The turning point that allowed Iranian Jews to take a more visible role in national events was the Constitutional Revolution of 1906. Before that point, the history of Iranian Jews was largely shaped by institutionalized persecution and legal exclusion. While persecution of Jews had existed in pre-Islamic Iran, the worst of it began with the Safavids’ adoption of Shia Islam as the state religion at the beginning of the 17th century, leading to measures including a brutal decree of forced conversion in 1656–1662 under Shah Abbas II. This decree was followed by episodic forced conversions of Jewish communities and individuals. The Safavids also imposed the Jam Abbasi, a restrictive religious code regulating Jewish life and activity that impeded active Jewish participation in public life. For example, at various times Jews were forbidden to leave their homes on rainy days lest their impurity (nejasat) transfer through the water and defile a Muslim.
As early as 1800, Russia and Britain pursued colonial interests in Iran. Defeated militarily, Iran’s Qajar rulers made diplomatic concession in several humiliating treaties. These treaties and the opportunities for trade they presented introduced Iran’s isolated economy to the European network of international commerce. The encounter with the West during the nineteenth century, particularly through educational institutions, introduced modern ideas and values to Iranians, and eventually led to the development of a new social class: the intelligentsia. The intelligentsia called themselves rushanfekr, or enlightened thinkers, and were strongly influenced by the French Enlightenment. The rushanfekr rejected the traditional belief that history is the revelation of God’s will. Instead, they saw the possibility in history for human progress. As nationalists, they sought to end foreign exploitation and to achieve political reform through secular constitutionalism.
In June 1905, an economic crisis caused by the rising costs of food precipitated mass public protests, which culminated one year later with the precipitation of the Constitutional Revolution (1906-1911), when the king, Muzaffar al-Din Shah, appointed a liberal prime minister and signed a proclamation convening a Constituent National Assembly. The Constitutional Revolution spurred the development of political organizations and radical newspapers throughout the country, and Jews, as well as other ethnic and minority groups, also organized. Four seats in the Assembly were designated for recognized religious minorities, including one seat for Jews. However, initially a Jew could not be sent to sit in the Majles and the Jewish community was represented by a Muslim clergyman. While the Constitutional Revolution did not initially result in any tangible change in Jewish life, it did provide a framework through which Jews could advocate for civil rights.
In December 1925, a high-ranking military officer, Col. Reza Khan, who held a new cabinet position of army commander since 1921, crowned himself Shah-in-Shah of Iran. He was supported by two political parties, the Revival Party and the Reformers’ Party. Belying its name, the Reformers’ Party had a conservative and religious base, comprised of prominent clerics, wealthy merchants, and landed aristocrats. Because of the paternalism of traditional Iranian society, the party was strengthened by universal male suffrage, which extended the vote to the rural masses—the traditional elites were able to draw on the votes of their peasants and tribesmen. In contrast, the Revival party’s base of support was young, Western-educated reformers with a nationalistic agenda, which called for policies such as the separation of religion from politics and the replacement of minority languages throughout Iran by Persian. They idealized pre-Islamic Iran and denounced Arab Muslim imperialism, which they saw as the cause of Iran’s backwardness.
The Revivalists believed that fascism was the most effective way to achieve national cohesion. The opening editorial of Farangistan, an influential journal and organ of the reformers’ movement, read in part:
In a country where 99 percent of the population is under the electoral sway of the reactionary mullahs, our only hope is a Mussolini who can break the influence of the traditional authorities, and thus create a modern outlook, a modern people, and a modern nation.
While Reza Shah’s coronation as king and the development of the nationalist movement occurred before the advent of Nazism in Germany, the ideological affiliation of the right-wing nationalists with fascism in the 1920s and their support for Reza Shah foretold Reza Shah’s close relationship with Hitler, which worried the Iranian Jewish community.
During Reza Shah’s reign, the Jewish community did make political progress but was still the target of anti-Jewish sentiment. Ayub Loqman Nehuray, the Jewish representative in the Majles (1909–1925, 1927–1943), advocated for and achieved some basic legal rights for Jews during his tenure: He secured leave for Jewish military officers during the holidays; he changed inheritance laws that had made a jadid al-Islam (new convert to Islam) the sole heir of his or her non-Muslim family; and he collaborated with Zoroastrian and Armenian representatives to eliminate the law that required registration of marriage and divorce with a government office, which allowed religious minorities to follow their own communal practices.
There was a heated campaign in the Jewish community for the representative of Jews to the fifth Majles between Dr. Loqman and Shemuel Hayim, a Jewish activist and journalist. In 1922, Hayim began publishing an eponymous Judeo-Persian newspaper called He-hayim (The Life), in which he advocated for political equality for Jews. He wrote to the League of Nations in Geneva regarding violations of Jewish rights and was active in several Jewish community organizations, such as the Zionist organization Ha-histadrut ha-tzionit and served as president of Tehran’s Jewish organization, Ben Israel Organization (Anjoman-e markazi-ye bani esra’il-e tehran). He was elected to the Majles in 1925. In 1926, in middle of his term in the Majles, Hayim was inexplicably arrested on charges of conspiring against the Shah. He was imprisoned for six years while maintaining his innocence before he was executed in 1931.
Reza Shah Pahlavi’s forced abdication by the Allies in 1941 spurred greater Jewish political involvement, for the most part, gravitating toward leftist movements. If Jewish Iranian intellectuals were repulsed by the ultra-nationalist parties because of the obvious Nazi and fascist ideological influences, they were drawn to the leftist camp primarily for class reasons. The Tudeh party was a class movement, forming immediately after Reza Shah’s abdication, rooted in the intelligentsia and the industrial working class, which included Jewish and other ethnic workers. Young Jewish men and women were active in the Tudeh party and participated in underground meetings and demonstrations. Some of them were arrested and imprisoned for their activities and tortured by the authorities. Jewish-Iranian intellectuals engaged in both nationalist and Zionist activities, supporting Prime Minister Mosaddeq and the effort to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. and organizing specifically Jewish and Zionist meetings and resisting anti-Semitism.
Yet while Jews did join the Tudeh party, the movement failed to gain mainstream Jewish support, in part because many Jews were drawn to Zionism. A third of the Iranian Jewish community moved to Israel between 1948 and 1953 for Zionist as well as economic reasons. Most of these emigrants came from the provinces and working class, precisely the natural base for Tudeh members and activists. This massive wave of emigration also helps explain why the Jewish community was so prosperous under the rule of Mohammad Reza Shah—the poorer strata of the community had left to Israel.
The Tudeh party was active in Iranian politics until the 1953 CIA-orchestrated coup to overthrow Prime Minister Mosaddeq and reinstate the Shah, after which it gradually declined. In the decade after the 1953 coup d’état, the Shah worked to consolidate his power. In 1963, the Shah introduced a program he called the White Revolution: a six-part development plan with an agenda of land distribution; nationalization of forests; privatization of state factories; profit sharing for industrial workers; women’s suffrage; and a literacy program for rural villagers. A nationwide referendum seemingly demonstrated tremendous public support for the Shah’s plan; according to the government, 99.9 percent of voters approved of the program. However, referendum results aside, the people were enormously discontented, and by June 1963, during the mourning month of Muharram, thousands of Iranians from across socioeconomic classes and industries protested against the Shah in the streets.
An emerging leader in the protest movement was Ayatallah Ruhallah Khomeini, a mujtahid from a clerical family. He ignored the usual issues that invoke the ire of the clerics, land reform and women’s rights, and denounced the Shah for popular grievances related to political corruption and repression, censorship of the press, academic freedom, and economic policies. Among the Shah’s policies that Khomeini decried: undermining the country’s Islamic beliefs, gharbzadegi (westoxification), and selling oil to Israel.
None of these grievances would have found resonance with the Jewish community at that time. The historian David Menashri refers to this era as the golden era of Jewish-Iranian relations, when “Jews enjoyed almost total cultural and religious autonomy, experienced unprecedented economic progress, and had more or less the same political rights as their Muslim compatriots.” Jews were, unprecedentedly in Iranian history:
…free, educated, and wealthy. Their part in economic, scientific, and professional life was disproportionate to their share in society… they may well have been one of the richest Jewish communities worldwide… They were overrepresented among the country’s student population and university faculty body, among medical doctors and other professionals.
Yet as protest movements grew, tension and resentment toward the Jewish community grew as well, and comradery between Jewish and Muslim leftist intellectuals began to dissipate. Extreme leftist groups trained in Palestinian camps and had a strong presence on university campuses, where swastikas were scrawled on the walls. Historians offer several explanations, including the heritage of anti-Jewish sentiment in Iran, the incredible socioeconomic success of Jews due to the Shah’s policies and reforms, economic difficulties and classic anti-Semitic tropes that Jews engineer the world economy, and the Jewish community’s strong ties with Israel. An important factor was the Islamic nature of the revolutionary ideology.
The most thoroughgoing proponents of the Revolutionary ideology were the Mojahedin party and Iranian intellectual Ali Shariati. Enamored by Khomeini, the younger activists abandoned the old liberal-secular nationalism for a more religious, radical, anti-American posture, and advocated for armed struggle. The founding members of the Mojahedin, a group of professionals in Tehran, read many texts, including the Koran and Marxists works, as well as Amar Ouzegan’s work, Le Meilleur Combat, which they adopted as their main handbook. Ouzegan argued that Islam is a revolutionary socialist-democratic doctrine and that religion and armed struggle are necessary to resist imperialism. The Mojahedin constituency was drawn primarily from the traditional middle class; they were culturally attached to religion but socially revolutionary.
The Mojahedin ideology can be best understood as a fusion of Islam and Marxism with an exegetical style that read revolution into the Koran: the prophet Mohamed and his rightful successors, the early Shia leaders, were sent by God to correct the class oppression and inequality generated by historical evolution. Therefore, Shia martyrs, such as those who died at Karbala, were reimagined as modern-day revolutionaries like Che Guevara. However, while the Mojahedin party was the first to develop a radical political interpretation of Islam, they were later overshadowed by the thought of Shariati, the prolific and innovative Iranian intellectual who has been remembered as the chief ideologue of the Iranian Revolution.
Ali Shariati was born in 1933 to a family of small landowners and clerics. As a doctoral student in Paris in the 1960s, Shariati was interested in Islamic mysticism, radical theology, and Marxism, all of which influenced his political thinking. After his return to Iran, he was imprisoned a couple of times and finally left Iran for England in 1977, where he died four months later. Though Shariati did not live to see the revolution, his thinking was a powerful and formative influence, and he was eulogized as a mojahed—fighter and as a shahid—martyr for the Islamic Revolution.
Shariati presents the biblical story of Cain and Abel as a paradigm of society and the class struggle, with Cain representing the oppressive elite and Abel the oppressed masses. God sent the prophet to establish a just, classless society, what Shariati called the nezam-e tawhidi. Therefore, according to Shariati, the message of the true Shii Imams is to resist oppression in every time and place; “Every month is Moharram, every day ‘Ashura, and every place Karbala,” he would say. He distinguished between Black Islam, the Islam of the clergy, which legitimized the power of the corrupt elites, and Red Islam, or the true Islam, which is a revolutionary dogma against oppression and exploitation. Shariati viewed Islam as central to Iranian national identity. In his major work Basgash beh khishtan, he wrote:
Now I want to address a fundamental question raised by intellectuals in Africa, Latin America, and Asia: the question of “return to one’s roots” … When we say “return to one’s roots,” we are really saying return to one’s cultural roots. … The pundits, such as archeologists and ancient historians, may know much about the Sassanids, the Achaemenids and even older civilizations. But our people know nothing about such things. They are left unmoved by the heroes, myths and monuments of these ancient empires. They remember nothing from this distant past and do not care to learn about these pre-Islamic civilizations… Consequently, for us to return to our roots means not a rediscovery of pre-Islamic Iran but a return to our Islamic roots.
Most of the Jewish community, mindful of the Islamic tone and recalling their history of Islamic-influenced oppression, was wary of the coming revolution, and the revolution was followed by an enormous exodus. Within one year of the revolution, the Jewish population declined drastically from 80,000 Jews in the 1970s to 50–60,000 Jews. As the chief rabbis, industrialists, and businessmen left Iran, a group of young leftist activists began to challenge the traditional leadership. Most were affiliated with the Association of Jewish Iranian Intellectuals (Jame’eh-ye rowshanfekran-e kalimi-ye Iran—AJII), which formed in 1979 and was one of the first groups to support the Revolution.
The AJII was founded in the late 1970s by two Jewish former Tudeh activists, Harun Parviz Yesha’ya and Aziz Daneshrad (who later served in the Council of Experts), who had spent time in prison for their antimonarchical activities. A fusion of leftist politics and Jewish values, the AJII was vocal about its support for the revolution and even managed to gain brief control of the traditional Jewish community organization, the Anjoman, in March 1978 though they failed to be reelected just a few months later. Some of AJII leaders had met other revolutionaries in prison, and they were allied with several Muslim activists, most significantly Khomeini’s close associate Ayatollah Sayyed Mahmud Taleqani. Beginning in July 1979, the AJII published a newsletter called Tamuz, named after the Hebrew summer month that often coincides with July, In 1981, a Tamuz editorial celebrating the third anniversary of AJII described their contribution to the revolution:
From the beginning of the year 1357  a group of the Iranian Jews has participated in the great movement against imperialism and dictatorship. From the very beginning we tried to collaborate with the revolutionaries, especially the Muslim clerics in different levels, and we have done this work ever since. And at last in the month of Sharivar 1357 [August 1978] a Jewish group joined the protest for the first time under an Iranian–Jewish banner, and this group, in the month of Azar 1357 [November 1978], met with the late Ayatolla Taleqani, and announced the[ir] common goals.
By the late 1980s, there were only 20–30,000 Jews left in Iran. Almost forty percent of the Jewish community left immediately following the revolution, and one decade later, nearly 75 percent of the Jewish community had emigrated. As Said Banayan, one of the co-founders of the AJII and now living in Los Angeles, said in an interview with the Jewish Journal in 2008:
We formed this group in order to show the rest of the people in Iran that we Jews were not woven from a different fabric of society than other Iranians, but that we also supported [the new government’s professed] goals for democracy and freedom. We hoped that we may be able to enjoy new freedoms under the new regime, but at that time, we could not foresee how the new government, run by the mullahs, would mistreat the people of Iran for their own economic gain. This was a movement that we supported because we honestly believed in its principles of greater freedom and democracy.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Miriam Levy-Haim is a student at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Master’s program in Middle Eastern Studies, with a particular interest in the history of Jews of the Middle East. She has worked for several Jewish educational institutions developing curricula for adults and teens.