Brief History of Jewish life in Persia.

Persian Jews were amongst the earliest settlers outside Judea; legend connects their origin with at least three events in history. The first is the deportation of the Israelites in 724 BCE from Samaria to the cities of Medea and Persia (known as Iran from 1935). The second is the migration at the time of the Assyrians (705BCE); the third, the destruction of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar (586BCE).

During the Cyrus declaration (538 BCE), some Jews were allowed back to their homeland Judea. Those who were financially well established returned to Babylonian-Persian soil. These communities were probably the original Jews of Persia who also expanded into the provinces of Ecbatan and Susan. The tolerant attitude of the rulers at the time allowed personalities such as Ezra, Daniel, Esther and Mordecai to play a role in the Persian court.

When Alexander established his empire, the size of the Jewish community was unaffected; in fact, over the next four centuries it grew rapidly. Jews migrated into neighbouring territories. Settle-ments during the Babylonian period existed in the provinces of Medea, Elam, Khurdistan, Susiana, Hulvan, Nehamand, Hamadan, Ahwaz, Susa, Tustar and as far as the Persian Gulf. The favourable political climate allowed Jews complete freedom in trades such as handicrafts, weaving, gold- and silversmithing, jewellery and as merchants. The successful found their way to Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasids (762), Ahwaz, Isfahan and Shiraz.

It is noteworthy that although Zoroastrians dominated the country at the time, they had no interest in proselytising, as did other religions. Yet Zoroaster’s teachings deserve to rank with the utterances of the great Hebrew prophets in giving religious direction and order to the uncertain world of the ancient Middle East. Zoroastar’s dualism in fact influenced Judeo-Christian-Muslim traditions but by itself did not survive.

In the 10th century, Jews were trusted as bankers and holders of depositories.The Caliphs of the period and the courts entrusted them with large sums; they engaged in lending and borrowing.

Under Islamic rule, Jewish colonies were established in all the Persian provinces. Jews outnumbered the Christian religious minority in southwest Persia. In contrast, in other provinces such as Fars, the Zoroastrians (who were the dominant religion before Islam) out- numbered others. The geographers of the 12th century conducted a census and put the regional Jewish population at around 200,000, although this figure is questionable.

The presence of Persian Jewry also invited varying degrees of persecution and discrimination under different rulers.

During the Safawid’s dynasty shiism was proclaimed as the state religion: hatred for minorities was at its peak (1600). The second half of the 17th century was a difficult time for the Jews. Shah Abbas II crusaded against Hebrew books and Jews were made to wear special hand and head gear for identification purposes. This followed by forced conversion especially in the city of Isfahan.

Despite the Islamization of the Jews, most adhered tenaciously in secret to their religion and began to live a dual life. It was not till Nadir Shah came into power that annihilation was avoided and Jews were able to return openly to their religion. A central board based in Isfahan dealt with their tax affairs and acted as their representative in the government. However, this was soon decentralised and Jews began to have their own representatives in the provinces. In the larger cities ‘Jewish Quarters’ segregated the minority groups; these had synagogues, Mikveh and institutions. Despite this the Jews of Persia maintained contact with the outside world, and in all probability with Eretz Israel too, through messengers who toured the provinces.

In the 18th century the Jews began to migrate to Afghanistan, Turkestan, Samarkand, Bukhara, Kurdistan and Egypt and into India. The Kajar Dynasty, until well into the 19th century, displayed intolerance towards the Jews. Oppression and persecution followed as Jews were forced to convert, notably in the city of Meshad (see footnote) under Muhammad Shah (1839). It was only in the 19th century when Persian Jewry acquired a powerful ally in their struggle for justice – Western Jewry. Their plight moved the Anglo-Jewish community under Sir Moses Montefiore and the Alliance Israelite Universelle, who intervened with the ministers in Tehran (1865).

When in 1873 Nasir-ed-in Shah travelled through Europe, Anglo-Jewry and communities in major continental cities presented him with petitions asking him to improve Persian Jewry’s lot. The Shah was met by Disraeli and Sir Moses Montefiore, and following his visit to Paris, by Adolphe Cremieux. He was impressed by the unity of the Jews and their cause and promised to improve their situation and to establish centres of Jewish learning in Persia. The rule of Muzaffarin-din-Shah was a turning point. The Alliance Israelite Universelle school was established in 1898 in Tehran. Later Alliance schools were set up in Hamadan, Isfahan and Shiraz.

However, up to the outbreak of the first World War and between 1921 and 1924 uncertainties on the political and economical front brought tremendous hardship to the lives of the community. In spite of this the Zionist Federation was openly active in the country and responsible for the immigration of Jews to Eretz Israel. Hebrew phrases were used in printed text and in schools of learning. When Reza Shah (1921) deported the last Kajar ruler and founded the Pahlavi Dynasty, conditions for Persian Jewry changed funda-mentally. The King introduced radical reforms into the community, fostering growth and prosperity. This change would have been inconceivable in any of the neighbouring Islamic countries except perhaps in moderate Turkey. At the outbreak of the Second World War, the regeneration of Jewish life in Iran was again in jeopardy. However the allied victory and the King’s successor, Muhammad Shah, created a very favourable climate and potential for the re-growth of the Jews. Vocational training was further augmented after 1944 by the establishment of O.R.T. Azar-ha-torah encouraged the learning of Judaism and Hebrew.

The revolution of 1978 resulted in uncertainty over the future of about 40,000 Jews still remaining in the country. Nonetheless, at present Jews are fairly content living side by side with their Muslim neighbours. They engage in all religious, educational and business activities as in pre-Revolutionary times. They are also represented by a Jewish member in the Iranian Majlis (Parliament).

Their freedom may be curtailed not because of religious differences but perhaps because the country and region as a whole is facing economical and political dif-ficulties.


*Footnote

The Jews of Meshad deserve a special mention, as their life in Persia was so remarkable and rather different from that of their counterparts. During the reign of Nader Shah (1736-1747) a group of Jews numbering some forty families were ordered to be transferred from the northern provinces to the city of Kelat (the proposed capital at the time). This was in recognition of their enormous talent as business people, known for their trustworthiness. They were invited to participate in the running of the Shah’s vast fortune and financial institutions. Hardly had the first family settled in the city when the Shah ( a member of the Sunni Moslem minority) was assas-sinated. There was no longer a reason to keep them in Kelat and the community dispersed. Many eventually moved to the nearby city of Meshad for the next two centuries and were subject to all the usual constraints; probably even more so because of the importance of the city as a centre of pilgrimage and its holiness in the Islamic world. The community was disciplined and self- motivated with almost negligible inter-marriage taking place not just with the non-Jews but with the Jewish communities of other Persian provinces. Although outwardly made to convert to Islam, it never lost its Jewish faith or neglected its religious rituals, remarkably surviving throughout its difficult history and continued its Jewish religious activities to the full, even in secret. In striving for survival it developed a highly organised society and resolved its problems using an nternal and integrated network of people and religious figures. At the same time it retained a good relationship with the powerful Islamic community. The majority of its members were engaged in business (which they had an exceptional talent for). A few managed to break with tradition and went on to higher education, becoming scholars, academics and medics.

It is now more than half a century since the community of Meshad left the city for the Diaspora, living in major cities around the world. However these people still maintain an apparent unity and the same socio-cultural behaviour as in the past.


Dr. Mehran Lavy-Moheban

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