Track Persia, May 30, 2017

Minority communities of Iran have suffered several waves of persecutions since the reigns of the Safawid shahs in the 16th century. Jews were among Iran’s minorities which have been targeted for their religious identity.

Over centuries, Jews lived throughout Iran- mainly in the central and western regions of the country- and were visible in some major cities. The peculiar economic status of the Jews in Iran was a result of their centuries-long oppression and persecution. They followed various professions, some of which mirrored their inferior social status. They were frequently reduced to vocations that were considered religiously illicit, despised or immoral. However, by performing the roles that Shiite Muslims, because of religious or social reasons, were prohibited from or refused to engage in, the Jews performed socially necessary. [i]

Some Jews owned small businesses or were dealers in old clothing. Others served as tailors, moneychangers, polishers of glass, producers of salt and ammoniac, writers of talismans, or fortunetellers and exorcists.

The Shiite Islamic culture and customs encouraged some Jews to incline toward certain professions. This seems to have partially been the case with the Shi’ite purity concerns mentioned above that directed some of the Jews toward peddling and petty trading. Furthermore, Muslims were “practically forbidden” from working in gold- or silver-oriented crafts since the recompense for work in silver or gold was viewed as usury, which is prohibited in Islam.[ii]

Islam forbids Muslims from preparing and consuming wine and other alcoholic drinks. Although not always sanctioned by certain ulema, wine production was left to non-Muslims, who satisfied the demands of their own communities, as well as those of the illicit Muslim market for alcohol. The Jews, particularly, of Shiraz and Hamadan sold and occasionally manufactured spirits.[iii]

Given their low status, Jews were afforded socially-despised and immoral vocations, shunned by Iran’s Shiite majority Muslims including dyeing materials that involved strong odours and cleaning excrement pits. Some Jews were also singers, musicians and dancers- these activities being regarded as those of dissolute persons.[iv]

Under the reign of Shah Abbas I (1587-1629), the Jews suffered a certain form of persecution. For example, when the Jewish community of Farahabad was found guilty of murdering a troublesome fellow, Shah Abbas punished the community by forcing it to convert to Islam.[v] When a former head of the Jewish community of Isfahan fell out with his community, the Shah reacted violently and ordered all the Jewish holy books thrown into the Zayandah Rud river and forced the Jewish community of Isfahan to embrace Islam. Most families showed their compliance, those who did not comply such as a man named Mulla Aba, were torn to pieces by the Shah’s blood-thirsty hounds.[vi]

During the reign of Shah Abbas II (1642 – 1666), the persecution of Iranian Jews started in Isfahan and spread to all major towns in Iran. It was religiously motivated as the aim of the powerful Grand Vizier under the Shah, Muhammad Beg, aimed at converting all the non-Shiite Muslim minorities, which he saw as infidels, for the sake of making everyone the same. He thus offered the Jews the choice of being exiled to remote places or remaining in their residences and converting to Islam. The majority of Iranian Jews seemed to have chosen a third course, that of becoming forced converters, outwardly adhering to Shiite Islam and inwardly remaining faithful to Judaism. Some of the Jews chose to be killed rather than be converts. Other Jews offered authorities bribes but no avail.

During a period of great political turmoil, when the Safavids were trying to regain the throne and drive out the invading Afghans, the Jews of Kashan caught between warring factions and obviously sympathetic to the Sunni Afghans, decided to convert lest they become totally impoverished by the greedy demands  of Tahmasp Khan , the future Nadir Shah (1736-1747), for levies and taxes.

Because of the Shi’ite experience with taqiyya (dissimulation), the Shi’i ulama, as  well as the population at large, were profoundly suspicious of the  existence of genuine converts, an important factor in the decision  to allow the Jews to return to their faith. This deep-seated suspicion was, no doubt, the reason why although converted, Iranian Jews were not allowed to break out from their traditional economic roles. They continued to remain at the bottom of the economic ladder because no one, least of all themselves, believed such a religious transformation possible.[vii]

In the seventeenth century, surviving in the state of forced conversion was not a matter of choice but by the eighteenth century it became not only an option for physical survival but also a means to try to insure the economic survival of a threatened community. In many conversion cases, the Jews  would pay large sums of money and thus be allowed either to maintain their faith or to return to Judaism.

During the  Qajar era in 1839, when the Jewish quarter in Mashhad was invaded killing manyand ordering the survivors to convert or be killed. Most converted, taking Muslim names, attending Qur’an reading classes and mosques, and even making pilgrimage to Mecca and the sacred Shi’ite shrines in Iraq. Yet, they secretly remained Jews and married only amongst each other. [viii]

Jews under Iran’s Islamic Republic

In the few months that followed the fall of the Shah  Mohammad Reza Pahlavi  by  Khomeini’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, some Jews left Iran for Israel, especially because they belonged to a largely business-oriented community which had maintained ties to Israel under the shah. They were shocked to witness the execution of Habib Elghanian, one of the Iran’s leading businessmen and philanthropists and a prominent figure of Jewry community by a firing squad shortly after the fall of the shah on allegations of having ties to Israel. In 1998, another Jew, Ruhollah Kadkhodah-Zadeh, was executed, reportedly for helping Jews to emigrate illegally.

The Jews lived in fear under the new Shiite Islamist regime and felt they were targeted despite Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic founder, issued a fatwa shortly after he came to power, declaring Iran’s Jews to be a fully protected minority forbidding any attacks on them.

Shortly after that, the regime lifted the restrictions on emigration and many of the rich moved to America and re-established themselves there, while some of the poor Jews moved to Israel leaving behind a strong contingent of poor Jews in Iran living as second-class citizens under the Shiite Islamist regime. Jews in Iran must take care not to be seen as interested or involved in Israel, though many have family there and have secretly visited Israel via third countries.

During the tenure of Iran’s former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president and other officials made many anti-Semitism remarks which Iranian Jews saw as huge insults towards their religion. On one occasion, Ahmadinejad questioned the historical reality of the Holocaust. The Iranian Jews, like all other Jews worldwide, considered denying such historical tragedy an insult to all the world’s Jewish communities.

The departure of Ahmadinejad in 2013 did not stop the outbursts of anti-Semitism. In April 2015, commenting on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, the MP Ahmad Tavakkoli accused the Jews of ‘blood shedding  and even bloodthirstiness based on their altered religion and teachings’.

There are many issues that the Jews of Iran consider unfair such as accessing to high-ranking posts in government ministries and the inheritance lar . Under Iran’s sharia law, if one sibling in a non-Muslim family converts to Islam, he inherits the entirety of his parents’ assets.[ix]

[i] A History of the Persian Jews, 1975, pp. 316-37.

[ii]  H.Z. Hirschberg, The Oriental Jewish Communities”, Religion in the Middle East, 1969, vol. I, pp. 140

[iii] Bassett, Persia, The Land of the Imams

[iv] L. Loeb, Dhimmi Status and Jewish Roles in Iranian Society, Ethnic Groups I,1976, pp. 93-9

[v] Vera B. Moreen, Iranian Jewry’s Hour of Peril and  Heroism, New York, 1986.

[vi]Ibid., p. 123

[vii] Ver B. Moreem, The Problems of Conversion Among Iranian Jews in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,Iranian Studies, 1986, pp. 215-228.

[viii] Eliz Sanasarian, Babi-Bahais, Christians, and Jews in Iran, Encyclopaedia Iranica, 1998, pp. 615 – 624


About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.