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The beginnings of Jewish history in Iran date back to late Biblical times. The biblical books of Isaiah, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, contain references to the life and experiences of Jews in Persia. In the book of Ezra, the Persian kings are credited with permitting and enabling the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple; its reconstruction was carried out "according to the decree of Cyrus, and Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia" (Ezra 6:14). This great event in Jewish history took place in the late 6th century BC, by which time there was a well-established and influential Jewish community in Persia.
Persian Jews have lived in the territories of today's Iran for over 2,700 years, since the first Jewish diaspora when the Assyrian king Shalmaneser V conquered the (Northern) Kingdom of Israel (722 BC) and sent the Israelites (the Ten Lost Tribes) into captivity at Khorasan. In 586 BC, the Babylonians expelled large populations of Jews from Judea to the Babylonian captivity.
Jews who migrated to ancient Persia mostly lived in their own communities. The Persian Jewish communities include the ancient (and until the mid-20th century still-extant) communities not only of Iran, but of parts of what is now Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, northwestern India, Kirgizstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Some of the communities were isolated from other Jewish communities, to the extent that their classification as "Persian Jews" is a matter of linguistic or geographical convenience rather than actual historical relationship with one another. During the peak of the Persian Empire, Jews are thought to have comprised as much as 20% of the population.
According to Encyclopædia Britannica: "The Jews trace their heritage in Iran to the Babylonian Exile of the 6th century BC and, like the Armenians, have retained their ethnic, linguistic, and religious identity." However, a Library of Congress country study on Iran states that "Over the centuries the Jews of Iran became physically, culturally, and linguistically indistinguishable from the non-Jewish population. The overwhelming majority of Jews speak Persian as their mother language, and a tiny minority, Kurdish."
Three times during the 6th century BC, the Jews (Hebrews) of the ancient Kingdom of Judah were exiled to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. These three separate occasions are mentioned in Jeremiah (52:28-30). The first exile was in the time of Jehoiachin in 597 BC, when the Temple of Jerusalem was partially despoiled and a number of the leading citizens exiled. After eleven years (in the reign of Zedekiah) a new Judean uprising took place; the city was razed to the ground, and a further exile ensued. Finally, five years later, Jeremiah records a third exile. After the overthrow of Babylonia by the Achaemenid Empire, Cyrus the Great gave the Jews permission to return to their native land (537 BC). According to the Hebrew Bible (See Jehoiakim; Ezra; Nehemiah and Jews) more than forty thousand are said to have availed themselves of the privilege, however this is not supported by modern scholarship. Lester Grabbe argues that the immigration would probably only have amounted to a trickle over decades, with the archaeological record showing no evidence of large scale increases in population at any time during the Persian period. Cyrus also allowed them to practice their religion freely (See Cyrus Cylinder) unlike the previous Assyrian and Babylonian rulers.
Cyrus ordered the rebuilding of the Second Temple in the same place as the first but died before it was completed. Darius the Great, after the short-lived rule of Cambyses, came to power over the Persian Empire and ordered the completion of the Temple. This was undertaken with the stimulus of the earnest counsels and admonitions of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. It was ready for consecration in the spring of 515 BC, more than twenty years after the Jews' return from exile.
In the Book of Esther, Haman is described as an Agagite noble and vizier of the Persian Empire under Persian King Ahasuerus, generally identified by Biblical scholars as possibly being Xerxes I in 6th century BCE. Haman and his wife Zeresh instigated a plot to murder all the Jews of ancient Persia. The plot was foiled by Queen Esther and Mordechai; and, as a result, Haman and his ten sons were hanged. The events of the Book of Esther are celebrated on the Jewish holiday Purim.
Jewish sources contain no mention of the Parthian influence and the name "Parthia" does not occur. The Armenian prince Sanatroces, of the royal house of the Arsacides, is mentioned in the "Small Chronicle" as one of the successors (diadochoi) of Alexander. Among other Asiatic princes, the Roman rescript in favor of the Jews reached a Prince Arsaces as well (I Macc. xv. 22); it is not, however, specified which Arsaces. Not long after, the Partho-Babylonian country was invaded by a Jewish army. The Syrian king, Antiochus Sidetes, marched against the Parthians in company with Hyrcanus I. When the allied armies defeated the Parthians (129 BC) at the Great Zab (Lycus), the king ordered a ceasefire of two days on account of the Jewish Sabbath and Shavuot. In 40 BC, the Jewish puppet-king, Hyrcanus II., fell into the hands of the Parthians cut off his ears in order to render him unfit for rulership. The Jews of Babylonia, it seems, intended to create a high-priesthood for the exiled Hyrcanus, independent of the Land of Israel. However, the reverse happened: the Judean Jews accepted a Babylonian Jew, Ananel, as their High Priest which indicates the high esteem in which the Jews of Babylonia were held. In religious matters the Babylonians, like the rest of the Diaspora, were dependent upon the Land of Israel and Jerusalem in particular, to which they were expected to travel in order to observe the festivals.
The Parthian Empire was an enduring empire based on a loosely configured system of vassal kings. This lack of a rigidly centralized rule over the empire had its drawbacks, such as the rise of a Jewish bandit-state in Nehardea (see Anilai and Asinai). Yet, the tolerance of the Arsacid dynasty was as legendary as the first Persian dynasty, the Achaemenids. There is even an account that indicates the conversion of a small number of Parthian vassal kings of Adiabene to Judaism. These instances and others show not only the tolerance of Parthian kings, but is also a testament to the extent to which the Parthians saw themselves as the heir to the preceding empire of Cyrus the Great. The Parthians were very protective of the Jewish minority as reflected in old Jewish saying “When you see a Parthian charger chained to a tombstone in the Land of Israel, the hour of the Messiah will be near”.
The Babylonian Jews wanted to fight in common cause with their Judean brethren against Vespasian; but it was not until the Romans waged war under Trajan against Parthia that they acted. To a large extent, the revolt of the Babylonian Jews meant that the Romans did not become masters of Babylonia. Philo speaks of the large number of Jews resident in that country, a population which was no doubt considerably swelled by new immigrants after the destruction of Jerusalem. Accustomed in Jerusalem from early times to look to the East for help, and aware, as the Roman procurator Petronius was, that the Jews of Babylon could render effectual assistance, Babylonia became with the fall of Jerusalem the very bulwark of Judaism. The collapse of the Bar Kochba revolt no doubt added to the number of Jewish refugees in Babylon.
Possibly it was recognition of services thus rendered by the Jews of Babylonia, and by the House of David in particular, that induced the Parthian kings to elevate the princes of the Exile, who until then had been little more than mere tax collectors, to the dignity of real princes, called Resh Galuta. Thus, then, the numerous Jewish subjects were provided with a central authority which assured an undisturbed development of their own internal affairs.
By the early 3rd century, Persian influences were on the rise again. In the winter of 226 AD, Ardashir I overthrew the last Parthian king (Artabanus IV), destroyed the rule of the Arsacids, and founded the illustrious dynasty of the Sassanids. While Hellenistic influence had been felt amongst the religiously tolerant Parthians, the Sassanids intensified the Persian side of life, favored the Pahlavi language, and restored the old monotheistic religion of Zoroastrianism which became the official state religion. This resulted in the suppression of other religions. A priestly Zoroastrian inscription from the time of King Bahram II (276–293 AD) contains a list of religions (including Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism etc.) that Sassanid rule claimed to have "smashed".
Shapur I (Or Shvor Malka, which is the Aramaic form of the name) was friendly to the Jews. His friendship with Shmuel gained many advantages for the Jewish community. According to rabbinical sources Shapur II's mother was Jewish, and this gave the Jewish community relative freedom of religion and many advantages. He was also friend of a Babylonian rabbi in the Talmud named Raba (Talmud)[disambiguation needed], Raba's friendship with Shapur II enabled him to secure a relaxation of the oppressive laws enacted against the Jews in the Persian Empire. In addition, Raba sometimes referred to his top student Abaye with the term Shvur Malka meaning "Shaput [the] King" because of his quick intellect.
Both Christians and Jews suffered occasional persecution; but the latter, dwelling in more compact masses in cities like Isfahan, were not exposed to such general persecutions as broke out against the more isolated Christians. Generally, this was a period of occasional persecutions for the Jews, followed by long periods of benign neglect in which Jewish learning thrived. In the 5th century, the Jews suffered from persecution during the reigns of Yazdegerd II and Peroz.
After the Islamic conquest of Persia, Jews, along with Christians and Zoroastrians, were assigned the status of dhimmis, inferior subjects of the Islamic empire. Dhimmis were allowed to practice their religion, but were forced to pay taxes (jizya, a poll tax, and initially also kharaj, a land tax) in favor of the Arab Muslim conquerors, and as a compensation for being excused from military service and payment of poor tax incumbent on Muslims. Dhimmis were also required to submit to a number of social and legal disabilities; they were prohibited from bearing arms, riding horses, testifying in courts in cases involving a Muslim, and frequently required to wear clothes that clearly distinguished them from Muslims. Although some of these restrictions were sometimes relaxed, the overall condition of inequality remained in force until the Mongol invasion.
In 1255, Mongols led by Hulagu Khan began a charge on Persia, and in 1257 they captured Baghdad, thus ending the Abbasid caliphate. In Persia and surrounding areas, the Mongols established a division of the Mongol Empire known as the Ilkhanate. The Ilkhanate considered all religions equal, and Mongol rulers abolished the unequal status of the dhimmi classes. One of the Ilkhanate rulers, Arghun Khan, even preferred Jews and Christians for administrative positions and appointed Sa'd al-Daula, a Jew, as his vizier. The appointment, however, provoked resentment from the Muslim clergy, and after Arghun's death in 1291, al-Daula was murdered and Persian Jews suffered a period of violent clergy-instigated persecutions from the Muslim populace. The contemporary Christian historian Bar Hebraeus wrote that of the violence committed against the Jews during that period "neither tongue can utter, nor the pen write down".
Ghazan Khan's conversion to Islam in 1295 heralded for Persian Jews a pronounced turn for the worse, as they were once again relegated to the status of dhimmis. Öljeitü, Ghazan Khan's successor, pressured some Jews to convert to Islam. The most famous such convert was Rashid-al-Din Hamadani, a physician, historian and statesman, who adopted Islam in order to advance his career at Öljeitü's court. However, in 1318 he was executed on fake charges of poisoning Öljeitü and for several days crowds carried his head around his native city of Tabriz, chanting "This is the head of the Jew who abused the name of God; may God's curse be upon him!" About 100 years later, Miranshah destroyed Rashid al-Din's tomb, and his remains were reburied at the Jewish cemetery. Rashid al-Din's case illustrates a pattern that differentiated the treatment of Jewish converts in Persia from their treatment in most other Muslim lands, where converts were welcomed and easily assimilated into the Muslim population. In Persia, however, Jewish converts were usually stigmatized on account of their Jewish ancestry for many generations.
Further deterioration in the treatment of Persian Jews occurred during the reign of the Safavids who proclaimed Shi'a Islam the state religion. Shi'ism assigns great importance to the issues of ritual purity ― tahara, and non-Muslims, including Jews, are deemed to be ritually unclean ― najis ― so that physical contact with them would require Shi'as to undertake ritual purification before doing regular prayers. Thus, Persian rulers, and to an even larger extent, the populace, sought to limit physical contact between Muslims and Jews. Jews were not allowed to attend public baths with Muslims or even to go outside in rain or snow, ostensibly because some impurity could be washed from them upon a Muslim.
The reign of Shah Abbas I (1588–1629) was initially benign. Jews prospered throughout Persia and were even encouraged to settle in Isfahan, which was made a new capital. However, toward the end of his rule, the treatment of Jews became harsher; upon advice from a Jewish convert and Shi'a clergy, the Shah forced Jews to wear a distinctive badge on clothing and headgear. In 1656, all Jews were expelled from Isfahan because of the common belief of their impurity and forced to convert to Islam. However, as it became known that the converts continued to practice Judaism in secret and because the treasury suffered from the loss of jizya collected from the Jews, they were allowed to revert to Judaism in 1661. However, they were still required to wear a distinctive patch upon their clothings.
Under Shia Muslim Nadir Shah (1736–1747), Jews experienced a period of relative tolerance when they were allowed to settle in the Shi'ite holy city of Mashhad. Yet, the advent of a Shi'a Qajar dynasty in 1794 brought back the earlier persecutions. In the middle of the 19th century, J. J. Benjamin wrote about the life of Persian Jews: "…they are obliged to live in a separate part of town…; for they are considered as unclean creatures… Under the pretext of their being unclean, they are treated with the greatest severity and should they enter a street, inhabited by Mussulmans, they are pelted by the boys and mobs with stones and dirt… For the same reason, they are prohibited to go out when it rains; for it is said the rain would wash dirt off them, which would sully the feet of the Mussulmans… If a Jew is recognized as such in the streets, he is subjected to the greatest insults. The passers-by spit in his face, and sometimes beat him… unmercifully… If a Jew enters a shop for anything, he is forbidden to inspect the goods… Should his hand incautiously touch the goods, he must take them at any price the seller chooses to ask for them... Sometimes the Persians intrude into the dwellings of the Jews and take possession of whatever please them. Should the owner make the least opposition in defense of his property, he incurs the danger of atoning for it with his life... If... a Jew shows himself in the street during the three days of the Katel (Muharram)…, he is sure to be murdered."
Lord Curzon described the regional differences in the situation of the Persian Jews in the 19th century: "In Isfahan, where they are said to be 3,700 and where they occupy a relatively better status than elsewhere in Persia, they are not permitted to wear kolah or Persian headdress, to have shops in the bazaar, to build the walls of their houses as high as a Moslem neighbour's, or to ride in the street. In Teheran and Kashan they are also to be found in large numbers and enjoying a fair position. In Shiraz they are very badly off. In Bushire they are prosperous and free from persecution."
Another European traveller reported a degrading ritual to which Jews were subjected for public amusement:
At every public festival — even at the royal salaam [salute], before the King’s face — the Jews are collected, and a number of them are flung into the hauz or tank, that King and mob may be amused by seeing them crawl out half-drowned and covered with mud. The same kindly ceremony is witnessed whenever a provincial governor holds high festival: there are fireworks and Jews.
In the 19th century, there were many instances of forced conversions and massacres, usually inspired by the Shi'a clergy. A representative of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, a Jewish humanitarian and educational organization, wrote from Tehran in 1894: "…every time that a priest wishes to emerge from obscurity and win a reputation for piety, he preaches war against the Jews". In 1830, the Jews of Tabriz were massacred; the same year saw a forcible conversion of the Jews of Shiraz. In 1839, many Jews were massacred in Mashhad and survivors were forcibly converted. However, European travellers later reported that the Jews of Tabriz and Shiraz continued to practice Judaism in secret despite a fear of further persecutions. Jews of Barforush were forcibly converted in 1866; when they were allowed to revert to Judaism thanks to an intervention by the French and British ambassadors, a mob killed 18 Jews of Barforush, burning two of them alive. In 1910, the Jews of Shiraz were accused of ritually murdering a Muslim girl. Muslim dwellers of the city plundered the whole Jewish quarter, the first to start looting were the soldiers sent by the local governor to defend the Jews against the enraged mob. Twelve Jews, who tried to defend their property, were killed, and many others were injured. Representatives of the Alliance Israélite Universelle recorded other numerous instances of persecution and debasement of Persian Jews.
The Pahlavi dynasty implemented modernizing reforms, which greatly improved the life of Jews (Charles Recknagel and Azam Gorgin of Radio Free Europe). The influence of the Shi'a clergy was weakened, and the restrictions on Jews and other religious minorities were abolished. Reza Shah prohibited mass conversion of Jews and eliminated the Shi'ite concept of ritual uncleanness of non-Muslims. Modern Hebrew was incorporated into the curriculum of Jewish schools and Jewish newspapers were published. Jews were also allowed to hold government jobs. However, Jewish schools were closed in the 1920s. In addition, Reza Shah sympathized with Nazi Germany, making the Jewish community fearful of possible persecutions, and the public sentiment at the time was definitely anti-Jewish.
A spike in anti-Jewish sentiment occurred after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and continued until 1953 due to the weakening of the central government and strengthening of the clergy in the course of political struggles between the Shah and Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Eliz Sanasarian estimates that in 1948–1953, about one-third of Iranian Jews, most of them poor, emigrated to Israel. David Littman puts the total figure of emigrants to Israel in 1948-1978 at 70,000.
The reign of shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi after the deposition of Mossadegh in 1953, was the most prosperous era for the Jews of Iran. In 1970s, only 10 percent of Iranian Jews were classified as impoverished; 80 percent were middle class and 10 percent wealthy. Although Jews accounted for only a small percentage of Iran's population, in 1979 two of the 18 members of the Iranian Academy of Sciences, 80 of the 4,000 university lecturers, and 600 of the 10,000 physicians in Iran were Jews.
Prior to the Islamic Revolution in 1979, there were 80,000 Jews in Iran, concentrated in Teheran (60,000), Shiraz (8,000), Kermanshah (4,000), Isfahan (3,000), the cities of Khuzistan, as well as Kashan, Tabriz, and Hamedan.
During the Islamic Revolution, many of the Iranian Jews, especially wealthy Jewish leaders in Tehran and many Jewish villages surrounding Esfahan and Kerman, left the country. In late 1979s, the people who left was estimated at 50,000–90,000.
At the time of the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, there were approximately 140,000–150,000 Jews living in Iran, the historical center of Persian Jewry. About 95% have since migrated, with the immigration accelerating after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when the population dropped from 100,000 to about 40,000. Following the Iranian Revolution, some 30,000 Iranian Jews immigrated to Israel, while many others went to the United States and Western Europe.
On March 16, 1979, Habib Elghanian, the honorary leader of the Jewish community, was arrested on charges of "corruption", "contacts with Israel and Zionism", "friendship with the enemies of God", "warring with God and his emissaries", and "economic imperialism". He was tried by an Islamic Revolutionary Tribunal, sentenced to death, and executed on May 8, one of 17 Iranian Jews executed as spies since the revolution.
Estimates of the Jewish population in Iran until the census 2011 vary. In mid- and late 1980s, it was estimated at 20,000–30,000, rising to around 35,000 in mid-1990s. The current Jewish population of Iran is 8,756 according to the most recent Iranian census.
The condition of Jews in Iran is difficult to assess objectively. The Islamic Republic uses factions within the Iranian Jewish community to win public relations points with the Western world, but privately many Jews complain to foreign reporters of discrimination. Foreign reporters are asked by the Iranian Jewish community to self-censor their own reports for fear of repercussions on the community. The Islamic government appoints the officials who run Jewish schools, most of these being Muslims and requires that those schools must open on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath. Criticism of this policy was the downfall of the last remaining newspaper of the Iranian Jewish community which was closed in 1991 after it criticized government control of Jewish schools. Instead of expelling Jews en mass like in Libya, Iraq, Egypt, and Yemen, the Iranians have adopted a policy of keeping Jews in Iran.