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The Jewish community of Persia, modern-day Iran, is one of the oldest in the Diaspora, and its historical roots reach back to the 6th century B.C.E., the time of the First Temple.
Jewish history in the pre-Islamic period is intertwined with that of the Jews of neighboring Babylon. Cyrus, the first of the Archemid dynasty, conquered Babylon in 539 B.C.E. and permitted the Jewish exiles to return to the Land of Israel, bringing the First Exile to an end. The Jewish colonies were scattered from centers in Babylon to Persian provinces and cities such as Hamadan and Susa. The books of Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel give a favorable description of the relationship of the Jews to the court of the Achaemids at Susa.
Under the Sassanid dynasty (226-642 C.E.), the Jewish population in Persia grew considerably and spread throughout the region; nevertheless, Jews suffered intermittent oppression and persecution. The invasion by Arab Muslims in 642 C.E. terminated the independence of Persia, installed Islam as the state religion, and made a deep impact on the Jews by changing their sociopolitical status.
Throughout the 19th century, Jews were persecuted and discriminated against. Sometimes whole communities were forced to convert. During the 19th century, there was considerable emigration to the Land of Israel, and the Zionist movement spread throughout the community.
On October 30, 1910, 12 members of the Jewish community of Shiraz, Iran, were killed and the city’s Jewish quarter plundered, as angry mobs responded to an accusation that Jews had ritually murdered a Muslim girl. The pogrom followed rumors of Jewish desecration of a Koran and despite the efforts of a representative of the French human-rights organization Alliance Israelite Universelle to alleviate tensions, the situation worsened when the body of Muslim girl was reported to have been found near the Jewish cemetery. (The Alliance representative later reported that the decayed remains found turned out to belong to a Jewish girl who had died some time before.)
An angry mob gathered, and rather than being dispersed by government troops, was actually led by them in surrounding and then attacking the Jewish quarter. Over the course of the following hours, every home in the quarter was looted, and everything with valuable belonging to the quarter’s residents was stolen. Although most of the Jews escaped, among those who remained or tried to defend themselves, a dozen were killed and more than 50 wounded. According to the first-hand account filed the next day by the Alliance representative, “the 5,000 to 6,000 people comprising the Shiraz community now possess nothing in the world but the few tatters they were wearing when their quarter was invaded.”
Under the Phalevi Dynasty, established in 1925, the country was secularized and oriented toward the West. This greatly benefited the Jews, who were emancipated and played an important role in the economy and in cultural life. Following World War II, Iran created the Council of the Jewish Community, which serves as the representative body of the community. The Jews were also given a representative in parliament, though he was obligated by law to support Iranian foreign policy.
On the eve of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, 80,000 Jews lived in Iran. In the wake of the upheaval, tens of thousands of Jews, especially the wealthy, left the country, leaving behind vast amounts of property.
Following the overthrow of the shah and the declaration of an Islamic state, Iran severed relations with Israel. The country has subsequently supported many of the Islamic terrorist organizations that target Jews and Israelis, particularly the Lebanon-based, Hezbollah. Nevertheless, Iran's Jewish community is the largest in the Middle East outside Israel.
Despite the official distinction between "Jews," "Zionists," and "Israel," the most common accusation the Jews encounter is that of maintaining contacts with Zionists. The Jewish community does enjoy a measure of religious freedom but is faced with constant suspicion of cooperating with the Zionist state and with "imperialistic America" — both such activities are punishable by death. Jews who apply for a passport to travel abroad must do so in a special bureau and are immediately put under surveillance. The government does not generally allow all members of a family to travel abroad at the same time to prevent Jewish emigration. Again, the Jews live under the status of dhimmi, with the restrictions im posed on religious minorities. Jewish leaders fear government reprisals if they draw attention to official mistreatment of their community.
Iran's official government-controlled media often issues anti-Semitic propaganda. A prime example is the government's publishing of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious Czarist forgery, in 1994 and 1999. Jews also suffer varying degrees of officially sanctioned discrimination, particularly in the areas of employment, education, and public accommodations.
The Islamization of the country has brought about strict control over Jewish educational institutions. Before the revolution, there were some 20 Jewish schools functioning throughout the country. In recent years, most of these have been closed down. In the remaining schools, Jewish principals have been replaced by Muslims. In Tehran there are still three schools in which Jewish pupils constitute a majority. The curriculum is Islamic, and Persian is forbidden as the language of instruction for Jewish studies. Special Hebrew lessons are conducted on Fridays by the Orthodox Otzar ha-Torah organization, which is responsible for Jewish religious education. Saturday is no longer officially recognized as the Jewish sabbath, and Jewish pupils are compelled to attend school on that day. There are three synagogues in Tehran, but since 1994, there has been no rabbi in Iran, and the bet din does not function.
On the eve of Passover in 1999, 13 Jews from Shiraz and Isfahan in southern Iran were arrested and accused of spying for Israel and the United States. In September 2000, an Iranian appeals court upheld a decision to imprison ten of the thirteen Jews accused of spying for Israel. In the appeals court, ten of the accused were found guilty of cooperating with Israel and were given prison terms ranging from two to nine years. Three of the accused were found innocent in the first trial. In March 2001, one of the imprisoned Jews was released, a second was freed in January 2002, the remaining eight were set free in late October 2002. The last five apparently were released on furlough for an indefinite period, leaving them vulnerable to future arrest. Three others were reportedly pardoned by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
At least 13 Jews have been executed in Iran since the Islamic revolution, most of them for either religious reasons or their connection to Israel. For example, in May 1998, Jewish businessman Ruhollah Kakhodah-Zadeh was hanged in prison without a public charge or legal proceeding, apparently for assisting Jews to emigrate.
Today, Iran's Jewish population is the second largest in the Middle East, after Israel. Reports vary as to the condition and treatment of the small, tight-knit community, and the population of Iranian Jews can only be estimated due to the community’s isolation from world Jewry. An estimated 5,000 Jews remain in the city of Shiraz today.