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The Jews of Iran: A Learning Guide

A. Overview

This companion-piece to "The Jews of Iraq" (Reform Judaism Winter 2004; Learning Guide discusses another major Sephardic community. Like the Jews of Iraq, Iranian Jews have a long and distinguished history and have contributed significantly to the worldwide story of Jewish life and culture. Their journey has taken them from the heights of achievement to the depths of despair and back several times over.

Stories about Iran's nuclear capability and its pivotal role in the political, economic, and military stability of the Middle East confront us almost daily, making knowledge about Iran important for all observers. This is especially important for Jews, however, because Iran's political circumstances have always determined the fate of Iranian Jewry.

Aryan tribes from central Asia settled in the "lands of the Medes and the Persians" in the 1500s BCE and called their area Iran, meaning land of the Aryans. Iranian Jews trace their origins to Jews deported from Samaria (Kingdom of Israel) by Assyria around 732 BCE. Babylon supplanted Assyria, adding to the Diaspora population by exiling the Jews of Judea. Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon in about 540 BCE and encouraged Jewish exiles to return to their ancestral home. Most declined, preferring to remain in the eastern Diaspora where they had succeeded economically and were free to live and worship as Jews. Information about the Persian-Jewish relationship appears in the biblical books of Esther, Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah.

Iran's more recent, violent, history profoundly affected the Jewish population (dates are CE):

  • 226-641 - Sassanid Dynasty: intermittent oppression
  • 641 - Arab conquest, Persians converted to Islam: second-class citizenship
  • Mid-1000s - mid-1400s - conquests by Turks and Mongols
  • 1500-1722 - Persian Safavid Dynasty, imposition of Shi'a law: religious persecution
  • 1722-1779 - successive rule by Afghanistan, Turkish tribes, various Iranian tribal leaders
  • 1780-1906 - Qajar Dynasty, Iranian capital at Teheran; Russian and British invasions, Britain develops oil fields, Western ideas introduced, first constitution and parliament: poverty and oppression throughout most of the nineteenth century
  • 1906 - Iranian Constitution: second-class citizenship abolished
  • 1914-1918 - WW I, Russia & Britain invade to protect oil fields against German-led rebels
  • 1925-1938 -- Reza Shah Pahlevi curtails Shi'a clergy, creates modern, secular nation, name changed to Iran in 1935: minorities emancipated
  • 1936-1944 - German technicians contribute to reconstruction, maintain diplomatic corps in Teheran; WW II - Britain & Russia invade to protect arms shipments routes, depose Nazi-sympathizer Reza in 1941; Mohammed Reza Pahlavi becomes shah (Persian for king): continues father's benevolent rule
  • 1951-1953 - nationalists, under prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh, reject foreign troop presence, nationalize oil industry, force shah into exile; CIA restores shah
  • 1953-1978 - Shah's secret police stifle dissent, establish complete control throughout the country:economic and political security
  • 1979 - popular revolution co-opted by Ayatollah Ruhalla Khomeini and Islamic clerics: dire consequences for Jews

Iranhad about 95,000 Jews in 1948, the year of Israel's rebirth. About 40,000 fled to Israel in the years 1948-1960; about 3,000 later returned. About 55,000 left after 1979, although some have since returned. Sarshar observes that exact figures are hard to come by (see below).

Three "Big Ideas" to consider follow summaries of the Reform Judaism articles:

1. Jewish and Zionist: Two words, or one?

2. Survival has sometimes meant compromise.

3. Jewish-Moslem relations in Moslem lands have been unpredictably good and bad.

In addition, see "big ideas" 3 (anti-Semitism) and 4 (Sephardim) in the Learning Guide for Iraqi Jewry, op. cit.

The two articles, "In Khomeini's Shadow: Roya Hakakian's Story" and "Days of Darkness, Days of Light," comprise a rare opportunity to discover members of our Jewish family who historically had little association with world Jewry and were all but ignored by them until modern times. (The Alliance Israelite Universelle provided economic relief and education during the nineteenth century. See Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 2, pp 647ff.)

1. "In Khomeini's Shadow: Roya Hakakian's Story," assisted by Albert Hakakian.

This derivation from Roya Hakakian's gripping memoir, Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran, is a personal witness to uncertainty and unpredictability, abiding faith and hope for the future, the vagaries of realpolitik and the cautionary nature of alliances. It is a tale that personifies and compellingly reminds us of the precarious nature of Jewish survival in Moslem lands.

The author identifies February 1, 1979 as the defining moment in the modern history of Iranian Jewry - the day that Ayatollah Khomeini assumed leadership following the exile of Shah Mohammed Pahlavi, who had ruled for twenty-five years. The revolution against his despotism was near-universal and included idealistic young Jews whose religion was secondary to their dreams of fashioning a secular Iranian utopia. These assimilated Jews were sure that Khomeini embodied that promise.

Appearances were illusory, hope betrayed. Khomeini unleashed Iran's incipient anti-Semitism by portraying Israel--and therefore the Jews--as Iran's great enemy, even while locked in a death-struggle with Saddam's Iraq.

Hakakian remembers pre-Khomeini Iran as a place of economic plenty and personal freedom where Jews had respect, succeeded in business, proudly expressed their Judaism. She was soon disillusioned, however, to discover that Jews went to great effort to appear in the best light to their Muslim neighbors. Her opinion of her assimilated and flamboyant uncle is a tragic reminder of the conflict between popular acceptance and fidelity to heritage. Her father's in-jest warning to avoid irking the "goyim" summarizes centuries of Diaspora fears.

Her hatred of the shah and his secret police fueled Hakakian's energetic hopes for the revolution. Another uncle tried to warn her that it was a blind hope, an opinion soon verified by the fury of Khomeini's anti-Semitism and the ready willingness of the revolutionaries to enforce his oppressive rule. Her struggle to differentiate between Jews and Zionists could not prepare her for the piecemeal obliteration of Jewish dignity by dictat.

The family was forced to escape from Iran little by little because getting out was as difficult as staying. Today they have a new life in America, and not one Jew remains in the father's native village.

2. "Days of Darkness, Days of Light," an interview with Dr. Houman Sarshar.

Reform Judaism editor Aron Hirt-Manheimer interviewed Sarshar, author and publications director of the Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History, for this article. The historical review encompasses the very early history of Iranian Jewry through the early twentieth century, including the response of Iranian Jews to the revolution that brought the shah to exile and Ayatollah Khomeini to power in 1979. He describes the present state of Iran's Jews and reflects on their future with great optimism. 

Sarshar sees the advent of Islam in 650 CE as the watershed event for Iranian Jews, who predate Islam in the area by about a thousand years. All Persians, including all minorities, enjoyed complete and free integration into pre-Islamic Persian society. Islamic rule imposed degrading disabilities on non-Moslems and reduced them to second-class citizens. The measures--that were especially harsh for Jews--persisted with varying degrees of severity until 1906, when Iran enacted a constitution that abolished second-class status and restored the rights Jews had enjoyed in antiquity.

Conditions for Jews continued to improve under Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who became shah after the Allies forced his pro-Nazi, nationalistic father, Reza Pahlevi, into exile in 1941. Sarshar calls Mohammed Reza's twenty-five-year rule the "golden age of Iran Jewry."

But the golden age was not all golden; antisemitism lurked just below the surface. Moreover, the shah's repressive regime nurtured seeds of revolution--a revolution supported by many Jews, although many also hoped for the shah's return. The revolution succeeded. But within four years of Kohmeini's rise, fifty thousand Jews among a million and a half Iranians had fled the country.

The deprivations visited upon Jews escalated as Khomeini solidified his power; his show trials resulted in imprisonment and death.

Iran's Jews relied on their own historic response to adversity as they struggled to survive under increased oppression. Like the biblical Esther of Persia, they lied about their faith and hid it from their neighbors. Nevertheless, today a dozen or more synagogues operate in Teheran, along with schools and other Jewish institutions. At the same time, Iranian Jews think of themselves first as Iranians, not as Jews. They are not eager to leave, although they are relatively free to do so. Sarshar is confident that the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside Israel will regain its lost glory.

B. Ideas To Explore

1. Jewish and Zionist: Two words, or one?

Khomeini embarked on a campaign of repression against Iran's Jews who, for centuries, had considered themselves loyal Iranians. They sought assurance that they were safe in the new Iran. Kakakian: "Agha had to learn that the Jews of Iran were not Zionists. Or, as they wished to clarify for him, they were not political Zionists...a distinction they had fashioned..."

Khomeini's reply: "We recognize our Jews as separate from those Godless Zionists (who run Israel)."

Similarly, Sarshar reports that the first private citizen executed following the Khomeini revolution was a Jew who had been condemned in a phony trial because of his Zionism. Further, the show trials in 1999 took place in Shiraz, whose Jews "are among the most observant in Iran and most likely to possess great affection for Israel."

On November 11, 1975 the United Nations General Assembly adopted (72 to 35, with 32 abstentions) a resolution in which it determined that "Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination." Jews and many others had tried in vain to have the resolution removed from the U.N. agenda and afterwards were vocal in their denunciation of the action. Columnist Anthony Lewis voiced a common sentiment: "Plain old anti-Semitism in the world is one reason for passage of the resolution, and it is necessary to face up to that grizzly fact. Averting one's eyes from the incitement of hatred against Jews--pretending that it is a passing phenomenon in some other place--was tried in the 1930s" (New York Times, 11/13/75). Lewis, like many before and since, could not distinguish between Jew and Zionist.

And consider this impetus to the Jew-Zionist nexus: "We are all of us Jews and whether we use the small z or the large Z, we are all of us Zionists. The land of Israel which is Zion, and the children of Israel who constitute the Jewish people, and the God of Israel are all bound together in a triple covenant. At no time in our history have we ever stopped praying or longing or working for Zion." - Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, then president, Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union for Reform Judaism), Presidential Sermon, 53rd General Assembly, Dallas, November 7, 1975. A few days later the U.N. General Assembly adopted its committee's infamous resolution.

On December 16, 1991, the U.N. repealed the 1975 resolution, 101 to 25, with 20 no-votes or abstentions.

"The Land of Israel was traditionally perceived as the place where Israel's Covenant with God could most fully be realized through the inspiration of the Torah. All efforts in the past to separate these components have lead to disunity and the diminution of Judaism and of the Jewish people. The isolation of religion from peoplehood...of ethnicity and nationalism from the essential foundations of our faith, of Jewish or Hebrew culture from Torah...proved to be sterile." - David M. Polish. Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Zionist Affiliation to the UAHC Board, June 1977.

Questions for Discussion

1. Does being a Jew require that you subscribe to the ideas of Zionism?

2. Can you be a Zionist even though you are not a Jew? Give examples.

3. Many believe that anti-Zionism is another form of antisemitism. Do you agree? Explain.

4. What does Hakakian mean by "political Zionism"?


1. Eliahu Elath. Zionism at the UN. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1976).

2. David Polish. Renew Our Days: The Zionist Issue in Reform Judaism. (Jerusalem: The Zionist Library, 1976).

3. Arthur Hertzberg, Ed. The Zionist Idea. (New York: Meridian Books, 1960). Especially see Introduction.

4. Ben Zion Bokser. Jews, Judaism and the State of Israel. (New York. Herzl Press, 1973).

2. Survival has sometimes meant compromise.

It is difficult to obtain an accurate census of Iranian Jews, says Sarshar, because among them "dissimulation is an age-old tradition," e.g. mezuzot hang inside the front door and Iranian Jews tend to think of themselves as Iranians first and only secondarily as Jews. Similarly, Hakakian observes that being mistaken for a Muslim became a sort of badge of honor, a symbol of complete freedom.

A pogrom in Meshed, Iran in 1839 resulted in dozens of Jewish deaths. Many fled; the remainder converted to Islam. These Meshedis outwardly behaved like Moslems and followed Jewish practices in secret. They left for Palestine near the close of the nineteenth century and later.

Marranos ("the damned," or "the swine"), Jews in fourteenth and fifteenth century Spain and Portugal, saved their lives by converting to Christianity but remained Jews in secret. Of those who managed to escape Iberia, many went to Morocco, Damascus, Salonika, Palestine, and other areas of the Ottoman Empire, where they found haven under Moslem rule.

Hannah saw her seven sons murdered in defiance of Antochus' edict (II Maccabees, chapter 7). Rabbi Akiva and nine of his colleagues accepted martyrdom over apostasy during Roman times, dying al kiddush ha-Shem, to sanctify God's name by refusing to renounce God.

The Talmud teaches that a Jew should forfeit life rather than practice idolatry (Sanhedrin 74a-b). The ruling follows discussion of the apparent contradiction between two Torah verses: 1. Leviticus 18:5: "You shall keep My laws and My rules, by pursuit of which you shall live" and 2. Leviticus 22:32: "You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified...."

Hakakian reports that concern about what the neighbors would say about them partly motivated the diligence of her family's Pesach preparations. Roya's father warned her mother not to annoy the goyim (literally, nations, but used generally to mean non-Jews). Similarly, it was not uncommon in the 1940s and 1950s for North American Jews to hide their Jewishness because they feared danger or were concerned about an admonition ingrained in the culture: ma omru hagoyim? -what will the neighbors say?

Questions for Discussion

1. Which of the two verses from Leviticus has priority in your thinking? Explain.

2. Would you agree or disagree that circumstance in a particular community justify a decision to acknowledge or deny being a Jew? Explain.

3. Have you ever kept silent about being Jewish to avoid problems, like hearing an antisemitic remark? How did you feel afterward?

4. Is it appropriate that Jewish tradition honors people like Hannah and Akiva for their actions? Explain.

3. Jewish-Moslem relations in Moslem lands have been unpredictably good and bad.

Iranian Jews flourished in antiquity following Cyrus' ascent to the throne of the lands of Iran following his defeat of the Medes in 550 BCE. Isaiah called the monarch "God's anointed," and the midrash regards his name as an anagram of kasher, worthy. Jewish scholarship flourished during his rule. Sarshar notes that the Jews who arrived on the Iranian plateau some seventy years before the Persian conquest had already been accustomed to open participation in all aspects of society.

The Moslem conquest of 650 CE led to second-class citizenship for Jews for more than one thousand years, until the parliamentary reforms of 1906. The twenty-five year reign of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (starting in 1951) was good for the Jews, but it all changed when the 1979 revolution exiled the shah and established Shi'a Moslem rule. Many Jews who left starting in 1979 have since returned to Iran. Sarshar notes that Jews enjoy personal freedom today, although, like all residents, they must adhere to the laws of the land as dictated by Shi'a Islam.

Mohammed claimed that his Koran differed from the Hebrew Bible only in that the Koran was in Arabic. He anticipated that Jews would accept it and would accept him as a latter-day prophet. The Jews did neither, leading in many cases to death and to expulsion from Arabia. Later, Islam imposed the status of dhimmis, protected persons subservient to Moslem rule, on non-Moslems. Yet only once were Jews expelled from a Moslem land--Yemen in 1678. (They returned later.) Moslems were more fanatical in countries like Morocco, Iran, and Afghanistan, where persecutions and restrictions were common.

An 1839 decree granted Jews most rights of citizenship in the Ottoman Empire (present-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, most of the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa, Turkey, Greece, the southern Balkans). After World War I, the victorious Europeans applied their laws to their spheres of influence, ending official discrimination against Jews. As we have seen in Iran, however, local leaders imposed disabilities against Jews without regard to European influence.

The treatment of non-Moslems, particularly of Jews, worsened significantly as self-rule replaced European influence starting in the 1930s and 1940s. When the State of Israel was created in 1948 on what most Moslems perceived to be their land, conditions became even harsher for Jews. Hatred of Israel became hatred of Jews.

Syndicated columnist David Brooks: "...let me quote a snippet from the sermon delivered by Sheik Ibrahim Mudeiris, which ran last weekend on the Palestinian Authority's official TV station: ''The day will come when we will rule America. The day will come when we will rule Britain and the entire world - except for the Jews. The Jews will not enjoy a life of tranquility under our rule because they are treacherous by nature, as they have been throughout history. The day will come when everything will be relieved of the Jews--even the stones and trees which were harmed by them. Listen to the Prophet Muhammad, who tells you about the evil end that awaits Jews. The stones and trees will want the Muslims to finish off every Jew.'" - The Plain Dealer. Cleveland, 5/20/05.

Questions for Discussion

1. How seriously should we take extremist views like the one Brooks reports? Why?

2. Account for Sarshar's optimism about Iran in view of the history of Jews in Moslem countries.

3. Sarshar says the Islamic tone of the 1979 revolution caught Jews off guard. What do you think of his explanation?

4. Hakakian reports that Khomeini told a delegation of Jews that pharaoh-like Zionists run Israel. What belief lay behind his statement? Explain.


1. Heskel M. Haddad. The Jews of Islam (New York: Sheingold, 1984).

2. S.D. Goitein. Jews and Arabs: Their Contacts Through the Ages. (New York: Schocken, 1955).

3. Bernard Lewis. The Jews of Islam. (New Jersey: Princeton University, 1984).

4. Antony Lerman, Ed. The Jewish Communities of the World. (New York: Institute of Jewish Affairs, 1989).

5. Chaim Raphael. The Road from Babylon. (New York: Harper & Rowe, 1985).

6. Also see the listings in the Learning Guide for Iraqi Jewry, op. cit.