule claimed to have "smashed".""The false doctrines of Ahriman and of the idols suffered great blows and lost credibility. The Jews (Yahud), Buddhists (Shaman), Hindus (Brahman), Nazarenes (Nasara), Christians (Kristiyan), Baptists (Makdag) and Manichaeans (Zandik) were smashed in the empire, their idols destroyed, and the habitations of the idols annihilated and turned into abodes and seats of the gods"."
Shapur I (Shvor Malka, which is the Aramaic form of the name) was friendly to the Jews. His friendship with Shmuel gained many advantages for the Jewish community. Shapur II's mother Ifra-Hormiz was Judaizing believer (i.e. believer in Judaism), and this gave the Jewish community relative freedom of religion and many advantages. He was also friend of a Babylonian rabbi in the Talmud named Raba (Talmud), Raba's friendship with Shapur II enabled him to secure a relaxation of the oppressive laws enacted against the Jews in the Persian Empire. In addition, Raba sometimes referred to his top student Abaye with the term Shvur Malka meaning "Shapur [the] King" because of his bright and quick intellect.
Early Islamic period (634–1255)
With the Islamic conquest of Persia, the government assigned Jews, along with Christians and Zoroastrians, to the status of dhimmis, non-Muslim subjects of the Islamic empire. Dhimmis were allowed to practice their religion, but were required to pay jizya to cover the cost of financial welfare, security and other benefits that Muslims were entitled to (jizya, a poll tax, and initially also kharaj, a land tax) in place of the zakat, which the Muslim population was required to pay. Like other Dhimmis, Jews were exempt from military draft. Viewed as "People of the Book", they had some status as fellow monotheists, though they were treated differently depending on the ruler at the time. On the one hand, Jews were granted significant economic and religious freedom when compared to their co-religionists in European nations during these centuries. Many served as doctors, scholars, and craftsman, and gained positions of influence in society. On the other hand, like other non-Muslims, they did not work in Sharia Law since they did not have the obvious knowledge and qualifications for it.
Mongol rule (1256–1318)
In 1255, Mongols led by Hulagu Khan invaded parts of Persia, and in 1258 they captured Baghdad putting an end to the Abbasid caliphate. In Persia and surrounding areas, the Mongols established a division of the Mongol Empire known as Ilkhanate, creating a capitol in Tabriz. The Ilkhanate Mongol rulers abolished the inequality of dhimmis, and all religions were deemed equal. It was shortly after this time when one of the Ilkhanate rulers, Arghun Khan, preferred Jews for the administrative positions and appointed Sa'd al-Daula, a Jew, as his vizier. The appointment, however, provoked resentment from the Muslim clergy, and after Arghun's death in 1291, al-Daula was murdered and Persian Jews in Tabriz suffered a period of violent persecutions from the Muslim populace instigated by the clergy. The Orthodox Christian historian Bar Hebraeus wrote that the violence committed against the Jews during that period "neither tongue can utter, nor the pen write down".
Ghazan Khan's conversion to Islam in 1295 heralded for Persian Jews in Tabriz a pronounced turn for the worse, as they were once again relegated to the status of dhimmis (Covenant of Omar). Öljeitü, Ghazan Khan's successor, destroyed many synagogues and decreed that Jews had to wear a distinctive mark on their heads; Christians endured similar persecutions. Under pressure, many Jews converted to Islam. The most famous such convert was Rashid-al-Din Hamadani, a physician of Hamadani origin who was also a historian and statesman; and who adopted Islam in order to advance his career in Öljeitü's court in Tabriz. However, in 1318 he was executed on charges of poisoning Öljeitü and his severed head was carried around the streets of Tabriz, chanting, "This is the head of the Jew who abused the name of God; may God's curse be upon him!" About 100 years later, Miranshah destroyed Rashid al-Din's tomb, and his remains were reburied at the Jewish cemetery.
In 1383, Timur Lenk started the military conquest of Persia. He captured Herat, Khorasan and all eastern Persia to 1385 and massacred almost all inhabitants of Neishapur and other Iranian cities. When revolts broke out in Persia, he ruthlessly suppressed them, massacring the populations of whole cities. When Timur plundered Persia its artists and artisans were deported to embellish Timur's capital Samarkand. Skilled Persian Jews were imported to develop the empire's textile industry.
Safavid, Afsharid and Qajar dynasties (1502–1925)
During the reign of the Safavids (1502–1794), they proclaimed Shi'a Islam the state religion. This led to a deterioration in their treatment of Persian Jews. Safavids Shi'ism assigns importance to the issues of ritual purity ― tahara. Non-Muslims, including Jews, are deemed to be ritually unclean ― najis. Any physical contact would require Shi'as to undertake ritual purification before doing regular prayers. Thus, Persian rulers, and the general populace, sought to limit physical contact between Muslims and Jews. Jews were excluded from public baths used by Muslims. They were forbidden to go outside during rain or snow, as an "impurity" could be washed from them upon a Muslim.
The reign of Shah Abbas I (1588–1629) was initially benign; Jews prospered throughout Persia and were encouraged to settle in Isfahan, which was made a new capital. Toward the end of his rule, treatment of Jews became more harsh. Shi'a clergy (including a Jewish convert) persuaded the shah to require Jews to wear a distinctive badge on clothing and headgear. In 1656, the shah ordered the expulsion from Isfahan of all Jews because of the common belief of their "impurity". They were forced to convert to Islam. The treasury suffered from the loss of jizya collected from the Jews. People rumored that the converts continued to practice Judaism in secret. For whatever reason, the government in 1661 allowed Jews to take up their old religion, but still required them to wear a distinctive patch upon their clothing.
Nadir Shah (1736–1747) allowed Jews to settle in the Shi'ite holy city of Mashhad. However, following his murder many Jews were massacred in Mashhad, and survivors were forcibly converted, in an event known as Allahdad incident. they become known as "Jadid al-Islams" (new converts) and appeared to superficially accept the new religion, but in fact lived their lives as Crypto-Jews. The community permanently left Iran in 1946 and still lives as a tightly knit community in Israel today.
BĀBĀʾĪ BEN NŪRĪʾEL, a rabbi (ḥāḵām) from Isfahan who, at the behest of Nāder Shah Afšār (r. 1148-60/1736-47), translated the Pentateuch and the Psalms of David from Hebrew into Persian. Three other rabbis helped him in the translation, which was begun in Rabīʿ II, 1153/May, 1740, and completed in Jomādā I, 1154/June, 1741. At the same time, eight Muslim mollas and three European and five Armenian priests translated the Koran and the Gospels. The commission was supervised by Mīrzā Moḥammad Mahdī Khan Monšī, the court historiographer and author of the Tārīḵ-ejahāngošā-ye nāderī. Finished translations were presented to Nāder Shah in Qazvīn in June, 1741, who, however, was not impressed. There had been previous translations of the Jewish holy books into Persian, but Bābāʾī’s translation is notable for the accuracy of the Persian equivalents of Hebrew words, which has made it the subject of study by linguists. Bābāʾī’s introduction to the translation of the Psalms of David is unique, and sheds a certain amount of light on the teaching methods of Iranian Jewish schools in eighteenth-century Iran. He is not known to have written anything else.
The advent of a Shi'a Qajar dynasty in 1794 brought back the earlier persecutions.
Lord Curzon described 19th century regional differences in the situation of the Persian Jews: "In Isfahan, where they are said to be 3,700 and where they occupy a relatively better status than elsewhere in Persia, they are not permitted to wear kolah or Persian headdress, to have shops in the bazaar, to build the walls of their houses as high as a Moslem neighbour's, or to ride in the street. In Teheran and Kashan they are also to be found in large numbers and enjoying a fair position. In Shiraz they are very badly off. In Bushire they are prosperous and free from persecution."
The 19th century the colonial powers from Europe began noting numerous forced conversions and massacres, usually generated by Shi'a clergy. Two major blood-libel conspiracies had taken place during this period, one in Shiraz and the other in Tabriz. In 1830, a blood-libel had wiped out the Jewish population of Tabriz; a power struggle over influence between Jewish and Christian minorities led the Armenians to kidnap and murder a Muslim child from a prominent family, delivering the body to the chief secretary claiming that the Jews had murdered and drank the blood of the child for Passover. A documented recorded during the incident states that the Jews faced two options, conversion to Islam or death; the document describes a good looking Jew of 16 years named Yahia refused to convert to Islam, as a result he was killed. The same year saw a forcible conversion of the Jews of Shiraz over a similar incident. In addition to the Allahdad incident mentioned above in 1839. European travellers reported that the Jews of Tabriz and Shiraz continued to practice Judaism in secret despite a fear of further persecutions. Famous Iranian-Jewish teachers such as Mullah Daoud Chadi continued to teach and preach Judaism, inspiring Jews throughout the nation. Jews of Barforush, Mazandaran were forcibly converted in 1866. When the French and British ambassadors intervened to allow them to practice their traditional religion, a mob killed 18 Jews of Barforush. Perhaps these things happened earlier too, but went unnoticed by the historians.
In the middle of the 19th century, J. J. Benjamin wrote about the life of Persian Jews, describing conditions and beliefs that went back to the 16th century:
They are obliged to live in a separate part of town…; for they are considered as unclean creatures… Under the pretext of their being unclean, they are treated with the greatest severity and should they enter a street, inhabited by Mussulmans, they are pelted by the boys and mobs with stones and dirt… For the same reason, they are prohibited to go out when it rains; for it is said the rain would wash dirt off them, which would sully the feet of the Mussulmans… If a Jew is recognized as such in the streets, he is subjected to the greatest insults. The passers-by spit in his face, and sometimes beat him… unmercifully… If a Jew enters a shop for anything, he is forbidden to inspect the goods… Should his hand incautiously touch the goods, he must take them at any price the seller chooses to ask for them... Sometimes the Persians intrude into the dwellings of the Jews and take possession of whatever please them. Should the owner make the least opposition in defense of his property, he incurs the danger of atoning for it with his life... If... a Jew shows himself in the street during the three days of the Katel (Muharram)…, he is sure to be murdered.
In 1894 a representative of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, a Jewish humanitarian and educational organization, wrote from Tehran: "…every time that a priest wishes to emerge from obscurity and win a reputation for piety, he preaches war against the Jews".
In 1910, Muslims rumored that the Jews of Shiraz had ritually murdered a Muslim girl. Muslims plundered the whole Jewish quarter. The first to start looting were soldiers sent by the local governor to defend the Jews against the enraged mob. Twelve Jews who tried to defend their property were killed, and many others were injured. Representatives of the Alliance Israélite Universelle recorded numerous instances of persecution and debasement of Persian Jews. In the late 19th – early 20th century, thousands of Persian Jews emigrated to the territory of present-day Israel within the Ottoman Empire to escape such persecution.
Driven by these persecutions, thousands of Persian Jews emigrated to Palestine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Pahlavi dynasty (1925–1979)
The Pahlavi dynasty implemented modernizing reforms, which greatly improved the life of Jews. The influence of the Shi'a clergy was weakened, and the restrictions on Jews and other religious minorities were abolished. According to Charles Recknagel and Azam Gorgin of Radio Free Europe, during the reign of Reza Shah "the political and social conditions of the Jews changed fundamentally. Reza Shah prohibited mass conversion of Jews and eliminated the concept of uncleanness of non-Muslims. He allowed incorporation of modern Hebrew into the curriculum of Jewish schools and publication of Jewish newspapers. Jews were also allowed to hold government jobs. Reza Shah's ascent brought temporary relief to Jews. In the 1920s, Jewish schools were closed again. In the 1930s, "Reza Shah's pro-Nazi sympathies seriously threatened Iranian Jewry. There were no persecutions of the Jews, but, as with other minorities, anti-Jewish articles were published in the media. Unlike religiously motivated prejudice, anti-Jewish sentiments acquired an ethnonational character, a direct import from Germany."
At the time of the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, there were approximately 140,000–150,000 Jews living in Iran, the historical center of Persian Jewry. Over 85% have since migrated abroad.
The violence and disruption in Arab life associated with the founding of Israel and its victory in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War drove increased anti-Jewish sentiment in Iran. This continued until 1953, in part because of the weakening of the central government and strengthening of clergy in the political struggles between the shah and prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh. From 1948–1953, about one-third of Iranian Jews, most of them poor, emigrated to Israel. David Littman puts the total figure of emigrants to Israel between 1948 and 1978 at 70,000.
After the deposition of Mossadegh in 1953, the reign of shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was the most prosperous era for the Jews of Iran. In the 1970s, only 1% of Iranian Jews were classified as lower class; 80% were middle class and 10% wealthy. Although Jews accounted for only a small percentage of Iran's population, in 1979 two of the 18 members of the Iranian Academy of Sciences, 80 of the 4,000 university lecturers, and 600 of the 10,000 physicians in Iran were Jews.
Prior to the Iranian Revolution or Islamic Revolution in 1979, there were 100,000 Jews in Iran, mostly concentrated in Tehran (60,000), Shiraz (18,000), Kermanshah (4,000), and Isfahan (3,000). Jews were also located in other various cities throughout Iran: Urmia (800), Salmas (400), Miandoab (60), Baneh, Mashhad, Kashan, Sanandaj, Saqqez, Tazeh Qaleh[disambiguation needed], Chichakluy-e Bash Qaleh, Garrus[disambiguation needed], Qaslan, Hamadan, Tuyserkan, Nahavand, Kermanshah, Hashtrud, Zehab[disambiguation needed], Babol, Siahkal, Damavand, Bushehr, Kazerun, Torbat-e Heydarieh, Sarakhs, Yazd, Arak, Khorramabad.
The Iranian Jewish emigration to Israel is not a recent phenomenon. Of the Iranian Jews living in Israel in the early 1990s, 41% immigrated to British Mandatory Palestine before the establishment of Israel there in 1948; only 15% were admitted between 1975 and 1991. They immigrated chiefly because of religious persecution.
Islamic Republic (1979–present)
At the time of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, 80,000-100,000 Jews were living in Iran. From then on, Jewish emigration from Iran dramatically increased, as about 20,000 Jews left within several months of the revolution alone. The vast majority of Iran's Jewish population, some 60,000 Jews, emigrated, of whom 35,000 went to the United States, 20,000 to Israel, and 5,000 to Europe (mainly to the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland).
Some sources put the Iranian Jewish population in the mid and late 1980s as between 50,000–60,000. An estimate based on the 1986 census put the figure considerably higher for the same time, around 55,000. From the mid-1990s to the present there has been more uniformity in the figures, with most government sources since then estimating roughly 25,000 Jews remaining in Iran. However, a 2012 census put the figure at about 8,756. These official figures are considered bloated, and the Jewish community may not amount to more than 10,000.
Ayatollah Khomeini met with the Jewish community upon his return from exile in Paris, when heads of the community, disturbed by the execution of one of their most distinguished representatives, the industrialist Habib Elghanian, arranged to meet him in Qom. At one point he said:
"In the holy Quran, Moses, salutations upon him and all his kin, has been mentioned more than any other prophet. Prophet Moses was a mere shepherd when he stood up to the might of pharaoh and destroyed him. Moses, the Speaker-to-Allah, represented pharaoh's slaves, the downtrodden, the mostazafeen of his time.”
At the end of the discussion, Khomeini declared that "We recognize our Jews as separate from those godless, bloodsucking Zionists." and issued a fatwa decreeing that the Jews were to be protected.
In the Islamic republic, Jews have become more religious. Families who had been secular in the 1970s started adhering to kosher dietary laws and more strictly observed rules against driving on the Shabbat. They stopped going to restaurants, cafes and cinemas and the synagogue became the focal point of their social lives.
In June 2007, though there were reports that wealthy expatriate Jews established a fund to offer incentives to Iranian Jews to emigrate to Israel, few took them up on the offer. The Society of Iranian Jews dismissed this act as "immature political enticements" and said that their national identity was not for sale.
Jews in the Islamic Republic of Iran are formally to be treated equally and free to practice their religion. There is even a seat in the Iranian parliament reserved for the representative of the Iranian Jews. However, de facto, discrimination is common.
Current status in Iran
Iran's Jewish community is officially recognized as a religious minority group by the government, and, like the Zoroastrians and Christians, they are allocated one seat in the Iranian Parliament. Siamak Moreh Sedgh is the current Jewish member of the parliament, replacing Maurice Motamed in the 2008 election. In 2000, former Jewish MP Manuchehr Eliasi estimated that at that time there were still 60,000–85,000 Jews in Iran; most other sources put the figure at 25,000. The United States State Department estimated the number of Jews in Iran at 20,000–25,000 as of 2009.
Iranian Jews have their own newspaper (called "Ofogh-e-Bina") with Jewish scholars performing Judaic research at Tehran's "Central Library of Jewish Association". The "Dr. Sapir Jewish Hospital" is Iran's largest charity hospital of any religious minority community in the country; however, most of its patients and staff are Muslim.
Chief Rabbi Yousef Hamadani Cohen is the present spiritual leader for the Jewish community of Iran. In August 2000, Chief Rabbi Cohen met with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami for the first time. In 2003, Chief Rabbi Cohen and Maurice Motamed met with President Khatami at Yusef Abad Synagogue which was the first time a President of Iran had visited a synagogue since the Islamic Revolution. Haroun Yashayaei is the chairman of the Jewish Committee of Tehran and leader of Iran's Jewish Community. On January 26, 2007, Yashayaei's letter to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad concerning his Holocaust denial comments brought about worldwide media attention.
The Jews of Iran have been best known for certain occupations like making gold jewelry and antique dealing, textiles and carpets.
Jews are conscripted into the Iranian army like all Iranian citizens. Many Iranian Jews fought during the Iran-Iraq war (1980–1988) as drafted soldiers, and about 150 were killed.
Most Iranian Jews say that they view Iran as their home and are allowed to practice Judaism freely.
Contacts with Jews outside Iran
Rabbis from the Haredi sect Neturei Karta, which has historically been opposed to the existence of Israel have visited Iran on several occasions. The Jewish Defense Organization, protested against one such visit by members of a Neturei Karta faction after they attended International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust in Tehran.
Maurice Motamed, a former Jewish Iranian parliamentarian states that in recent years, the Iranian government has allowed Jewish Iranians to visit their family members in Israel and that the government has also allowed those Iranians living in Israel to return to Iran for a visit.
Thirteen Jews have been executed in Iran since the Islamic revolution, most of them for alleged connections to Israel. Among them, one of the most prominent Jews of Iran in the 1970s, Habib Elghanian who was the head of the Iranian Jewish community was executed by a firing squad by the Islamic government shortly after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 on the charge having had contact with Israel, among others. In May 1998, Jewish businessman Ruhollah Kadkhodah-Zadeh was hanged in prison without a public charge or legal proceeding, apparently for assisting Jews to emigrate.
Iranian Jews are generally allowed to travel to Israel and emigrate abroad, though they must submit passport and visa requests to a special section of the passport office, face restrictions on families leaving en masse, and travels to Israel must be done via a third country. However, the rate of emigration has been low. Between October 2005 and September 2006, 152 Jews left Iran, down from 297 during the same period the previous year, and 183 the year before that. Most of those who left allegedly cited economic and family reasons as their main incentive for leaving. In July 2007, Iran's Jewish community rejected financial emigration incentives to leave Iran. Offers ranging from 5,000–30,000 British pounds, financed by a wealthy expatriate Jew with the support of the Israeli government, were turned down by Iran's Jewish leaders. To place the incentives in perspective, the sums offered were up to 3 times or more than the average annual income for an Iranian. However, in late 2007 at least forty Iranian Jews accepted financial incentives offered by Jewish charities for immigrating to Israel. It has been asserted that the majority of Iranian Jews prefer to stay because they are allowed to live a comfortable Jewish life, though Iranian-American activist Sam Kermanian disputed this claim, stating that the majority of Iranian Jews are elderly and only speak Persian, and as a result are less naturally inclined to emigrate.
Jewish centers of Iran
Most Jews live in Tehran, the capital. Today[when?] Tehran has 11 functioning synagogues, many of them with Hebrew schools. It has two kosher restaurants, an old-age home and a cemetery. There is a Jewish library with 20,000 titles. Traditionally however, Shiraz, Hamedan, Isfahan, Tabriz, Nahawand, Babol and some other cities of Iran were home to large populations of Jews. At present[when?] there are 25 synagogues in Iran. Esfahan has a Jewish population of about 1,500, consisting mostly of businesspeople. As of 2015 there were 13 synagogues, including the primary synagogue on Palestine Square. In Esfahan, Many Jewish businesses are concentrated in an area called "Jewish Passage".
Jewish education in Iran
In 1996, there were still three schools in Tehran in which Jews were in a majority, but Jewish principals had been replaced. The school curriculum is Islamic and the Tanakh is taught in Persian, rather than Hebrew. The Ozar Hatorah organization conducts Hebrew lessons on Fridays.
In principle, but with some exceptions, there is little restriction of or interference with the Jewish religious practice; however, education of Jewish children has become more difficult in recent years. The government reportedly allows Hebrew instruction, recognizing that it is necessary for Jewish religious practice. However, it strongly discourages the distribution of Hebrew texts, in practice making it difficult to teach the language. Moreover, the government has required that several Jewish schools remain open on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath, in conformity with the schedule of other schools in the school system. Since certain kinds of work (such as writing or using electrical appliances) on the Sabbath violates Jewish law, this requirement to operate the schools has made it difficult for observant Jews both to attend school and adhere to a fundamental tenet of their religion.
Jewish sites of Iran
Many cities in Iran have Jewish or sites related to Judaism in some way. Prominent among these are Tomb of Esther and Mordechai in Hamadan, tomb of Daniel in Susa, tomb of Habakkuk in Tuyserkan and the Peighambariyeh mausoleum in Qazvin.
There are also tombs of several outstanding Jewish scholars in Iran such as Harav Ohr Shraga in Yazd and Hakham Mullah Moshe Halevi (Moshe-Ha-Lavi) in Kashan, which are also visited by Muslim pilgrims.
Peighambariyeh ("the place of the prophets"), Qazvin: Here, four Jewish prophets are said to be buried. Their Arabic names are: Salam, Solum, al-Qiya, and Sohuli.
On December 16, 2014, authorities in Tehran unveiled a monument to slain Iranian Jewish soldiers who died during the country's long and bitter war with Iraq between 1980 and 1988. Banners showed the images of fallen soldiers, hailed as "martyrs" in Farsi and Hebrew inscriptions. "We are not tenants in this country. We are Iranians, and we have been for 30 centuries,” said Ciamak Moresadegh, the Iranian Jewish parliamentarian. "There is a distinction between us as Jews and Israel,” added a shopkeeper in the historic city of Isfahan. "We consider ourselves Iranian Jews, and it has nothing to do with Israel whatsoever. This is the country we love."
The Jewish Encyclopedia estimated that in 1900 there were 35,000 Persian Jews in the world (almost all of whom lived in present-day Iran), although other sources estimate somewhat higher numbers for the same time. On the eve of Israel's independence in 1948, there were, by varying estimates, 100,000-150,000 Jews in Iran with relatively few Persian Jews residing outside the country. Today, there are an estimated 300,000–350,000 Jews of full or partial Persian ancestry living predominantly in Israel, with significant communities in the United States and Iran.
Iranian Jews also emigrated to form smaller communities in Western Europe (in particular Paris and London), and in Australia, Canada, and South America. A number of groups of Jews of Persia have split off since ancient times. They have been identified as separate communities, such as the Mountain Jews. In addition, there are a large number of people in Iran who are, or who are the direct descendants of, Jews who converted to Islam or the Bahá'í faith.
Iran's Jewish population was reduced from 100,000–150,000 in 1948 to about 80,000 immediately before the Iranian Revolution, due mostly to emigration to Israel. While emigration to Israel had slowed in the 1970s and the Jewish population of Iran had stabilized, the majority of Iran's remaining Jews left the country in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Shah. In the 2000s, the Jewish population of Iran was estimated by most sources to be 25,000, (sources date from 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2006, respectively) though estimates varied, with some as low as 17,000 by 2010 and as high as 40,000 in 1998. However, the official census in August 2012 indicated that there were only 8,756 Jews still living in Iran. Notable population centers include Tehran, Isfahan (1,200), and Shiraz. Historically, Jews maintained a presence in many more Iranian cities. Jews are protected in the Iranian constitution and allowed one seat in the Majlis. After Israel, it is home to the second-largest Jewish population in the Middle East.
The largest group of Persian Jews is found in Israel. As of 2007, Israel is home to just over 47,000 Iranian-born Jews and roughly 87,000 Israeli-born Jews with fathers born in Iran. While these numbers add up to about 135,000, when Israelis with more distant or solely maternal Iranian roots are included the total number of Persian Jews in Israel is estimated to be between 200,000-250,000.
A June 2009 Los Angeles Times blog article about Iranian-Israeli Jews showing solidarity with the Iranian protestors said, "The Israeli community of Iranian Jews numbers about 170,000 – including the first generation of Israeli-born – and is deeply proud of its roots." The largest concentration of Persian Jews in Israel is found in the city Holon. In Israel, Persian Jews are classified as Mizrahim. Both former President Moshe Katsav and former Minister of Defense and former head of the opposition in the Knesset Shaul Mofaz are of Persian Jewish origin. Katsav was born in Yazd and Mofaz was born in Tehran.
The United States
The United States is home to 60,000–80,000 Iranian Jews, most of whom have settled in the Greater Los Angeles area and in Great Neck, New York. Those in metropolitan Los Angeles have settled mostly in the affluent Westside cities of Beverly Hills and Santa Monica and the Los Angeles Westside neighborhoods of Brentwood, Westwood, and West L.A., as well as the San Fernando Valley communities of Tarzana and Encino.
In particular, Persian Jews make up a sizeable proportion of the population of Beverly Hills, California. Persian Jews constitute 26% of the total population of Beverly Hills. Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, tens of thousands of Persian Jews migrated from Iran, forming one of the wealthiest waves of immigrants to ever come to the United States. The community is credited with revitalizing Beverly Hills and re-developing its architecture, and for the development of ornate mansions across the city.
According to the US Census Bureau's 2010 American Community Survey, 26% of Beverly Hills' 34,000 residents are of Iranian origin. On March 21, 2007, Jimmy Delshad, a Persian Jew who immigrated to the United States in 1958, became the Mayor of Beverly Hills. This election made Delshad one of the highest ranking elected Iranian-American officials in the United States. He once again took the post of mayor of Beverly Hills on March 16, 2010.
Prominent Persian Jewish congregations in the Los Angeles area include Nessah Synagogue and the Eretz-Siamak Cultural Center. Persian Jews also constitute a large part of the membership at Sinai Temple in Westwood, one of the largest Conservative congregations in the United States. Nessah Synagogue is the biggest Persian Jewish Synogague having about hundreds of Persian Jews attending there different services on the Sabbath. Founded by Rabbi David Shofet and the Iranian Jews of Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, upholds the traditions and customs of Iranian Jews according to Orthodox, Sephardic Halacha. Coming together to form a vibrant community, participating in holy days, festivals and Torah study, as well as many social and educational programs, Nessah is the “home away from home” for Iranian Jews and with open arms, welcomes all Jews.
Kings Point, a village constituting part of Great Neck, has the greatest percentage of Iranians in the United States (approximately 40%). Unlike the Iranian community in Los Angeles, which contains a large number of non-Jewish Iranians, the Iranian population in and around Great Neck is almost entirely Jewish.
Several thousand of the Great Neck area's 10,000 Persian Jews trace their origins to the Iranian city of Mashad, constituting the largest Mashadi community in the United States. After practicing Judaism in secret for almost 100 years, many of the Mashadi crypto-Jews returned to overt Judaism after the rise of the secular Pahlavi dynasty. The Mashadi community in Great Neck operates its own synagogues and community centers, and members typically marry within the community.
Related Jewish communities
The Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan and the North Caucasus (primarily Dagestan) are direct descendants of Persian Jews. However, they maintained a Judeo-Persian language that shares a great deal of vocabulary and structure with modern Persian. Most Azerbaijani Jews have immigrated to Israel since Azerbaijan gained independence.
Bukharan Jews traditionally speak a dialect of Judeo-Persian and lived mainly in the former emirate of Bukhara (present day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan). Most Bukharan Jews have immigrated to Israel or the United States since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
There are estimated to be approximately four dozen Persian Jewish families living in Kazakhstan, which call themselves Lakhloukh and speak Aramaic. They still hold identity papers from Iran, the country their ancestors left almost 80 years ago.
- Dzhidi (Judæo-Persian)
- Bukhori (Judæo-Bukharic)
- Juhuri language (Judæo-Tat)
Notable Persian Jews
- Benjamin Nahawandi – Karaite scholar of the early Middle Ages
- Mashallah ibn Athari – Persian astrologer and astronomer
- Meulana Shahin Shirazi – Early Persian poet
- Rashid al-Din – Doctor, writer, and historian
- Sa'ad al-Dawla – Physician and statesman
- Muhammad ibn Muhammad Tabrizi - Famous philosopher and translator, converted to Islam.
Politics and military
- Abie Nathan – Humanitarian and peace activist
- Siamak Moreh Sedgh – Jewish member of the Majlis of Iran
- Dan Halutz – Former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces
- David Alliance, Baron Alliance – Iranian born British businessman and a Liberal Democrat politician
- David Nahai – Former head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power
- Eitan Ben Eliyahu – Former Major General in the Israeli Defence Forces
- Habibollah Asgaroladi – Conservative Iranian politician, leader of the Islamic Coalition Party (convert to Islam)
- Haroun Yashayaei – Chairman of the board of the Tehran Jewish Committee and leader of Iran's Jewish Community
- Jimmy Delshad – Former two-term mayor of Beverly Hills
- Manuchehr Eliasi – Former Jewish member of the Majlis
- Maurice Motamed – Former Jewish member of the Majlis of Iran
- Michael Ben-Ari – Israeli politician and current member of the Knesset
- Mordechai Zar – Israeli politician and former member of the Knesset
- Moshe Katsav – Former President of Israel
- Saeed Emami - Former conservative Deputy Minister of Intelligence (convert to Islam)
- Shaul Mofaz – Former Israeli Minister of Defense, currently the chairman of the Kadima Party in the Knesset
- Anna Kaplan - Councilwoman, Town of North Hempstead
Science and academia
- Amnon Netzer – Professor of the history and culture of Iranian Jews
- Avshalom Elitzur – Physicist and philosopher
- David B. Samadi – Expert in robotic oncology
- Samuel Rahbar – Discoverer of HbA1C
- Shaul Bakhash – Professor of Iranian studies at George Mason University
- Soleiman Haim – Compiled an early and influential Persian language dictionary
- Farshid Delshad – Historical-Comparative Linguistics in German
Business and economics
- J. Darius Bikoff – Founder and CEO of Energy Brands
- Ben Shaoul – Co-founder of Magnum Real Estate Group
- Fred Ohebshalom – Founder of Empire Management Real Estate
- David Merage – Co-founder of Hot Pockets snack food company
- Ghermezian family – Billionaire shopping mall developers
- Habib Elghanian – Prominent businessman executed by the Islamic Republic
- Isaac Larian – Chief Executive Officer of MGA Entertainment
- Joseph Parnes – Investment Advisor
- Nasser David Khalili – Billionaire property developer and art collector
- Neil Kadisha – Businessman
- Nouriel Roubini – Economist
- Paul Merage – Co-founder of Hot Pockets snack food company
- Vincent Tchenguiz – Chairman of Consensus Business Group
- Robert Tchenguiz – Co-chairman of Rotch Property Group
- Nazarian family
- Joel Simkhai - Founder and CEO of Grindr
Art and entertainment
- Adi Nes – Photographer
- Bahar Soomekh – Actress
- Bob Yari – Film producer
- Dalia Sofer – Writer
- Shahram Shiva - Performance Poet
- Dan Ahdoot – Stand-up comedian
- Elham Yaghoubian- Writer
- Elie Tahari – High-end fashion designer
- Gina Nahai – Writer
- Jonathan Ahdout – Actor
- Mor Karbasi – Singer
- Richard Danielpour – Composer
- Rita – Israeli pop-star
- Roya Hakakian – Writer
- Shaun Toub – Actor
- Subliminal (rapper) – Israeli hip-hop singer
- Tami Stronach – Choreographer
- Yossi Banai – Israeli performer, singer, and actor
- Shmuley Boteach – Famous American Rabbi
- Uriel Davidi – Former chief rabbi of Iran
- Yedidia Shofet – Former chief rabbi of Iran
- Yousef Hamadani Cohen – Former chief rabbi of Iran
- Mashallah Golestani-Nejad - Current chief rabbi of Iran
- HaRav Bakhshi Doron - Previous Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel
- Janet Kohan-Sedq – Track and field athlete
- Menashe Amir – Persian-language broadcaster in Israel
- Soleyman Binafard – Wrestler
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- Judæo-Persian languages
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