“My parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents spent their lives in this neighborhood,” Aviva, an 84-year-old Jewish grandmother in Tehran, Iran, explained to me over the phone, as her warm voice shivered with years of memories. “My ancestors, in fact, settled in this country more than 30 centuries ago.”
Aviva’s reference to 3,000 years of history points also to the origins of the Jewish community in Iran, then known as Persia. The peaks and valleys of Iran Jewish history date back to the late biblical times. The Jewish population predominantly moved to Persia during the Achaemenid Empire, when Cyrus the Great invaded Babylon. The Jewish community became an important, integral and influential part of Persian society, and some scholars argue that at some point, 20 percent of the population was Jewish. People who were once captives became important historical figures, such as Queen Esther. Persian kings including Artaxerxes, Cyrus, and Darius permitted the Jews to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem.
When Arabian Islam conquered Persia, the Jewish community faced a new sociopolitical and socioreligious landscape: They were put in a specific classification (dhimmis) and had to pay special taxes, instead of the Muslim zakat, in order to compensate for the caliphate’s social welfare, protection, and security.
After Shiism became the official state religion in the 16th century, the status and rights of the Jews deteriorated even more. Under the rule of some kings, the Jews were forced to wear a distinctive badge and clothing that separated them from others in the community, allowing them to become targets of hatred. Fear became a part of their everyday lives. In what was known as the Allahdad incident in March 1839, forced conversion against Jews was carried out. The lives of some were spared because they converted to Islam in order to save their lives.
In 1948, Iran still had a Jewish population of about 150,000 people—the largest Jewish population in the Middle East after Israel, mainly concentrated in Tehran, Esfahan, and Shiraz. While many Jews lived peacefully in Iran after the founding of the State of Israel, the Islamic Revolution of Iran radically altered the status of Iran’s Jewish community.
“Since 1979, the situation has been different,” the seemingly composed and patient Aviva said. “We learned to adjust our lives and adapt to the new environment to survive like many others. We don’t talk about politics, mind our business, and try not to run into problems.”
Some Iranian politicians and media outlets give the impression that Jews have been living in Iran comfortably with equal rights since the establishment of the Islamic Republic. Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif boasted in New York: “We have a history of tolerance and cooperation and living together in coexistence with our own Jewish people, and with—Jews everywhere in the world.” The Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, famously said to a delegate from the Jewish community that the Jews will be protected and he issued a fatwa for that:
In the holy Qu’ran, 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. Moses would have nothing to do with these pharaoh-like Zionists who run Israel. And our Jews, the descendants of Moses, have nothing to do with them either. We recognize our Jews as separate from those godless, bloodsucking Zionists.
But facts appear to tell us a different story than the narrative Khamenei, Rouhani, Zarif, and other current Iranian leaders attempt to spread, a story that is neither tolerant nor kind. Since 1979, the numbers of the Jewish population are down by more than 90 percent, and fear is a familiar companion for those who remain, whether because they are too old to leave or because they remain attached to the country of their birth.
The execution of Habib Elghanian, the head of the Jewish community, a businessman, and a philanthropist, was the first powerful blow that befell the Jewish community and sent an intimidating massage from the Islamic Republic. This action appeared to be taken mainly for the purpose of imposing fear. The charges against him included “friendship with the enemies of God” and being a “Zionist spy.” His granddaughter, Shahrzad Elghanayan, said that “after a 20-minute trial on trumped-up charges” he was executed. In the span of less than an hour, an influential voice was silenced. That message, that terror, rippled through the community.
In the current climate of the Iranian government’s antagonism toward Israel, the remaining Jewish population of Iran, which numbers perhaps 9,000, is caught in complex circumstances. Iran’s Jewish community has to be extremely cautious of showing any sympathy toward Israel. If they exhibit any sign of this, they risk serious criminal charges, such as being labeled an Israeli spy. Consequences of these charges range from torture to death.
Each word spoken, each action taken, and all movement throughout the community is calculated and evaluated carefully to prevent these consequences. Still, this is not enough. The government authorities intervene in the few Jewish schools that remain. Jews are not allowed to become school principals. The curriculum has changed, and activities are monitored to make sure, for example, that the main language is Persian and not Hebrew. Distribution of Hebrew texts or the teaching of Judaism is risky and strongly discouraged.
Even within school walls, the Jewish community cannot expect any form of safety or freedom. Current restrictions and discriminatory policies against Jews include bans against Jewish people in key governmental and significant decision-making positions: A Jewish person can’t be a member of the influential Guardian Council, a commander in the army, or serve as the president of the nation, among other restrictions. Jews are not permitted to become a judge at any level or assist in the judicial or legislative systems. Furthermore, Jews are banned from becoming members of parliament (the Consultative Assembly) through general elections.
Jews are not allowed to inherit from Muslims. But, if one member of a Jewish family converts to Islam, he would inherit everything. This law seems to be designed to promote conversion to Islam by providing financial incentives.
There exist several forms of discrimination in the penal code as well. Qisas, or the right to equal justice, has not been specified in the penal code for the Jewish people. For example, if a Jew kills a Muslim, the family of the victim has the right to ask for execution as a penalty, but if a Muslim kills a Jew, the right of a family member to demand the execution of the murderer would be left to the discretion of the judges.
Iran’s constitution lays out in detail the protections for practicing and preaching Islam, but not for Judaism. Article 12 of the Iranian Constitution states:
The official religion of Iran is Islam and the Twelver Ja’fari school, and this principle will remain eternally immutable. Other Islamic schools are to be accorded full respect, and their followers are free to act in accordance with their own jurisprudence in performing their religious rites. These schools enjoy official status in matters pertaining to religious education, affairs of personal status (marriage, divorce, inheritance, and wills) and related litigation in courts of law. In regions of the country where Muslims following any one of these schools constitute the majority, local regulations, within the bounds of the jurisdiction of local councils, are to be in accordance with the respective school of fiqh, without infringing upon the rights of the followers of other [Islamic] schools.
One might wonder how Iranian leaders dare to boast about equality between Jews and others while intimidating entire segments of its population into silence under laws that are manifestly unequal. To further insult the communities, they claim that Jews remain in Iran because they are treated equally. The impression is given that the Iranian government has created such a welcoming space for its Jewish community that they would freely choose to live there. There is no mention of the vast majority of people that have fled the oppressive laws and policies and settled in other countries for the sake of their physical safety.
So who stays in Iran? Some of the Jews who have stayed in Iran are elderly and unable to tolerate travel or establishing a new home in a foreign country. Some Jews are determined to protect their sacred places and synagogues, or family homes.
Asked why she does not immigrate to another country, Aviva gave me a different reason. “When I die, I want to die in my land,” she said. “I want to be buried next to my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. This is where they drew their first and last breaths. This is where they wept their toys of joy and sorrow. Their blood, sweat, and lives are all part of the soil, and the sky here, and mine is as well. This is my home.”
Her simple words echo through my mind. Iran is her home.
Read more from Tablet’s special Iran Week.