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How Iran Kept Its Jews

Early in his reign, the ayatollah received a secret visit from six Jews—a visit that may have saved thousands

Roya Hakakian
December 30, 2014
Iranian protesters hold a up a poster of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during a demonstration in Tehran against the shah in January 1979. (AFP/Getty Images)
Iranian protesters hold a up a poster of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during a demonstration in Tehran against the shah in January 1979. (AFP/Getty Images)

It was with a murder that the most critical moment in the modern history of Iranian Jewry took shape. And in what followed, Tehran’s policy toward the local Jewish community, still precariously in effect, came into being. The day was May 9, 1979, nearly three months after the victory of the Iranian revolution in the previous February. In those early days, dread filled the hearts of readers as they glanced at the morning papers. Every day, the image of a newly executed corpse accompanied the lede. Nothing like a visual cocktail of brutality and indignity to remind the citizenry of the new order of things—bare torsos of ministers and army generals riddled with bullets, splayed on stone slabs in unzipped pants. On May 9, there was the corpse of a leading Jewish figure, the industrialist Habib Elghanian. His crime: friendship with Israel, Zionists, and the enemies of God, and sowing corruption on earth. What made Elghanian’s execution particularly shocking was that he had been profoundly loyal to and grounded in Iran. His strength strengthened the community for he had much influence among Jews and non-Jews alike. His confidence was not his alone. It was the confidence of a people. One of a handful of visionaries, he had helped modernize the country. Above all, he had introduced plastic to Iran’s manufacturing. Because of all of this and many more such contributions, he assumed that the nation’s gratitude rendered him immune against any malice.

On the morning of Elghanian’s execution, ripples of fear shook the foundation of the community as a whole. Everyone was wondering who would be next. Everyone worried that Elghanian’s fate, like his confidence, belonged to all.

Within hours, the community’s leaders took the most serious measure they knew. They resolved to face their fears by paying a visit to Ayatollah Khomeini in the hopes of receiving his personal guarantee about their safety. In those days, the ayatollah had yet to move to Tehran and still resided in Qom, Shiite Iran’s equivalent of the Vatican. An ad-hoc assembly, consisting of two rabbis and four young intellectuals sympathetic to the revolutionary cause, was selected for the task. The four young Jews intended to tell the ayatollah that they were not political Zionists and saw no other homeland for themselves other than Iran. The rabbis, on the other hand, merely wanted to plead with him to be good to the community and to tell him of one of the lesser-known pillars of Judaism: “True Jews are ones who share in the wishes of the society in which they live.” And now that Iranian society wished to establish an Islamic republic, so did every good Jew.

On May 10, before sunrise, the group piled into a station wagon and headed for Qom. They vowed, no matter what transpired, not to leave the ayatollah until they had heard words of assurance: a statement with which to hearten the community of their security under the new regime.

They arrived late in the afternoon, delayed only by a stop to purchase fresh socks as they realized they had to remove their shoes to enter the ayatollah’s quarters. The residence was empty of the usual throng of disciples and pilgrims. The delegates soon learned that the quiet was in honor of their visit. Waiting was unnecessary. They were immediately guided into the press room and had yet to seat themselves on the rug when the ayatollah entered. Stunned in his presence, the envoys began to fumble. The rabbis rose to their feet. In a gesture of deference, the ayatollah insisted on remaining standing as long as his counterparts had not sat first. The rabbis, in return, refused to sit, following Persian etiquette, before a man of such stature. So was that afternoon’s spirit of civility. And solemnity. It was, after all, a dead man who had brought them all together.

When they had at last arranged themselves in a circle on the floor, one of the rabbis addressed the ayatollah. He congratulated him on his victory against the shah and expressed the community’s joy in the new order. As Persian speeches usually conclude with a poem, so did the rabbi end his with a verse. In it, the prophets were likened to the sun and the moon, and the wise clergy to the brightest of the stars.

Then the ayatollah spoke: “All three prophets were sent by God to guide mankind. All those heretical religions on earth never tended to the soul of mankind. But the three monotheistic religions do. They are the only religions to descend directly from heaven. They have an instruction about every aspect of human life. That’s what they have in common.” He went on for a while, at times seeming to perfectly derail from the theme the visitors had hoped he would focus on, until he finally came to it: “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.”

The moment the ayatollah used the celebrated term mostazafeen, the equivalent of the Marxist “proletariat” to refer to the enslaved Israelites, the men became confident that their long journey had not been in vain. That day, the ayatollah ended his remarks with these words: “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.”

The prize at last! We recognize our Jews as separate from those godless Zionists! —Imam Khomeini was painted on the walls of every synagogue, Hebrew school, and kosher butcheries by nightfall.

This quotation has yet to be recognized as one of the most life-sparing in modern history. But it is. The fledgling regime’s position on the Jews was determined in that speech, and it has remained in effect 35 years since it was first spoken. In light of it, Iranian Jewry remain physically safe. But that is about all. The sea change of laws that swept through the country since 1979 has made it impossible for Jews, or any non-Shiite people, including Iranian Sunnis, to thrive.

There were some 100,000-plus Jews living in Iran in the 1970s. They were, for the most part, visible as Jews, proud as Iranians, and lived throughout the country. Today, despite the bloated governmental statistics of 25,000, no more than 10,000 continue to live there. They are no longer visible. And they have retreated into only two or three major cities. By Western standards, Iranian Jews are an endangered species on the verge of extinction. But you will not see any bumper stickers or lapel buttons about their plight.


Why revisit this bygone tale now? It is not the first time in history that a population has been uprooted from its original land, much less so in the history of the Middle Eastern Jewry. But as the biblical tradition of retelling and reexamining mandates, the question must be asked: Why is this community different from all the rest? After all, despite the most vehement, vociferous, and steadfast support Iran has given to lethal anti-Israeli groups, such as Hezbollah, and despite the denials of the Holocaust that various officials have spewed, Iran remains one of two remaining strongholds for Jews in the Middle East outside of Israel.

Jews live in Iran because they nearly always have. Their historical claim to the land is far greater than that of Muslims. Iran was home to the Jews who escaped the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E., long before Islam had come into being. This history makes Iran a most longstanding home for them.

The regime, too, prefers to keep Iran home for the Jews. It needs to substantiate its claim to “Islamic civility.” It needs to prove itself a leader in the region, in part by way of differentiating itself from its predominantly Arab neighbors.

To stand in contrast against the rest of the Arab nations in the region, Tehran reaches for what it is not entitled to or has even been known to shun. When necessary, it has oddly invoked the glory and power of the Persian Empire and emphasized the Persian-ness of Iran, its uniqueness, its capacity to exercise benevolent tolerance, to debunk unsavory accusations, including anti-Semitism. To do all that, the existence of Jews makes an excellent piece of evidence, a living political “citation.”

We recognize our Jews as separate from those godless Zionists! —Imam Khomeini

Iran is a nation of nearly 70 million, among whom the Jews make up .01 percent of the population. Looking at Iran through this tiny opening, a new perspective appears upon the tired landscape. Hardly any other case is more telling about Tehran than the history of its dealing with the Jewish community since 1979, for yellowcake can take the quest only so far. Through the lens of religious minority, any non-Shiite community really, the hypocrisy of a regime that touts itself as the champion of the downtrodden of the world is entirely exposed. And Iran, which is repeatedly referred to as enigmatic, is enigmatic no more.

The fact that the Jewish community has shrunk to quarter of its original size speaks to the overall grim, mostly economic, realities of life not only for Jews or religious minorities, but for all Iranians who are not on the side of “them.” (“They” and “them” are the insiders’ reference to the regime.) The fact that the community, unlike most others in the region, did not vanish and continues to exist attests to a unique truth: Iranian Jews recognized that they had not been singled out to suffer in the aftermath of the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1979. And, in many complex ways, they have sometimes fared better than, say, secular Iranians of Shiite descent, who stood in opposition to the regime. The destiny of Iranian Jews was not politically retailed. Rather, in a socially wholesale fashion, the stocks of Jewish existence plummeted alongside with those of millions of other Iranians, with some particularly distinct features, of course. The post-revolutionary laws and constitution were written in such a way as to give the greatest advantage to Shiites. And non-Shiites—including Muslim Sunnis—are, by default, relegated to second-class citizenry. So, the Jews stayed because the cliché applied here too: Misery loved company. And, because Jews recognized that they were not alone in their post-revolutionary misery, they continue to keep the company of their compatriots.

This tragic camaraderie is backed by statistics. In a region where hostilities against Israel have been steadily growing, in a country that has an official holiday called Qods Day set against Israel’s Independence Day, where people are encouraged to take to the streets and protest Israel’s existence, the Anti-Defamation League’s 2014 Global Index of anti-Semitism places Iran as the least anti-Semitic nation in the Middle East and North Africa region. The suggestion that Iranians reject what their government recommends came in an extensive report by Timothy Garton Ash in the New York Review of Books more than 10 years ago. In his travels to Iran, Ash had found a highly sexualized society, despite the official attempts at modesty and self-control, been invited to an orgy, and, among others, made an unusual observation: “The regime has spent twenty-five years trying to make these young Iranians deeply pro-Islamic, anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-Israeli. As a result, most of them are resentful of Islam (at least in its current, state-imposed form), rather pro-American, and have a friendly curiosity about Israel.”

In 2006, when the war between Hezbollah and Israel broke out and people throughout the Middle East were conducting violent protests against Israel, a New York Times front-page story reported that there were no such protests in Iran. Later, Iranian protesters were heard chanting an unprecedented and politically costly slogan: “Neither Gaza, nor Lebanon. I give my life only for Iran.”

The ADL report confirms this watershed shift of public opinion in Iran. The disenchantment of the nation in its ruling elite translates into choosing the exact opposite of what the official propaganda advises the nation to believe, think, and do. The lower the popularity of the regime plummets, the higher goes the esteem of the people in everything the leadership shuns and is against. This can be a mere reflexive reactionary response and nothing more or deeper. But it’s a start. And at the very least it paves the way for an unprecedented moment for Iranians to hear something other than the usual official propaganda, something resembling the truth.


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Roya Hakakian is the author of two books of poetry in Persian. Her memoir of growing up Jewish in post-revolutionary Iran, Journey from the Land of No, received, among others, Elle Magazine Readers’ Choice Award.

Roya Hakakian is the author of two books of poetry in Persian. Her memoir of growing up Jewish in post-revolutionary Iran, Journey from the Land of No, received, among others, Elle Magazine Readers’ Choice Award.

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