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Unintended Consequences

In an excerpt from a new history of 20th-century Iran, the neglected story of the Jewish revolutionaries who participated in—or adapted to—the sweeping changes of 1979

Lior B. Sternfeld
January 15, 2019
Photo: STF/AFP/Getty Images
Black Friday, 9 Sept. 1978, which caused the death of 200 people, according to the Iranian government, and 2,000 according to the opposition. Photo: STF/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: STF/AFP/Getty Images
Black Friday, 9 Sept. 1978, which caused the death of 200 people, according to the Iranian government, and 2,000 according to the opposition. Photo: STF/AFP/Getty Images

This week, Tablet looks back on 40 years of the Iranian Revolution.


When the anti-Shah upheavals of 1978 erupted, Iranian Jews found themselves, naturally, on both sides of the revolutionary movement: among its supporters and its opponents.

As violence intensified, many wounded protesters calling for the establishment of an Islamic Republic found sanctuary from the clashes in a rather surprising place: the Sapir Hospital (Bimaristan-i Sapir), the Jewish hospital in Tehran.

On Sept. 8, 1978, mass demonstrations erupted in Tehran. The Shah sent the army to shoot live ammunition at the crowd of protesters. This event became known as Black Friday.

“That Friday the head nurse, Ms. Farangis Hasidim, called me and told me that they are bringing many casualties to the hospital,” recalls Dr. Jalali, one of the senior officials in Sapir Hospital at that time. “I drove to the hospital but the Zhalah [avenue] was blocked, so I went by foot and there was shooting. … Since I was friendly with the ambulance-services people, almost 90 percent of the injured people came to Sapir Hospital, where we treated all of them in our four surgery rooms.”

On Dec. 11, 1978, one of the largest demonstrations against the Shah took place in Tehran. Newspapers called it a “demonstration of millions,” and it set a milestone in the struggle against the Shah’s regime. Jewish participation set records as well; according to some sources, 5,000 Jews participated in these protests.Other estimates were much higher. Hushang, a longtime leftist activist in the Jewish community and a member of the Association of Jewish Iranian Intellectuals (AJII), a Jewish leftist activist group, helped organize the massive Jewish appearance that day: “According to press reports close to 12,000 Jews participated in these protests that day,” he says. “The Jewish religious leaders marched in the front row and the rest of the Jews followed them, showing great solidarity with our Iranian compatriots.”

The religious leadership sided with the young radical group and in a sense “legitimized” them. “From the first days of the revolution we had considerable support from religious leaders. Hakham Yedidia Shofet, Hakham Uriel Davidi, Rabbi David Shofet, Hakham Yosef Hamadani Cohen, and others attended and supported. … Other key figures were Parviz Yesha‘ya, ‘Aziz Daneshrad, Ya‘qub Barkhurdar, Hushang Melamed, Dr. Manuchihr Aliyasi, and Ms. Farangis Hasidim, all played a major role,” Hushang says. According to him, the activities of AJII helped to reduce tensions between the Muslim majority and the Jewish minority. However, not all of the religious leaders who joined that day did so wholeheartedly.

“It was my assignment to convince Hakham Shofet to join us, to get him in the picture,” said Mihrdad. “He was sympathetic to the cause but felt heavy hearted. He was reluctant to come and we told him that it was for the sake and safety of the community. We even found rabbinic writing and Halacha ruling that say that if the community requires you to do such and such you do it not because this is your belief but because the decision would be for the good of the community. So he said he would come out.”

Shofet, then, participated despite early reservations, which makes him a unique case in this story. Loyalty to both the Shah and the community meant a great deal to him. He came out that day and afterward not because he looked to facilitate integration of the community into the broader society but rather to seek protection for the community in a rapidly changing reality.

Habib’s memories of this demonstration help us to understand the profound impact it had on the participants: “We met by Darvazah-i dawlat synagogue in south Tehran and joined the main demonstration from there. … Our signs and chants were: Yahudi-musalman hambastigi-i mubarak [Jewish-Muslims blessed solidarity]. It was so exciting, I could not stop crying.”

Hakham Shofet’s recollections of this day express the same sentiment:

In every place we live we must respect the majority’s opinion and approve and respect their leadership [not necessarily the elected or ruling leadership]. Because of this rule, in those days, with respect to these people, we joined them in marching for the Tasu‘a [the ninth day of the holy month of Muharram; in Shi’a tradition it symbolizes the day before the battle of Karbala and the preparations of Hossein] in 19 Azar Mah 1357 [Dec. 9, 1978]. Muhandis Daneshrad and other members of the Jewish Community [Anjuman] board were on my side. … It was constructive and inspiring. Many of the Muslims that led this great march and were responsible for it welcomed us warmly, among them were many Shi’i clerics.

This memory is interesting, especially because of the fact that he did not openly oppose the Shah. There are multiple accounts of Shofet positively commenting on the Shah’s period as unprecedented for the Iranian Jews and expressing his fear of the unclear future. In an interview, one of the people who made Shofet join the march said that Shofet stated he would do it for the sake of the community, but he wanted the march organizer to know that every Saturday when he is offering prayers for the health of the Shah, he means it.

Muslim protesters greeted the Jewish group by chanting, “Jewish brother, welcome, welcome” (baradar-i yahudi khush amadi, khush amadi). When they passed by Madrasah-i ‘Alavi, they chanted, “Khomeini’s leadership is the basis of national unity” (Rahbari-yi Khomeini asas-i vahdat-i milli). “That day,” Habib says, “we all had tears of happiness. We were all in support of democracy, and freedom, and the revolution.”

Despite the presentation of national unity in the demonstration, given past experiences, it was obvious that the protest was not about to end peacefully. Sapir Hospital’s personnel were well prepared for the events of Tasu‘a and ‘Ashura. “That morning they called me from Madrasah-i ‘Alavi and asked to keep all the staff and doctors for the day. I received 70 or 80 percent of the injured from all over the city. All of them went either to Sapir, Kurush-i Kabir as it was called back then, or the Imperial Medical Center, this situation lasted for 72 hours,” recalls Jalali.

In its second issue, Tamuz published a two-page story titled “Sapir Hospital During the Revolution” (Bimaristan-i Sapir dar jarayan-i inqilab) that described the services provided by Sapir Hospital to the revolutionaries: “In the turbulent months of our revolution, Kurush-i Kabir hospital, which after the revolution was renamed after Sapir, became one of the places that, through taking personal risks for the sake of the revolution, treated and facilitated the revolution.”The article cites anecdotes from senior hospital officials, such as the head nurse, Farangis Hasidim, who, speaking about the events of Black Friday and ‘Ashura, said, “This day unfolded in unexpected ways. I went to see a rebel that arrived with a bullet injury in his leg, and he was bleeding. I immediately took him to the surgery room. I had not finished treating him, when another patient came in, and every minute more and more injured arrived. For many hours the hospital looked like the frontlines of a war zone.”

The hospital staff also had to cope with the Shah’s security officers who came to search for rebels in hiding: “One day we heard great noise from the hospital’s backyard and I saw a myriad of people in uniform and plain clothes [that is, secret police] looking for rebels. … For 24 hours guards circled the hospital, but we did not hand them anyone. … During Tasu‘a and ‘Ashura the entire hospital staff stayed in the hospital for more than 24 hours. The hospital’s ambulances cruised the streets to pick up wounded protesters and bring them to the hospital to get treatment.”

Following these events, in late 1978 a delegation of the Jewish community went to Paris to meet the leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini. The tacit purpose of this trip was to ensure that Jews would not be regarded as enemies of the revolution but rather as its supporters. This meeting was the first of many between the Jewish leadership and Khomeini. Shortly after, the hospital received its first recognition from Khomeini: “For this reason [the humanitarian help] Imam Khomeini, before his return to Iran, had sent a letter of gratitude to the director of the hospital, recognizing his help and support for the wounded revolutionaries,” said Dr. Siamak Moreh-Sedeq, one of the hospital’s leaders and the current Jewish deputy in the Majlis in an interview. He described the assistance given to the revolutionaries and confirmed, once again, the story of the Shah’s army siege in 1978. Receiving Khomeini’s recognition is not a small feat. In many ways it secured the future of the Jews under the leadership of the revolution.


Throughout the revolutionary events, there was a continuing attempt by both revolutionary factions and the Jews to draw a clear distinction between Jews and Zionists. This would be a theme well into the early revolutionary period, but even from the time of the protest there were multiple occasions on which revolutionaries and nonrevolutionaries provided ways to tell the difference.

On Sept. 1, 1978, a few days before the escalation of Black Friday, Yousef Kohan, then the Jewish representative in the Majlis, and another member of the parliament, Ahmad Bani-Ahmad, met the Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Kazim Shari‘atmadari. The purpose of this meeting was to have the respected ayatollah stopped the incitement against Jews, which was becoming a problem in some of the provinces in Iran. In his memoir, Kohan described the efforts:

At 1:30 in the afternoon of that September 1st, Bani-Ahmad called me and said, “Kohan! Put on your clothes and come to me immediately. Bring your documents with you.” Those days, Bani- Ahmad was in danger, because he was seriously opposing the Shah’s regime. I took the address of his secret location, which was the home of one of his fellow Azeris, and took off immediately. Outside the house, a group of tough Azerbaijanis were standing and I could tell they were armed. I asked Bani-Ahmad what was going on. “We want to go visit His Eminence Ayatollah Shari‘atmadari,” he answered.

In any case, all the issues were humbly reported to him on that day in Qum. The Ayatollah was inclined to proclaim that the lives of Jews were protected unless if they were agents of Israel. Bani-Ahmad recommended that “even though this is correct, but mentioning it will cause the malefactors to take the life of any Jew they want and then claim that he had been an Israeli agent. It would be better if His Eminence issued a general, unconditional and unambiguous command.” Many reporters and correspondents from major international news agencies were constantly on the alert at Shari‘atmadari’s house with their cameras, because that location was the epicenter of Iranian politics, which was of interest to the whole world. That evening, the Iranian radio and television broadcasted this proclamation of the great Source of Emuluation of Iranian Muslims:

“Reports are reaching us that a series of written threats against religious minorities who are recognized by the Constitution and respected by the Iranian Nation, have begun under the name of the Clergy and the banner of Islam. Iranian minorities, have all the liberties and the rights imaginable for the people of Iran. On the other hand, according to the ruling of Islamic commandments, personal rights of all the people of the world and even the human rights of our enemies have been recognized. Religious Minorities, which have been identified in the Constitution, have been shoulder to shoulder with the struggle of the Iranian nation as far as I remember. They accompanied the people in every step of the momentous events of the Constitutional Revolution. I shall never accept the smallest threat or intimidation against them under the name of Islam. In fact I consider such actions as an anti-Iranian and anti Islamic conspiracy. We must know that irresponsible people with missions of sabotage are on the prowl and are hoping to spread the seeds of hate and disunity.”

Such a proclamation from a prominent religious leader like Ayatollah Shari‘atmadari was a major achievement for the Jewish leadership and in fact was crucial at a moment when Israel was brought up more often as part of the anti-Shah slogans and some Iranians could not tell the difference between Jews, Zionists, and Israelis.

Later that month, during the events of Black Friday it was rumored that the Shah deployed Israeli soldiers to confront the protesters. This rumor, of course, had no basis, but it promptly became an issue demanding attention on behalf of the Jewish leadership.

In the 2013 documentary Before the Revolution: The Untold Story of the Israeli Paradise in Iran, Nissim Levy, one of the Israeli embassy’s security officers, recalls that as he drove through the streets of Tehran right before the ultimate victory of the revolution, he saw graffiti that read, “Kill Every Israeli—But Do Not Harm the Jews.”


Shortly after the ‘Ashura events, the revolution took a dramatic turn when on Jan. 15, 1979, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi left Iran for good. “Shah Raft” (The Shah left), announced the newspapers the next day to the overjoyed crowds, and about two weeks later they announced that the Imam had arrived (Imam amad). All major minority groups came to the airport to welcome Ayatollah Khomeini back to Iran. The Jewish delegation coordinated their participation with another prominent leader of the revolutionary movement, Ayatollah Mohammad Bihishti.

After the installation of the new regime, the hospital encountered controversy. Jalali states, “One night after the revolution they called me to tell that a group of people from the regime came and changed the name of the hospital to ‘Khusraw Golisurkhi Hospital.’ A member of the left, Gol-isurkhi had been executed by the Shah.It took us a long time, together with Parviz Yesha‘ya to change it to Dr. Sapir Hospital.” Simin, Sapir’s relative, explained how they petitioned the government to have the name changed to Dr. Sapir: “I collected evidence from people that got treatment in the hospital, collected newspaper stories, letters from clerics about the hospital during the revolution, and gave it to them in a big box. After a short discussion they pronounced him a shahid, a martyr of the revolution, and ordered to have the name changed to Dr. Sapir Hospital.”

This episode of the name change became significant as the Jewish community retained management of the hospital and the government acknowledged the role the hospital had played during the revolution. Still today, at the entrance to the hospital, there is a sign welcoming patients, staff, and visitors. The sign reads, in Hebrew and Persian, “Love thy neighbor as yourself ” (Hebrew: Ve’ahavta le’reacha kamocha; Persian: Hamnow‘at ra mesl-i khodet dust bedar), and this essentially captures the philosophy of this hospital from the days it was established by Sapir and onward.

Jews were active in all-Iranian organizations—such as the Tudeh—and, of course, in sectarian, explicitly Jewish groups, such as the AJII. However, Jews participated even in almost exclusively Muslim organizations, such as the Mujahidin-i Khalq (the People’s Mujahidin of Iran). The Mujahidin-i Khalq was established by members of the intelligentsia—engineers, doctors, university students, and the intellectual elites of the nationalist opposition factions. This organization employed a fascinating combination of Marxist and Islamist discourse in its articulation of a revolutionary ideology. The Mujahidin-i Khalq was one of the key opposition organizations in the 1970s until the revolution.

One of the Jewish activists in Mujahidin-i Khalq was Edna Sabet. Sabet was born in 1955 to a Jewish Kermanshahi family that lived in Tehran. Her family belonged to the middle class in the city, and many of her family members were American-educated engineers and industrialists. During her college years at Ariyamihr Technical University in Tehran, Sabet became politically active and joined an underground organization, Paykar. She promptly became a member of its central committee in Tehran. In Paykar she met Ghulam Husayn Salim Aruni, whom she married later. Aruni was Muslim and became attracted to the Mujahidin-i Khalq. Soon he joined the organization and Sabet followed suit. They were both prominent activists in the movement, and their story was widely circulated among the Tehran groups.

The institution of the interim revolutionary government prevented the Mujahidin-i Khalq from participating in the April 1979 elections. As a result, the group turned against the newly forming Islamic Republic’s government. Iran’s new revolutionary guards arrested (and even executed without trial) the Mujahidin-i Khalq members who only a short time before had fought with them against the Shah’s oppressive regime. In 1981 Aruni was captured, arrested, prosecuted, and executed in the infamous Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhali’s court. Sabet was arrested a few months later.

Evidence later showed that Sabet never faced court on any charges. She was tortured in prison but remained resilient and confident. She was executed on Feb. 12, 1982, when she was only 27 years old. A fellow comrade from her days in the Mujahidin-i Khalq said, “She was everything the new Islamic regime feared: A brave woman, a Jew, a leftist fighting uncompromisingly against the very core of the Islamic Republic.”

Sabet was one of the Jews who were members in an almost exclusively Muslim organization. Despite her tragic ending, Sabet’s story illustrates yet another facet of the complex identities and allegiances that characterized many of her generation. Her affiliation with the Mujahidin-i Khalq and the story of Sapir Hospital during the revolution exemplify the breaking of the traditional frameworks of this community’s assimilation. These instances show yet again that in the late 1970s, most of the Jews in Iran favored their countrymen’s interests over their own good or narrow communal benefits.

The same events, wars, philosophies, and ideologies that shaped revolutionaries elsewhere in the world inspired the generation that came of age in the 1970s in Iran. It was the time when American students demonstrated against the war in Vietnam and Sartre and Michel Foucault incited European students and supported various goals of Third World identity groups. At the same time that many countries experienced their first moments of independence, the Iranian students’ local project was to struggle against the American-backed monarchy in Iran and institute a functioning socialist republic instead. This kind of republic, obviously, would be founded on the ideals of an egalitarian society, where religious or ethnic affiliations play no part. The promise, thus, was to create an Iranian multiethnic, multireligious society.

The involvement of the Jews can be explained by the level of assimilation that they had reached by this crucial moment. Whereas members of their parents’ generation in the late 1960s and early 1970s spent their own youths paving the way to leave the ghettos and the Jewish traditional life in order to pursue education and careers in the private and public sectors, their children felt they had to fight not for their status as a marginal minority but rather for a better society for Iran. The Jewish identity at that point served as another component and possible affiliation in the greater social tapestry of minorities in Iran.

Jewish participants in the student movements, both in Iran and abroad, belonged at that point to the nationalist bourgeoisie, whether they recognized it or not. Their assimilation efforts were fruitful, and Jewish culture and identity were just additional labels they carried and that perhaps rooted them deeper in the Iranian soil. It is within this context that we can begin to understand the establishment of AJII, initiatives such as the ones involving Sapir Hospital during the revolution, or the participation of Jews in Muslim revolutionary movements. These all represent the entire spectrum of national belonging, from the decision of AJII’s members to profess Iranian nationalism as Jews, to Sapir Hospital’s efforts to form a partnership to provide humanitarian assistance (again, even when some of the collaborators evidently supported the Shah), and to Sabet’s choice to assimilate through the adoption of all the identifiers of Iranian and Islamic symbolism and rhetoric.

The large level of participation in the demonstrations may suggest that the majority of the Jewish population, although they did not take an active role in the events leading to the revolution, realized its inevitable victory and embraced the opportunities and blessings it might bring to the community and its future in its homeland.


Adapted from Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran. Copyright © 2018 the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Stanford University Press.

Read more about 40 years of the Iranian Revolution in Tablet’s special series.

Lior B. Sternfeld is Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies at Penn State.

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