June 27, 2019
Among the schools founded by missionaries in Iran, those established by the French are particularly cherished because of the extensive cultural activities they ran to attract Iranian students. Major French schools in Iran included St. Louis, St. Joseph, Franco-Persane and Alliance Française. French missionaries even succeeded in establishing modern schools in a few cities outside Tehran. One was an Alliance school in Shiraz, set up in 1903 for Jewish students.
Shiraz’s Alliance school was a modern religious school, and a branch of Alliance Israélite Universelle, the first worldwide Jewish organization, which was established in Paris in 1860, with the goal of unifying Jews, the defense of their political and social rights, and fighting against anti-Semitism. The Iranian king Naser al-Din Shah Qajar (who ruled from 1848 until 1896) gave permission to open the school when he visited France in 1889.
The difference between Alliance and other schools set up by the missionaries, including the Lazarists, lay in their goals. Muslims, Christians and Zoroastrians were not allowed to convert to Judaism in Iran and, therefore, proselytization was not an option. But Alliance schools made it possible for Jewish students to have a circle of their own and to participate in events with fellow Jews. From 1898 to 1920, Jewish Alliance schools were founded first in Tehran (1898) and then in Hamadan (1900), Isfahan (1901), Shiraz (1903) and Sanandaj (1903). Then, gradually, other Alliance schools opened their doors in other cities including Kermanshah, Rasht, Khorramabad, Nahavand, Borujerd, Yazd, Kashan and Bijar.
With the start of World War I and the ensuing financial difficulties for Iranian Jewish merchants, these schools had to shut but, a short while after the Great War they reopened, although this did not last long. After Reza Shah Pahlavi overthrew the Qajar Dynasty in 1925, the schools, like others founded by foreigners, were shut down.
But in September 1941, the Allies occupied Iran and forced Reza Shah to abdicate. So the schools reopened their doors under the new name of National Alliance (or “Unity”) Schools. “The Alliance benefits the French by boosting their trade and us by helping us in science and industry,” an article in the Newspaper Tarbiat (“Education”) reported. “So we must thank the noble and creative nation of France for having our welfare in mind as well as their own gain.”
These schools had a high and demanding educational level and browsing through the list of their graduates reveals that many a renowned Iranian was educated in them, including Abolhassan Sadighi (sculptor and painter), Javad Badizadeh (musician, composer and singer), Mohammad Ghazvini (literary and cultural scholar), Haj Ali Razmara (general and prime minister), Hajj Hossein Agha Malek (philanthropist), Abdolhossein Azarang (writer, translator and scholar), Ahmad Ali Sepehr (historian) and Gholam Hossein Sadighi (Minister of Interior under the nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh).
Four Decades of Hostility Toward Jews
But in the last four decades the fate of these historical sites of education has been very unclear. The preservation of historical sites is the responsibility of the Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization of Iran, but it seems that the existing political and religious atmosphere in the Islamic Republic has prevented them from doing their job. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, anti-Israeli policies and propaganda placed pressure on Iranian Jews and many of them were forced to leave Iran. When they did, they left many important historical sites behind, places of heritage that must be protected regardless of politics or religion.
One of these sites is Alliance School in the historic city of Isfahan. This school was inaugurated on August 1, 1901 with the help of Isfahan’s Jewish philanthropists and its first principal was a person by the name of Khorzugh. In its first year, 220 students were registered at the school and the next year, the number increased to 350. Alliance School for girls started with 75 students in its first year and was educating 270 students three years later. The school also provided its students with food and clothing.
The school can still be found in a commercial district in Isfahan’s old Jewish neighborhood. Alliance School was registered as number 317,777 on Iran’s National Heritage Sites list on February 7, 2015. The school was shut down in 2016 for repairs and reconstruction but no repair whatsoever has been carried out. It appears as though reconstruction was just an alibi to close the school.
Now news has emerged that part of a ceiling of the school has fallen down and since it is an abandoned building, it has turned into a place for buying and selling drugs. At night, the homeless sleep in it for shelter.
When asked why the authorities are not repairing this historical site, one resident of the neighborhood quoted what he heard from the local shopkeepers: “The municipality, the City Council and the Education Bureau have decided to replace this old school with a commercial complex.” In other words, a site that for a century was the center of education for Isfahani children will soon become a shopping mall.
The school has a big yard, boasts exquisite plasterwork and was built in the European style of the late nineteenth century. In the early 1990s, a successful TV series named Tales of Majid was set in the school.
Legally, the establishment should have belonged to the Jewish Society of Isfahan but, apparently, the Alliance Israélite Universelle’s deed of endowment stipulates that the school will only belong to the Jewish community as long as at least 25 of its students are Jewish, but if the number falls below that level, the Muslim communities can take it over, provided they keep the school as an educational center.
Before the revolution, this neighborhood was home to many Isfahani Jews. Since then, they have left and only one Jewish family remains.