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Days of Darkness, Days of Light: The Unknown Story of Iran's Jews

interview with Dr. Houman Sarshar

The director of publications at the Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History, Dr. Houman Sarshar is the editor of three volumes of The History of Contemporary Iranian Jews and, most recently, Esther's Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews; he is also a contributing author to the Encyclopaedia Iranica. He was interviewed by RJ editor Aron Hirt-Manheimer.

Historically, how have Jews fared in Iran?

Jews have lived on the Iranian plateau since about 720 B.C.E., approximately a thousand years before the arrival of Islam. In antiquity they participated freely in every sphere of society, from the army to the courts. But with the arrival of Islam in 650 C.E., all non-Muslims came to be deemed as second-class citizens and were compelled to wear clothes of specific colors. In 807 Caliph Harun al-Rashid issued a decree forcing Jews to affix yellow patches on their clothes. The plight of the Jews worsened in 1501 with the ascendancy of the Safavids, who made the Shi'ite creed the dominant form of Islam in Iran. The Shi'ite clergy then introduced the notion of religious impurity and applied it to all non-Shi'ites, even Sunnis. Jews were subjected to a wide range of humiliating and dehumanizing restrictions: they could not leave their houses on rainy days, build homes with walls taller than those of their Muslim neighbors, paint their houses white, buy property from Muslims or sell foodstuff to them. In public, to distinguish themselves from Muslims, Jewish men had to wear unusually large turbans and women had to attach bells to their chadors (veils). A Jew who touched food in a store was forced to buy it at whatever price the merchant demanded because it was now impure and no longer consumable by a Shi'ite Muslim. These policies--waxing and waning in their severity and implementation--would last for the most part until the beginning of the twentieth century, when in 1906 the Iranian Parliament opted a Constitution which stated (in Article 8) that Jews, Zoroastrians, and Christians could no longer be treated as second-class citizens. Consequently, the Jezieh or poll tax imposed on all non-Muslim citizens was appealed, as were a host of other discriminatory practices. Jews were now permitted to partake in military service, buy homes, and open shops outside the Jewish quarters. In short, it took nearly thirteen hundred years for the Jews to regain the freedoms they had in ancient times.

This process of reassimilation accelerated in the early 1940s with the ascendancy of the Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. His father, Reza Shah, an archnationalist and Nazi sympathizer during the Second World War, had been forced to abdicate the crown after the 1941 Allied summit in Tehran. Determined to forge a new relation with the West, the Shah quickly established diplomatic relations with the Allies and adopted their party line on virtually all foreign policy issues. On a personal level, he was also sympathetic to the Jews. As a ruler, he felt a close emotional bond with Cyrus the Great, who in 539 B.C.E. had allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem after the Babylonian expulsion and rebuild the Temple. Some twenty-five hundred years later, the Shah's Iran became one of the first Middle East nations to recognize the State of Israel.

The friendship between the Shah and Iranian Jews cemented in 1953, when the turmoil leading up to the CIA-backed coup that overthrew Prime Minister Mosaddeq forced the Shah and his family to flee the country. Learning that the Shah had taken refuge in a Rome hotel, a Jewish merchant, Morad Arieh, sent him a blank check drawn on a Swiss account along with a letter stating that his majesty could draw against the account at will and repay the loan when everything returned to normal. During the Shah's 25-year reign, key industries like banking, insurance, pharmaceuticals, textiles, plastics, paper, aluminum production, shipping, imports, tile manufacturing, and liquor distillery and distribution were either established and owned by Jews or financed and managed by them. The historian Habib Levy has termed these years the golden age of Iranian Jewry.

So these were the best of times for the Jews of Iran.

Yes, but that is not to say that there was no antisemitism; it just wasn't governmentally sanctioned. For example, one year after the Six-Day War, Israel's national soccer team competed against Iran for the 1968 Asian Nations' Cup at Tehran's 30,000-seat Amjadieh Stadium. False rumors were flying that the Jewish Iranian mogul Habib Elghanian had bought 15,000 tickets to the game and handed them out free to the Jewish community so the Iranian Jews would go and cheer the Israeli team. In the end, Iran beat Israel 2 to 1 with a final goal late in the game to the exuberance of an almost exclusively Muslim audience. Rumors were then started that the Shah had bribed the referee to save face, or alternatively that Israel had lost on purpose to help the Shah succeed where the Arabs had failed, that is in beating Israel.

Six years later, in 1974, all hell broke loose the day after the government issued a 200-rial banknote with a six-cornered star on the back and distributed one million to the banks. This occurred shortly after the oil embargo, when the Shah had broken ranks with the neighboring Arab countries and sold oil to America, and after the Shah's decision to join a number of Israeli oil companies in laying two pipelines, one from Eilat to a refinery in Haifa and another from Eilat to Ashkelon. Iranians were furious. Within three or four hours rumors were rampant that the new banknote had been counterfeit and printed in Israel to undermine the Iranian economy. By three p.m., the central bank recalled the remaining notes and burned them along with the undistributed ones.

Most Jews felt secure under the Shah and dismissed these incidents as transitory. But a few hundred saw things differently and left the country.

Did the Jewish community foresee the Islamic revolution?

The revolution itself was not much of a surprise. What shocked everyone was the Islamic tone it adopted so soon after the onset of the demonstrations. In general the late 1970s was a time when everybody, not just the Jews, knew they had to be careful not to say anything that might offend the Shah's court. The Shah's secret police were intolerant of any action or ideology that might be viewed as critical of the monarchy. Given this atmosphere, the Jews, along with most of the educated class in Iran, believed that any insurrection ending the Shah's reign would result in a more intellectual, progressive Iran, more along the lines of the French Revolution. Nobody imagined that the revolution would be high-jacked by the mullahs, which in fact it was.

Did the Jews realize that the regime would radically change their lives?

Not at first. Most of the educated class figured, "let's just go on vacation in Europe for a month or two until things settle down." They expected a repeat of the '53 coup, when the CIA intervened and restored the Shah to power. But there was no repeat, and within four years of the revolution, about one and a half million Iranians left the country, among them some fifty thousand Jews.

Were Jews targeted by the regime?

Not directly. But in 1979, within the first few months of the revolution, the Jewish mogul Habib Elghanian became the first private citizen to be tried and executed by a firing squad at the order of the Islamic Republic's revolutionary court. He had been accused of Zionism, treason, and conspiracy with the Shah's regime. It was a phony trial with trumped-up charges. Basically it was a warning that the Jews could no longer do business as usual, that they'd better be careful.

Another Jewish show trial took place in early 1999, when thirteen Jews in Shiraz were charged with allegedly spying for Israel. Then, as now, communication with the State of Israel was illegal in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nonetheless, young Jews in Shiraz were sending e-mails to Israel, and the government deemed it criminal activity. It was no coincidence that it happened in Shiraz: the Shiraz Jews are among the most observant in Iran and most likely to possess great affection for Israel. This arrest and trial became a cause celèbre in the West as many governments tried to intervene on the behalf of the accused. As is the norm in Iran's Revolutionary Court system, the judge in the case, Sadeq Nurani, also served as investigator and as prosecutor. In the end, three were acquitted and the other ten sentenced to four to thirteen years in prison. On February 19, 2003 the last five were released from prison.

How many Jews live in Iran today?

Estimates range between 25,000 and 35,000, but there may be more because many do not reveal their religion to census takers. Iranian Jews learn from a very young age that is it all right to lie about their faith if they feel that revealing it will endanger them in some way. This is one of the reasons why Iranian Jews traditionally hang mezzuzot on the inside panel of the frame to the front door of their homes.

Are Jews now free to worship in Iran?

Islam recognizes Jews as "People of the Book," and Iran therefore allows for free practice of all Jewish rituals. There are currently a dozen or more synagogues in Tehran alone, and they are better attended now than before the revolution. They've become places of social gathering as well as places of worship. Most Iranian Jews identify with the cultural aspects of Judaism, and so in Tehran you'll find Jewish retirement homes, kosher restaurants, Jewish societies, and communal institutions. There's little outward antisemitism of the kind one sees in the Western world nowadays, and it's a much warmer society than one imagines from the outside. Iranians feel a deep national and cultural bond with each other, and the majority of Iranian Jews think of themselves as Iranians first. If I'm sitting next to my Muslim friend, he's not going to think of me as a Jew but as an Iranian, so our religious differences do not set us apart. I have cultural aspects of my Iranianness that make me a Jew, and he has aspects of his Iranianness that make him a Muslim.

Sometimes Jews can communicate more easily with Muslims than with other Jews. In every major city, Jews speak their own distinct language, and although each language is derived from Median dialects, for the most part the Jews can't understand each other. Each language also has its own songs and folk tales.

But despite these differences, Iranian Jews all consider themselves part of a single Iranian Jewish community, and certain traditions have transcended the language barrier, such as the custom of Iranian Jews hitting each other with chives during the "Dayenu" part of the Passover seder. As you can imagine, the kids love it, because in this patriarchal society where you're supposed to respect your elders, you've got a thirty-second window where you can chase your father and grandfather around the seder table and hit them with chives. It's all done with love and respect.

Are Jews free to leave Iran today?

They are not eager to get out, but if they want to leave, they can. Restrictions, however, do complicate the process. Iranian law prohibits an entire Jewish nuclear family from leaving Iran at the same time. At least one family member, usually the father, must remain behind. However, if the wife and the children have already left Iran and the husband wishes to join them, he can go, so long as he relinquishes something of significant value, like the family home.

Do Jews and Muslims have the same liberties and restrictions?

In as much as there are any liberties in Iran, yes. In fact, Jews are a bit less restricted in not having to abide by the prohibition against alcohol, as the Islamic Republic acknowledges that wine is an integral part of certain Jewish ceremonies. Otherwise, Jews and Muslims alike have to abide by the laws of the land. For example, like their Muslim compatriots, Jewish women have to respect Muslim dress codes outside the home.

Do Jews have a future in Iran?

Since the onset of the first Diaspora, Iranian Jews have consistently remained the single largest Jewish community anywhere in the Middle East (with the exception of Israel). There is no doubt in my mind that they will continue to hold this distinction for decades to come. I am confident that, like a phoenix rising from its ashes, Iran's dwindled Jewish community will replenish itself and remain one of the integral parts of the nation's history, culture, and social fabric.