Episode 116: Jewish Life in 20th Century Iran

Host: Christopher Rose, Department of History
Guest: Lior Sternfeld, Department of History and Jewish Studies, Penn State

Iran is home to the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside of Israel. At its peak in the 20th century, the population of Jews was over 100,000; today about 25,000 Jews still live in Iran. Iranian Jews rejected the siren call of the Zionist movement to instead participate in the Iranian nationbuilding process, welcoming European refugees during World War II, and participating in international exchanges between Iran and Israel.

Guest Lior Sternfeld from Penn State discusses the rich history of Iran’s Jewish community in the 20th century, and discusses the unique place of the community in Iran under the Shah, and how Jews even contributed to the 1979 revolution.

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Why don’t we start — since you focus on 20th century Iran, I mean, at the beginning of the 20th century, Iran was kind of an impoverished country in and of itself. So why don’t we begin our story there, what was life like in Iran, and for the Jewish community?

In the beginning of the 20th century, Iran was experiencing very important political transformation. In 1905-1906 we see the constitutional movement taking place. And this was actually a very pivotal moment for the Iranian Jewish communities. For the first time they had become citizens, they were, I mean, all Iranians, but Jews as well. So it created an equal status for the Jews. We cannot downplay the importance of this moment. They for the first time, they could see themselves as part of the nation building project. And this moment lasted … not for long.

In 1917, after the First World War, we see that Zionism became part of the the Jewish conversation. And part of it was because Iranian Jews did not see the promises of the constitutional revolution deliver the advancement that they thought they would. So, Zionism became part of the conversation the way that Jews in Iran felt that it can become an alternative to living in Iran. They started to establish societies to teach Hebrew and to make registration for all the properties of Jews and create lists for en masse immigration of Jews from Iran to then Mandatory Palestine. But then Reza Shah came — I mean, I’m making it terribly short. But 1925, we see the beginning of the Pahlavi dynasty and Reza Shah, and we see that Jews all of a sudden could see themselves fitting back into the Iranian nation building of the 20th century of Reza Shah. And Reza Shah thought, I mean, the, the kind of vision that he had for Iran was one that allowed ethnicity and connection to Iranian/Persian culture play a bigger role than religion, for example, which was the biggest obstacle for Iranian Jews. And Iranian Jews are proud Iranians, they’re one of the biggest minorities that have no other languages than Persian, and they famously, each family, each person, each Iranian Jew will start telling you that their family history goes back to 2700 years ago.

So it made them shelve the plans for relocating to Palestine. However, they were still–so we start seeing Jewish schools and start seeing Jews become more integrated in certain societies. We see that the Jewish representative in the Majlis–something that was, this is the promise of the constitutional revolution that gave each religious minority at least one representative in the Majlis. Plus we see the Jewish representative playing a big role in shaping the political views of the Jewish communities. And in the 1920s, we see Shemuel Hayim who was the representative of the Jews really articulating the political mission of Jews. And as Zionist as he was, he said, Zionism is a great idea for people who can’t stay in their homes. And he was referring to the European Jews that had suffered from pogroms and discrimination. But said, We are now we live in a good time in Iran when we can, when we are citizens we have representation, and Zionism is a distraction. If we focus on Zionism, it means that we don’t focus on our struggles to get equal rights in Iran. We have to be more integrated, were to be part of the political life in Iran, we have to join the army we have to do–we have to be active in taking our rights.

This is an interesting point, because I have read, for example, similar reactions from the Jewish community in Baghdad at the same time, they’re like, it’s a great idea. But actually, you know, the fact that the Zionist movement was sending, you know, missionaries for lack of a better word, they’re like, it’s, it’s actually doing us more harm than good, because we have this thing going on, right? So, Zionism was it was it popular, was it just sort of a non issue for a while?

I think that what we must emphasize here is that Zionism is not a one monolithic idea, right? And Jews all over–and it’s hard for us to know, in everything we know about the Middle East–but especially in the second half of the 20th century, it’s hard for us to fathom the fact that Zionism was actually a popular idea, even among non Jews in the Middle East. The Zionist movement had offices that operated freely in Cairo, in Baghdad, in Iran. And there were many different interpretations for Zionism–I can get back to it later, when I talk about the 1970s–but Zionism in the 20th century, especially for the Iranian Jews was an idea, something that they supported for Jews that had no future in their countries. And before the Second World War in the Middle East, most of the Jews–and we’re talking about about a million Jews living in the Middle East from Morocco, to Iran to Turkey–a million Jews that supported were supportive of the idea of a national home for Jews in Palestine. But again, it was not for them, it was–they needed it, for they needed it be there, but for the European Jews especially.

In Iraq–you mentioned Iraq–and Egypt, Jews were part, and they were in the leadership of the national movements. So for them, it was important to support Zionism as part of the post colonial mindset, like to resist British imperialism, to resist British colonialism–and Zionism to some extent, was this progressive socialist movement. But in Iran, we see that they supported it, they gave it many different interpretations, some of them were religious nationalism that was more spiritual than political; at that moment, Zionism –political Zionism as practiced and preached by the mainstream Zionist organization was a very marginal movement.

Well, and as we know, World War Two really changed a lot of things, both in terms of Jewish relationships with their governments in Europe, the status of Israel, and at the height of the war — not even at the height of the war, the beginning of the war, Iran is invaded by Britain and Russia

–in 41–

In 41. So how does this change things or do things change?

So this is a great opportunity for us to see how the Jewish community has transformed itself both in diversity, ethnic diversity, and socioeconomic status of the Jews in Iran. So for example, in 1941, as you mentioned the Allied Armies invaded Iran. And they started releasing prisoners of war, for lack of a better term, from the gulags and war camps in Siberia. And Iran was one of these nations and we see thousands of European Jews coming to Iran, we’re talking about 400,000 refugees, Polish refugees that came to Iran between 1941, 1943 and 5% of them were Jewish. So, we still see big numbers of European Jews coming to Iran and, and start to interact with the local Jewish community. And, and it brings fascinating discussions within the Jewish community about first of all the needs of the Zionist movement, because these people have nowhere else to go. But also this kind of power discourse between the European Jews that surprisingly, were the ones that were inferior to the Iranian Jews that felt like they’re extending the welcome to the European Jews. They are the powerful side in this encounter. And it’s fascinating to see, for example, today we have the Ashkenazi synagogue in Tehran that was built by the European Jews. But also we see, again, the kind of understanding of what Zionism could become for the European Jews, but also what it means for the Iranian Jews. And at the same time, the JDC–the American joint Jewish Distribution Committee, which is the biggest aid organization came to Iran to walk with the Polish refugees–they conducted a survey and the survey showed that there were the same time living about 100,000 Jews in Iran. 10% of them were upper classes–economic elites, industrialists–10% were urban middle class, part of this new emerging urban middle class in Iran–and full 80% were impoverished, true underclasses.

Sort of following the overall demography of the country.

Exactly. And then the same organization conducted a survey in 1977. And they found that the number again, is about 100,000 people. But now 10% were still in the upper classes, 10% were in the lower classes and 80% were middle and upper middle classes. And when you think about it, such a rapid transformation over less than four decades, it’s really something that tells you that the nation building project of Muhammad Reza Shah really allowed Jews to transform their communities, their lives, their status in Iran, and their visibility in Iran. And part of it is also I mean this, I think that the diversity of the Jewish community also played part because we see there is a big Iraqi Jewish community in Iran, that the first wave came in 1914, when Iraqi Jews try to escape conscription to the Ottoman army. And then the second wave came after the Farhud in 1941. But then they established another pillar of the Jewish community in Iran. And this was the Iraqi Jewish community and, and we see the Kurdish Jewish community and the Persian Jewish community. And we see the relation with Israel, that Iran was the second Muslim country to recognize Israel. So the fact that Israel could become part of the life of the Jewish community actually helped them to stay and flourish in Iran. So these are part of the ingredients of this transformation.

So we previously did an episode with Samuel Thrope talking about the visit of the Iranian intellectual Jalal-e Ahmad to Israel in the 60s. And this was a period as you mentioned, Iran was the second Muslim country to to recognize Israel, they were daily flights between Tel Aviv and Tehran which is almost mind boggling given you know, the current geopolitics to think about, this is the way it was. And as you mentioned, this sort of flexibility actually encouraged the Jewish population to remain in Iran and not move to Israel–so how did this relationship work?

So, this is one of the parts that I enjoyed the most working on, especially because we have the perspective of the 21st century of the relations between Iran and Israel. So Jalal-e Ahmad, for example, when he came to Israel in 1963, he viewed Zionism as a post-colonial movement, as a movement that should become part of the greater Middle East in terms of forming this block of proud Eastern nations that go back thousands of years of cultural heritage and traditions. And so I mean, this was the view that was very much acceptable by most Iranian intellectuals, but–and it has changed after 1967 after the war. But we see this relationship between Israel and Iran. So there were a few levels, one between the leadership, the Shah and the Israeli administration, and then between political movements. So for example, Israel has sent emissaries to Iran, and the emissaries were sent by their political affiliation. And we see that in one period in the early 50s, the Mapam Party, which is, was a Zionist, socialist, very socialist party. They got to send their people to Iran, and lo and behold, the people they befriended there were more identified with the communist Tudeh party, than with the Zionist organizations. So then there was this uproar of the Zionist leadership in Iran, sending a response to Israel, like, “Who did you send us? They’re doing more harmed than anything else! They encourage Iranian Jews to to join the Tudeh party, they showed them that the Tudeh party is no enemy of the Jews, and no enemy of Israel. So what have you done?”

And yes, the relationship between Iran and Israel helped you Iranian Jews stay, because unlike other Middle Eastern Jews, they could see what’s waiting on the other side of the Zionist story. They could fly back and forth, they could visit Israel, they could go back to Iran, and many Iranian Jews immigrated to Israel, and then came back to Iran. So it wasn’t like it wasn’t going to an unknown future. And most of them decided to go back to Iran where they felt that this is their homeland, but also Israeli companies that started to work in Iran, hired the Iranian Jews for local positions that paid very well and actually became a vehicle for social mobility for the Iranian Jews. So the relationship helped the Iranian Jews climb up the social ladder in Iran by working for Israeli companies.

And there’s one extremely funny anecdote. So the relations between Iran and Israel were and open secret, right? I mean, everybody knew about it. But it was never official, the Shah himself called it an “extramarital affair.” And in 1968, there was a conference of the Muslim League in Tehran, and the Egyptian Foreign Minister came to the Iranian Foreign Minister and told him, “I saw an El Al plane in Tehran in the airport.” Now, all the flights were off books, they were not listed. And the Iran foreign minister told him, “There’s no way it can be. But let me ask the Shah.” And the next day he came to the Egyptian foreign minister and told him, “I checked it. There was no El Al airplane in the airport.” So, the Egyptian minister told him, “I saw it with my own eyes,” and Iranian foreign minister told him, “Who do you want me to believe? Your own eyes, or my own Shah?”

So I mean, this was part of the again and the Israeli community was growing in these days. So yet another facet to the diversity of the Iranian Jewish population.

So of course, the atmosphere changed greatly at the end of 1978. And I think from our vantage point, you know, four decades later, it’s easy to think of the Iranian Revolution as what’s been called the Islamic Revolution. But it really was more like what we saw in Tunisia and Egypt, with a lot of groups whose only common thread was that they wanted to see the Shah go, it just so happened that the Khomeinists were the best organized. So, was there Jewish participation in the revolutionary movements?

There was a great Jewish participation in the revolutionary movement. In fact, the Jewish hospital for example, the Sapir Hospital in Tehran, played a major role in in rescuing wanted protesters during the revolution. The story goes that in the 70s two leaders of the Iranian Jewish community, Aziz Daneshrad and and Haroun Yashayaei, were serving time in the Shah’s prison for their political activism with the Tudeh party, and there they met some of the leaders of the revolutionary movement from the Islamic side –the Islamist and the communist side. And they became good friends and one of the main contacts of the Jewish leadership was Said Mahmoud Taleghani, one of Khomeini’s main contacts in Iran. Khomeini was in exile. And these two Jews, they formed a revolutionary committee within the Jewish community. And they were actually able to win the elections of the community in 1978, so, well before the revolution succeeded. And they organized the Jews to participate in the revolution.

In September 1978, we see in Tehran in one of the biggest demonstrations, we see 12,000 Jews taking part. Again, nobody thought that it’s going to be an Islamic Revolution. They, as you said, they wanted to see the Shah go and they didn’t join the revolution, they didn’t show the protest, as Jews–they joined the revolution as Iranians. As the demonstrations grew more violent, and there were more wounded protesters, the Sapir Hospital formed rescue groups that sent ambulances to the scenes of demonstrations to pick up protestors before they get picked up by other hospitals. So other hospitals, the state hospitals had to turn in the protesters to the hands of the SAVAK and the Jewish hospital did not have to do it. So we see thousands of protesters coming to Sapir Hospital. And in the Sapir Hospital, we see that many of the hospital physicians and staff were not supportive of the revolution. They were very loyal to the Shah, but they thought of their mission as humanitarian, and this was not a political issue, this was a humanitarian issue. And for them, the biblical verse of love thy neighbor as thyself, was a guiding room. For them, rescuing the protesters was not about helping the revolution, it was about being part of the Iranian nation. And this is the struggle of the running Jews from the early 20th century,

We can guess, again from the fact that in 1977, there were 100,000 Jews now there’s 25,000, things have changed in the last four decades, how fast did the situation come unraveled, that people felt that they needed to leave?

The majority of the community left right at the end of 78, and the beginning of 79 and through the 1980s, especially when Jews felt that they don’t know what’s their future in Iran going to look like. In May 1979, the revolutionary government executed Habib Elghanian, one of the leaders of the community, and he was executed on the grounds of spying for Israel and spreading corruption on earth. And, and the Jewish community was, was shocked and traumatized. The very next day, they sent a delegation of leaders to Khomeini in Qom. And then Khomeini issued one of the most famous fatwas in relations to Jews and said, the Zionists are not Jews, the Zionists are our enemies. The Iranian Jews are our brothers and sisters, and they should be treated as such. And it meant to show the Iranian Jewish community that they have nothing–well, they had all the reasons to be afraid, but he wanted to assure them that it doesn’t consider them to be Zionist, but it didn’t help. And many Iranian Jews felt that they they want to live around and many of them, most of them moved to the US and some moved to Israel and Europe. This was the end for the majority of the Iranian Jewish community.

There is one more interesting story about relations between the Iranian Revolution and Zionism–and Judaism. In April 1979, right after the revolution, it was Passover. And the Iranian national TV hosted a show on the values of Passover and the values of the Iranian revolution, how the Iranian Revolution was inspired by the same story of you know, the Shah was Pharaoh and Israelites were the Iranian people living in tyranny and going to freedom and the promised land, and it was a very lovely conversation. Again, the participants were a rabbi of the community. And Aziz Daneshrad, the same Jewish communist leader. And then towards the end of the show, the host asked both of them, “Is it true that all the Jews are Zionists?” And to say something like that? April 1979, in Tehran? It’s very, I mean, it’s very charged, right? And the rabbi took a minute to think about it, and then he said, “What is Zion? Do you know? Zion is the biblical name of Jerusalem. If loving Zion makes me a Zionist, then yes, I’m a Zionist. And it makes all the Jews Zionist. “You’re a Muslim, right? You like Mecca, right? Does it make you a Saudi?” and to say to an Iranian..


to suggest that any Iranian could be loyal to Saudi Arabia than Iran is actually more atrocious than being a Zionist! So, it gives you yet another example of how different interpretations for Zionism were expressed.

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