Spread the facts!

By Massoume Price

Iranian Jews are amongst the oldest inhabitants of the country. The origin of Jewish Diaspora in Persia is closely connected with various events in Israel’s ancient history. At the time of the Assyrian king, Tiglath-pileser III (727 BC) thousands of Jews were deported from Israel and forced to settle in Media. According to the annals of another Assyrian king, Sargon II, in 721 BC, Jewish inhabitants of Ashdod and Samaria in present-day Israel were resettled in Media after their failed attempt against Assyrian dominance. The records indicate that 27,290 Jews were forced to settle in Ecbatana (Hamadan) and Susa in South West Persia. These settlers are referred to as one of the ‘Ten Lost Tribes of Israel’ in biblical records.

The next wave of the Jewish settlers arrived to escape persecution from the Assyrian king Nebuchadnezzar II. Many were settled in Isfahan around 680BC. The conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great, the founder of Achaemenian Empire also brought many Jews into the country. In 539 BC, Cyrus entered Babylon with little resistance. The temple of Marduk their major deity was restored and Cyrus crowned himself in the name of Marduk.The Jewish exiles in Babylon were permitted to go home and reconstruct the temple of Jerusalem and some chose to emigrate to Persia. The restoration was confirmed by Darius the Great and commenced at the time of Artaxerxes I. Under Darius, around 30,000 Jews left Babylon to start work on the temple.

The mild treatment Achaemenian accorded their conquered subjects was part of the Imperial doctrine. The policies of the central administration encouraged autonomy in internal affairs with little intervention from the Persians. For instance, the Satrap (Governor General) of Judah, which constituted the fifth Satrapy, had his own local governor in Samaria with the right of supervision over the deputy in Judah.

From 516 BC, there was no Persian deputy in Judah. At first Shabazzar from the ancient Davidic House was the regional leader in Jerusalem. He was followed by Zerubbabel another Jewish aristocrat. In the fifth to fourth century BC, the rulers of Judah were also appointed among the local residents. Seals used by the ruler of Judah in the fifth century BC identify him as Yehoazar. In 458 BC, the Jew Ezra is appointed the deputy of Judah. The same Ezra had served up to this time as a scribe in the central administration in Susa, the Capital of the Persian Empire.

Correspondence left by Ezra and his successor Nehemiah, who likewise had been in Susa prior to this, indicates a strong Jewish community, united around the local temple and headed by the high priest. This community had its own organs of self-administration, in whose affairs the Persians did not intervene. Gradually, the high priest became the governor of Judah.

Semi-autonomous temple communities were not exclusive to the Jews. They existed throughout the Persian Empire. Cyprus, Cilicia, Lycia and other Phoenician cities and principalities in Asia Minor had their own local rulers. Even such remote tribes as the Arabs, Colchians, Ethiopians, Sakai, etc were governed by their own local chiefs. All kept their religion and gods with little interference from the Achaemenian administration.

Persians occupied the highest positions in the state apparatus. At the same time, they extensively utilized cultural, legal and administrative traditions of the conquered nations. In the Murashu family documents (present-day Iraq, ancient Babylonia) of the 23 high royal officers, only eight have Iranian names. Various ethnic and religious minorities followed their own legal code in personal matters such as marriage and family law. For example, Jewish settlers of Elephantine (Egypt) under Persian administration remained monogamous and the husbands did not have the right to take a second wife. Monetary and property disputes were settled and decided by the special “court of the Jews”.

The conquered people were also given land allotments in exchange for taxes and military service. Among these settlers were all groups such as Babylonians, Aramaeans, Jews, Indians, and Sakai, etc. In Susa itself, besides the local population and the Persians, there was a large number of Babylonians, Egyptians, Jews, and Greeks.

There were no restrictions with respect to religious freedom and practices. Hundreds of objects regarded sacred by various ethnic and religious groups are discovered both in Susa and Persepolis.  In the Fortification texts discovered at Persepolis, many foreign deities are mentioned. These cults and their priests received rations and wages for maintenance.

A priest serving the Elamite god Humban receives 4 marrish of beer, of which two were for the Akkadian god Adad. In 500 BC, the priest Ururu, having received 80 bar of grain from the storehouse, exchanged it for eight yearling sheep, of which two were used for sacrifices to the god Adad. The Persian religion was against the offering of livestock for sacrifices and Zoroaster banned the practice, however, others were not prevented from practicing such rituals.

The Elamite god Humban is mentioned more frequently in the texts than other foreign gods. As evident from the Fortification texts, both Elamite and Persian priests served this deity. Cambyses  (Cyrus’ son and successor) frequently expresses his respect for all things sacred. He worshiped Egyptian gods and goddess and patronized the Elephantine temple of the Jews. In a mosaic in British Museum, Darius is crowning himself in Egypt, in the name of Egyptian gods, dressed as an Egyptian Pharaoh.

Marriage contracts testify to mixed marriages amongst all groups including Jews. The practice was so common that the Jewish governors Ezra and Nehemiah objected it. They clamped down on these marriages and punished Jews who would marry outside the religion. Many documents, texts, and contracts mention Jewish names engaged in trade, disputes or as property owners.

In the fifth century BC, in Nippur documents, 100 such Jewish families are identified. They are landowners, tradesmen or were in the royal service. For instance, a certain Hannani, the son of Minnahhin, occupied the post of supervisor over the king’s poultry”. The Jew Nehemiah was a confidant of Artaxerxes I, occupying the important post of royal cupbearer in the civil service hierarchy.

Jews often appear also as contracting parties and witnesses. One Elephantine papyri mention an Iranian, Choresmian Dargamana, the son of Harshina, who served in the Elephantine garrison in the detachment of the Persian Artabana. He owned his own house and made claims to some plot of land. Daragamana complained to the judges that a certain Jew from the detachment of the Iranian Varyazata had occupied the field unlawfully. In the court the defendant sworn by the god Yahu (Yahweh) that Dargamana himself has transferred to him the lot in question, the plaintiff gave up his claim.

In another document, the Carpian Bugazusht, the son of the Persian Bazu, sold a house to a Jew. This house was located beside the house of another Persian, Shatibar. Various documents show, Egyptian, Aramaeans, Jews, and Phoenicians entered into joint business deals, contracted mixed marriages, adopted each other’s customs and worshiped not only their own god but also the gods of the aliens who lived in one city or another.

In short, freedom of religion, movement, occupation, and marriage were guaranteed under the Achaemenian. Such tolerance is not strange or unusual since the ancient religions including Judaism prior to Ezra and Nehemiah were not dogmatic and intolerant to other beliefs. In the ancient Near Eastern religions there is a complete absence of the concept of false faith or any form of heresy. Nor there seems to be any notion of racial hatred or any feeling of the superiority of one people over another.

Nations conquered would be treated as such, not because of their ethnic makeup or religion. Even captive Jews brought into Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar II, retained their faith in Yahweh and practiced their rituals and prospered economically. Zoroastrianism was also geared to tolerance, for it made a place for foreign gods as helpers of Ahura Mazda. One Aramaic inscription of the time speaks of a marriage between the Babylonian god Bel and the Iranian goddess Dayna-Mazdayasnish. In this document, Bel appeals to his spouse with the words: ” You are my sister; you are very wise and more beautiful than the other goddesses”. At times Jews and other groups under Persians were mistreated and rebellions were put down. There is no evidence that such actions were based on race or religion. Persian kings were ruthless and firm with all rebellions including the ones by the Persian Satraps and members of the Royal household.

The biblical texts have valuable information with respect to the Jews in Achaemenian times. Persian conquest is greeted with enthusiasm and Persians are praised and mentioned in the books of Daniel, Ezra, and Ezekiel. The Book of Esther tells of the fate of the Jewish Diaspora under Xerxes. Esther the niece of Mordecai, an assistant to the Persian king, takes the place of Queen Ahashwerosh, who is banned, from the palace by the King’s order. The Jewish population of Susa is not liked by some, the King is persuaded to order their total eradication. Esther intervenes with several Persian noblemen who pretend to be Jews. The decree is reversed and all are saved. Though the account is not supported by historical evidence, the writer is very accurate in his description of the Persian court life and costumes. This occasion is still celebrated by all Jews in the Purim Festival.

After the collapse of the Achaemenian Empire, the later dynasties, i.e. Seleucids and Parthians followed the same policies. Persian, Aramaeans, Babylonian, Greek, Christian and Jewish temples were present in all the Major cities. The Jewish chronicles mention the Parthian period as one of the best in their history. Centers of Jewish life in the Parthian Empire
were situated in Mesopotamia in Nisibis and Nehardea. Jewish chronicles state that they enjoyed a long period of peace and maintained close and positive contacts with the reigning dynasty. This is proved among other things, by the participation of the Jews in the rebellions against Trajan (the Roman Emperor) in Mesopotamia (116 AD). In addition, the Jews took an
active part in organizing the silk trade, an advantage they owed to the evident support of the kings.

No later than in the second century AD, a representative of Davidic origin called ‘exilarch’ represented the Jewish minority at court and also carried out functions of a political-administrative nature. Religious persecution of Jewish rebels in Palestine by the Romans in 135 AD, also brought many Jewish refugees into the Parthian empire.  Philo and Flavius Josephus the famed Roman historians have documented the relations between Jews and Parthians.

On the whole, religious conformity was not demanded as a mean to safeguard the reign. The ruling principle was always the advancement of reliable groups and communities and the punishment of disloyal ones. The Jewish communities proved to be loyal and reliable and as a result, experienced a time of unprecedented prosperity and cultural-religious creativity.

The reign of the Sassanid dynasty from 205 AD to the conquest of Muslims in 651 AD, is full of contradictory and extreme policies with respect to the treatment of religious minorities. For the first time, there is systematic oppression of different religious groups. In his inscriptions, the ‘priest’ Kidir (the chief Mobad) states that thanks to his efforts under King Bahram II (276-293), Zoroastrianism was promoted in the empire and other religious communities were persecuted. In one part of the inscription he declares:

“The false doctrines of Ahriman and of the idols suffered great blows and lost credibility. The Jews (Yahud), Buddhists (Shaman), Hindus (Brahman), Nazarenes (Nasara), Christians (Kristiyan), Baptists (Makdag) and Manichaeans (Zandik) were smashed in the empire, their idols destroyed, and the habitations of the idols annihilated and turned into abodes and seats of the gods”.

Historical records are not very clear with respect to the Jewish persecution at this time. Though we know a lot about the Christian, Manichean and Mazdaean persecutions, we hear nothing about the persecution in the Jewish records until the fifth century. The Jewish centers in Mesopotamia at this time were not as significant to the political processes as the Christians, Manichaeans or Mazdakites.

There is a phase of uncertainty and repression under Ardeshir (the first Sassanid king).  Jews having had excellent relations with the Parthians were suspected to be collaborators with the deposed dynasty and their movement was restricted. Under Shapur I, the rabbis and the Jewish representative at the court (exilarch) came to an understanding, by which the Jews were
granted more freedom of movement and the Sassanid could count on their compliance with taxing and general legal prescriptions. Shapur’s antagonism against the ruler of Palmyra (in Syria), who had destroyed the Jewish center of Nehardea when he invaded Babylonia, helped the situation and eased the tension between Shapur and his Jewish subjects.

In the wars between Rome and Shapur II, the Jews, unlike Christians, were decidedly loyal to the Persian king, with the exception of a few messianic groups. The later massive repression of the Jews under Yazdgird II, Peroz and Kavad was a result of political actions by such messianic groups, who anticipated the imminent arrival of a new Messiah on the 400th anniversary of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.

Iranian sources mention attacks by the Jews of Isfahan on the city’s Magi. Later persecutions were also politically motivated. Khosrow’s general Mahbad killed the Jewish followers of the pretender to the throne, Bahram Chobin. A further messianic revolt in Babylonia was ruthlessly put down in 640. At the beginning of the seventh century, the Jews watched the Sassanian offensive against Byzantium with great expectancy and joyfully welcomed the conquest of Jerusalem. At the same time, Christians were massacred in great numbers.

Little is known about the number of the Jewish inhabitants in the Sassanian Empire, but it must have been quite considerable, especially in Babylonia. By far the majority of Jews made their living by farming, although handicraft and trade also played a part. They lived predominantly in villages, but also with many ethnic, linguistic and religious groups in larger towns and cities.  There is no indication they were forced to live in closed Jewish quarters (Ghettos), as was the case in Islamic times.

They are mentioned as physicians, scholars, and philosophers. They taught at famous Iranian universities amongst other Christian, Indian, Roman, Greek and Persian scholars. Jewish Physicians along with Christians ran the famous Medical school Jundishapur for decades. Several members of the famous Christian families of Bukhtyishu and Masuya were involved in this school and had many Jewish assistants. Hunain b. Ishaq is the most famous Jewish physician of the early Islamic period. His family served at Jundishapur and he is credited with the best translations of Hippocratic and Galenic corpus into Arabic at the time of caliph al-Mutazid.

The conquest of Islam in the seventh century put an end to freedom of religion throughout the area. All polytheistic and pagan religions were banned all together with all the other Near and Far Eastern religions. Islam does not recognize these as true religions. All major and minor deities were eliminated as false gods. The house of Kaba contained 110 such deities alone, all were banished. The followers of all these religions became ‘kofar ‘ and were given the choice to either convert or die.

Allah a term used by local Christian tribes, meaning god, became the only sovereign God, the Almighty. Islam was the last and the most superior of all religions and Muslim males were made superior to all others including Muslim females. Christianity and Judaism were accepted as the only other true religions and their holy scripts were accepted as such. However, despite a large number of Christian and Jewish tribes in Arabia, their freedom was substantially restricted and their legal status lowered.

They were given the right to practice their religion if they paid a discriminatory religious poll tax called ‘jizya’. In Quran, these people are called dhimmis (ahle zimmeh); later Zoroastrians of Iran were included as well. Quran prohibits Muslims from becoming friends with Christians and Jews and calls the later liars, dishonest and violent. With Christians, they are forbidden from any participation in building Mosques. Mixed marriages were banned for Muslim women. While Muslims could not become slaves, all others were subjected to slavery as purchased slaves or war booty. Later on Christians and Jew were banned from riding horses while carrying arms and could not increase their numbers through conversion of others. They were segregated and their houses should not have exceeded those of the Muslims in height (the Jewish quarter in Kirman is the best example).

Courts of ‘Shariat’ became the only legal vessel and Quran gave Muslim males superior legal status. For instance, if a Jew or a Christian kills a Muslim, there is both ‘Ghesas’ (Physical punishment) and ‘Dyeh’ (Monetary compensation). If a Muslim kills a Jew or a Christian, there are no ghesas and they only pay dyeh, which is half of what the Jew or the Christian has to pay. There is no punishment for killing kofar (non-believers) or mortad (converters from Islam into other faiths).

In short, all except the Muslim males became second-class citizens (dhimmis). ‘Covenant of Ummar’ when Jerusalem was conquered made religious discrimination an institution. Ummar believed Arabia should be purely Muslim and Arab. The large Christian and Jewish communities of Arabia mainly in Najran, Khaybar, Hijaz, and Medina were expelled to the conquered territories and their properties confiscated. His bias, brutality, and discriminatory actions contributed to his assassination by a Persian slave.

The situation is worsening by the time of Harun Al Rashid in the eight-century AD. The overwhelming population of the area at the time was Christian, Zoroastrian, and Jewish. Their houses of worship were destroyed, they could not build any new ones and jizya was increased substantially. Payment of the jizya was furthermore to be accompanied by signs of humility and recognition of personal inferiority.

On payment of the tax a seal, generally of lead, was affixed to the payee’s person as a receipt and as a sign of the status of dhimma. By the time of Caliph Al Motevakel in the ninth century, non-Muslims were all excluded from employment in government sectors, banned from Muslim schools, had to live in closed quarters and were forced to wear colored ribbons to indicate they were non-Muslims. Jews had to wear yellow ribbons (Vasleh Johudaneh); a practice that persisted till the end of the 19th century in Iran.

Iran being part of the Greater Muslim Empire was subjected to the same rules. Since non-Muslims were forced out of the government institutions, they went into trade and banking.  A wealthy class of Jewish merchants emerged with cash but little political influence. Later on, the money was used by some wealthy Jews throughout the Empire to finance the Caliphs’ courts and wars, especially against the Crusaders. Exilarch still remained the vehicle through which Jewish affairs were regulated. The Muslim authorities appointed this figure.

Muslim treatment of the religious minorities varied in accordance with the policies of the caliphs and attitudes of different governors. While the Umayyad governor of Iran Hajjaj was ruthless and extremely biased others were more lenient and did not follow all the discriminatory rules. There were many Christian, Zoroastrian and Jewish Philosophers, physicians,
scientists, engineers, musicians and court administrators in the first century of the Muslim Empire. Later on, they all gradually convert or were forced out of government services. The coming of Abbasid improved the position of dhimmi for a while especially during the reign of Al Mansur. He was a devoted follower of the sciences and supported the great translation movement of the 8th century AD.

Initiated by the Syriac, Greek, Jews, and Persians to preserve the ancient knowledge, the movement started in Syria and flourished in Baghdad. Scientists and intellectuals from all over got together and thousands of books were translated into Arabic from Greek, Hebrew, Persian and other languages. Iranian Jews were writing dari (new Persian) in Hebrew characters, the same way Christians used Syriac script to write Persian.

Jewish court bankers (Jahabidha) are found at the courts of the Buyids, the Ghaznavids, and the Seljuk Sultans. Malik-Shah Seljuk contracted the farming of his Basra properties to a wealthy Jew named Ibn Allan for 150,000 dinars. The influential politician and educator, Nizam al-Mulk in his famous book Siasat Nameh rejects the employment of dhimmi in governmental services and at the same time provided refuge for his Jewish friend Ibn Allan who was eventually drowned as ordered by the Sultan. Under the Seljuk dhimmis were still segregated in their quarters, paid jizya and wore marked garments. They appointed their own religious officials subject to approval by the Muslim authorities.

The Jews were largely occupied in trade and commerce. The Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tuleda reports large Jewish and Christian communities in many of the larger cities. He visited the area after the death of Sultan Sanjar (1157) and mentions Jewish communities in Hamadan, Isfahan, Nihavand, Shiraz, Nishapur, and Baghdad. On the whole, there appears to have been little discrimination against the dhimmis other than the usual restrictions. In one incident a prominent Jew, Abu Sad Samha successfully made a claim against Abu Shuja the Minister responsible for dhimmis. He claimed Abu Shuja had failed to protect the Jews and managed to get the Minster sacked. Samha worked for Malik Shah and was a friend of Nizam al-Mulk. At the same time, Malik Shah in a new decree made it obligatory for the dhimmis to wear distinguishing marks on their clothes. Such orders were issued from time to time which indicates that these restrictions were not permanently enforced. However, the Jewish clans who supported the Ismaili movement were gravely punished and massacres took place in the Zagros and Luristan regions.

The Mongol dynasties were a lot more tolerant to the religious minorities. Under the Mongol leader, Hulagu (1258 AD), the concept of the dhimmi and the division between “believers” and “nonbelievers” were abolished. Once again non-Muslims were employed in the government institutions. For the first time, a substantial Judeo-Persian literature emerges and jizya ceased to exist for a while. It was restored and quickly abolished by Ghazan and reintroduced by Oljeitu and this time for good. The Mongol Emperor Arghun appointed Jewish physician Sa’d al-Daula of Abhar as his Prime Minister. The act alienated the Muslim population and created resentment. The Minister was executed in 1291 and the Jewish quarters were savagely ransacked in Tabriz and Baghdad. Rahid al-Din Fazhl Allah Hamadani was another famous physician and historian from a Jewish background who served the Il-Khan Oljeitu. He is known as the greatest Minster of this dynasty and wrote the famous history of the Mongols from the beginning to the time of Ghazan Khan. He was also put to death in 1318.

His famous library of 60,000 books was ransacked and the suburban area in Tabriz, Rub-i Rashidi build by him was looted. His severed head was taken to Tabriz and carried out about the town with cries of; “this is the head of the Jew who abused the name of God; may God’s curse be upon him”. In 1399 his remains were exhumed and reburied in a Jewish cemetery. Rashid al-Din is credited with a major administrative and tax reform while serving as a Minister and is known as the most important historian of his time.

The next major change comes with the Safavids in the 16th century. Shiism is introduced as the state religion. A religious hierarchy is established with unlimited power and influence in every sphere of life. The concept of “ritual pollution” (najes) of the non-Muslims is introduced. Suffering and persecution of all religious groups particularly the Sunnis become a norm (this period is one of the worst with respect to human rights in Iran).

Jewish chronicles are full of accounts of massacre, forced conversion into Islam and mistreatment. New institutions are created; nasi became the head of the Jewish community assisted by the rabbi, mullah (Jewish one), or dayyan. The nasi was responsible for the prompt payment of jizya to local authorities. All relations between Iranian Jews and others outside the country were completely severed. Christians and Zoroastrians were subjected to the same harsh treatments and Sunnis suffered most. Segregation became a reality again for all minorities and Jewish Ghettos were reinforced. The reports by European travelers and missionaries describe the tragic situation of the Jews and other religious minorities. Jews were forced to wear both a yellow badge and a headgear, and their oath was not accepted in courts of justice. A Jew who converted to Islam could claim to be the sole inheritor of the family property, to the exclusion of all Jewish relatives. If one Jew committed a crime or an illegal act, the whole community would be punished (other religious minorities were subjected to the same harsh treatments).

The Jewish community of Iran saw little change till the 19th century. In one incident the Jewish quarters were looted in Mashad. The anti-Jewish sentiment reached its peak when the whole Jewish community in the city was forced to convert to Islam in 1839 under Muhammad Shah Qajar. Europeans intervened for the first time and the decree was reversed. The first modern
Jewish School, Alliance was opened after a long and frustrating debate with heavy pressure from Europeans and the International Jewish Alliance in 1891 by an order from Nasser E’ din Shah. Once opened, the students and the teachers would have to be escorted by the police to stop the mob from attacking them (All modern schools, especially girls’ schools, were subjected to the same attacks by religious Fatwas). Jewish chronicles report Qajar period as one of the worst in their history.

The end of the 19th century is the beginning of fundamental changes in Iran and the start of the Constitutional Revolution. Jewish partisans along with other minorities participated in the movement. They were instrumental in forming the first multiethnic Secret Society of 1905, which began the debate on political change. Jews, Christians, Bahai, and Zoroastrians fought hard with the constitutionalists to form a National Consultative Majlis instead of an Islamic Majlis as demanded by the religious hierarchy. Along with other religious minorities, they succeeded in their efforts to ratify laws that gave equality to Muslim and non-Muslim (male) citizens in 1907 and defined a new concept of Nationality not based on religious origins (with the exception of Bahai who were not recognized).

According to the new constitution Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians had the right to elect one delegate each to the Majlis, but they could not participate in elections of other delegates. The constitution also prohibited non-Shiite Muslims from becoming a member of the Government. This was ignored by the Pahlavi regime and there were non-Muslim high government officials even Bahai by the 1970’s.

Such gains did not put an end to discriminatory practices and attitudes. Jewish quarters were still attacked and looted in Mashad, Tabriz, and Tehran at the beginning of this century by religious Fatwas. Though the constitution of 1907 put an end to the segregation of religious minorities and Jewish Ghettos, it was at the time of Reza Shah that they were able to integrate into the larger Iranian society without fear from Fatwas.

Reza Shah was the first Iranian Monarch after 1400 years that paid respect to the Jews by praying to the Torah and bowing in front of it when visiting the Jewish community of Isfahan. An act that boosted the self-esteem of the Iranian Jews and made Reza Shah the second most respected Iranian leader after Cyrus the Great. Still, when in the 1970’s, they showed up to support the Iranian Football team against Israel in the Asian games in Tehran, they were beaten up by the mob and the Iranian flags they were carrying were taken away.

In 1948, there was a high concentration of Jewish communities in Kurdistan. There were around 12,000 Jews scattered in approximately 15 Jewish settlements in Iranian Kurdistan. After the formation of the State of Israel, many Jews in the area left for Tehran, in transit to Israel. The move angered the Muslim authorities. In March 1950, 12 Jews were murdered in Kurdistan. As a result, more Jews moved to Tehran and demanded protection. The Iranian government guaranteed their safe passage. By March 1951, 8000, Iranian Jews had moved to Israel, the first major emigration in the 20th century. After the formation of Israel in 1949, all the Muslim countries in the region expelled their local Jewish population except Iran. By 1966, the number of Jews immigrated to Israel had reached 22,000.

Kanoun e Javanan Yahudi formed in 1938, was the first Jewish Youth Organization in Iran. The first Iranian Jewish women’s organization (Sazman Banovan Yahud i Iran) was established in 1947. Headed by Mrs. Shamsi Hekmat, the organization provided help to the needy and established branches in several towns. The first Jewish hospital opened in Tehran in 1958.

Since the conquest of Islam, Iranian Jews (and other religious minorities) have been instrumental in preserving Iranian music especially in Safavid times when music was restricted. Also, many ancient rituals and traditions long forgotten by the Iranian Muslims are still practiced by the Jews as part of their festivals and celebrations. Illanout (tree festival) celebrated in February by Iranian Jews is identical to Shab e Cheleh and is a lot more elaborate, reminiscence of the pre-Islamic celebrations.

In Iranian folklore, Jews are portrayed as mean, misery and polluted (Najes). Children were warned not to go to Jewish quarters because they would be kidnapped and Jews would drink their blood. They are used as stereotypes to portray evil characters by the likes of Mulana Jalaledin Rumi, Nezami, Sadi and many other literary figures. They could not touch water sources and when rained stayed indoors, since rain touching them would pollute the soil. At the times of persecution, their water sources would be cut off.

The Jewish quarter of Kirman had preserved many characteristics of these segregated ghettos till recently. The lanes were extremely narrow, rarely more than five feet wide. The compound walls on either side were 10 to 12 feet high, with jagged glass and stone set in the top to discourage entry. Massive oaken doors strengthened by metal studs guarded the entrances to the houses. One had to stoop to enter the low portals since the height should be lower than the Muslim homes. These details were also designed to prevent mounted horsemen from effectively attacking its residents. All facilities necessary were inside the quarter. The synagogues bore no external symbols, so they were difficult to locate. All transaction with Jews would be through special intermediaries not to pollute Muslim tradesmen.

The Islamic Revolution of 1979, made Shariat the legal code and therefore gender and religious discriminations are an integral part of the system. Bahai once again is not recognized at all, Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians each have one representative in the Parliament and are not legally forbidden from employment in the government sector. But since the authorities only employ Muslims and a ‘Shariat test’ is required, in reality, these people are once again barred from working for the government. Like Bahaies it was very difficult for them to leave Iran for a decade after the revolution and restrictions still apply. They are accepted into Universities but are not given access to postgraduate studies, though no law prohibits them. Their monetary transactions are monitored closely to make sure no money is sent out. There were 85000 Iranian Jews before 1979, almost half have emigrated mainly to the USA. The largest exodus since Darius’ time when 30,000 left joyfully to rebuild their temple. Their departure this time has not been a happy one!

Massoume Price

For information on Jews in Quran search ‘ THE KORAN’ online at the University of Virginia or any other English translations of  (Quran/Koran) online. Use the words Jews, Jewish, Moses to conduct your search.