Highest Jewish population: c. 140,000 in 1940s
There are several biblical references to Jews in Iran and there has been a continual historically evidenced Jewish presence in Iran dating back at least 2,000 years. After the Arab conquest of Iran in 651CE, Jews in the country were subject to dhimmi status and laws, their fortunes fluctuating with various rulers of the age. In the early 16th century Iran unified and a process of conversion to Shi’a Islam followed. Under the new Shi’a principles, Jews and other ‘non-believers’ were deemed ritually impure and subject to harsh laws and ostracization from the wider Muslim population.
In 1739 the ruler of Iran, Nadir Shah, invaded India. Under his reign, Jews experienced relative tolerance and on his return from India the ruler established a Jewish community in the city of Mashhad, in the North East of Iran. This community was to oversee his new commercial interests in the area, and the Jewish community of Mashhad prospered. However, throughout Iran, both stigma and laws ensured Jews lived repressed lives with few freedoms or opportunities. Frequent riots, murders, and false accusations were a common part of life for the Jews of Iran.
In Mashhad, the situation of the Jewish community had been progressively deteriorating. In 1839 a pogrom, known as the Allahdad, broke out. Thirty-six Jews were murdered, with many more injured. The community were given a choice: convert to Islam or die. The Jewish community of Mashhad therefore became secret Jews. They outwardly practiced Islam, but secretly continued to practice Judaism. In 1890, some Mashhadi Jews were given permission to make Hajj and travel to Mecca, instead, they escaped to Jerusalem.
Around this time, eminent European Jews, such as Sir Moses Montefiore in the UK, began to place pressure on the Shah regarding Iran’s treatment of the country’s Jews. In response, the Shah brought forward some administrative changes, however they were not adhered to by local governments and further violent riots broke out in the 1888 in the cities of Shiraz and Isfahan. During this period, many Jews left Iran for what was then British Mandated Palestine.
Between 1906 and 1909 Iran underwent a constitutional revolution; a parliament was established; the monarchy was redefined as a constitutional monarchy and for the first time religious and secular laws were combined. This meant that for the first time in centuries, Jews were equal according to the law in Iran and a single seat was reserved in the Iranian parliament for a Jewish representative. Riots continued to break out against Jews, especially outside of Tehran. In 1910, a blood libel in Shiraz led to the murder of twelve Jews.
The 1920s marked a turning point in modern Iranian history. Reza Shah Pahlavi had risen through the military ranks and was appointed monarch in December 1925. After his coronation in April 1926, Iran underwent a period of industrialisation and a series of radical social, economic, and political reforms. Citizens were permitted freedom of religious practice and communities such as that in Mashhad began to practice Judaism openly for the first time in nearly a century. Whilst Jewish schools had previously been permitted in Iran, they were now allowed to teach Hebrew. Jews, who had been restricted in their occupations, could now work freely, and Jewish newspapers were printed.
Despite this, the regime was repressive towards dissenters. There was no freedom of press and in his quest to create a unified Iranian identity, all dissenting political ideologies were heavily supressed by Reza Shah. Communism, but also Zionism, was effectively outlawed. Reza Shah was additionally sympathetic to Nazi ideology and throughout the 1930s and early 1940s a series of commercial agreements between Iran and Nazi Germany were signed. By the time of World War II, nightly Nazi broadcasts were being broadcast on the radio, swastikas were graffitied onto Jewish homes and businesses, and calls for a massacre against the country’s Jews were growing. In 1941 Allied forces took control of Iran, preventing such action, and Reza Shah was forced to abdicate.
After WWII, Iran was thrown into a period of instability. Under the new Shah, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (Reza Shah’s son), some elections were held, although the governments remained weak and transient. During this period the powers of the clergy strengthened. This weakening of secular power, increased religiosity, and the establishment of the State of Israel, led to an increase in antisemitic sentiment around the country.
In 1953 a coup d’état supported by the United States and Britain, replaced the government and strengthened the position of Mohammad Reza Shah as a ruling monarch. In a period dominated by harsh repression of political dissent and a growing urban/rural divide, the Jews of Iran enjoyed unprecedented equality and religious freedom. Close political ties were established between Iran and Israel, and yet, despite this newfound liberty, the Jewish population in Iran had been steadily decreasing. In the period between the end of WWII and the Iranian Revolution of 1979 it is estimated that one third of Iran’s Jews – the majority of them the poorest members of Jewish society - left the country. This, together with the economic boom in Iran’s urban centres, meant that by 1970 only 10% of Iran’s Jews were classified as impoverished.
The Iranian Revolution began in October 1977 with a series of protests that intensified throughout 1978 until January 1979 when Mohammad Reza Shah fled Iran. Several Jewish organisations, most notably the Association of Jewish Iranian Intellectuals, joined the protests. As protests intensified in December 1978 the Jewish hospital run by Dr Sapir in Tehran opened its doors to injured protestors and became a focal point for safe medical care. The success of the protestors and the exile of Mohammad Reza Shah left a power vacuum waiting to be filled by the many rival factions of the revolution. As the United States gave refuge to the Shah and the Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile to Iran in February 1979, the revolution was rebranded as an Islamic Revolution and the country declared an Islamic Republic in April 1979.
A month later, Habib Elghanian, a prominent Jewish businessman and community leader was subjected to a show trial after being charged with Zionism. He was executed immediately following the trial. The execution of Habib Elghanian was a watershed moment for Iranian Jewry and in the weeks after his death it is estimated 60,000 Jews left Iran. In the years following the revolution it is thought that a further 20-30,000 Jews left the country.
After the revolution, around 20,000 Jews chose to remain in Iran. The community is free to practice Judaism, and has retained its seat in the Iranian parliament. Today the exact number of Jews in Iran is unknown, with estimates ranging from anything between 8,000 and 15,000.