Jewish religious school in Shiraz. AP photo
Ups and (mostly) downs
The history of Jews in Iran
By Massoume Price
May 12, 2000
Iranian Jews are amongst the oldest inhabitants of the country. The
origin of the 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 expelled 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. Records indicate that 27,290 Jews were forced to settle in Ecbatana
(today's Hamadan) in northwest and Susa in southwest Persia. These settlers
are referred to as one of the 'Ten Lost Tribes of Israel' in biblical records.
The next wave of Jewish settlers arrived to escape persecution from
the Assyrian king Nabuchadadnezzar II. Many were settled in Isfahan around
680 BC. The conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great, the Achaemenid emperor,
also brought many Jews into the country. In 539 BC, Cyrus entered Babylon
with little resistance. The temple of Marduk, their main deity, was restored
and in fact 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
King Darius 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 where 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 were large numbers 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 offering of livestock for sacrifices and
Zoroaster banned the practice, however others were not prevented from practicing
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. 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 land owners, 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 post of royal cupbearer in the civil service
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 the
lot in question to him, the plaintiff gave up his claim.
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
make up 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; your 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
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 Pourim Festival.
After the collapse of the Achaemenian empire, later dynasties, i.e.
Selucids 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 Jews 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, 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 means to safeguard
the king's 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
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 Sassanid
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 Sassanid 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 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. In the house of Kaba, which contained 110 such
deities alone, all were banished. The followers of these religions became
'koffar ' 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 the Qoran, these people are called
dhimmis (ahl-e zimmeh). Later Zoroastrians of Iran were included as well.
The Qoran discourages Muslims from becoming friends with Christians and
Jews and calls the latter 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 Jews were banned from riding horses while carrying arms
and could not increase their numbers through conversion of others. They
were segregated and their houses could not exceed those of Muslims in height
(the Jewish quarter in Kerman is the best example).
Shariat courts became the only legal vessel and the Qoran gave Muslim
males superior legal status. For instance, if a Jew or a Christian killed
a Muslim, both 'ghessas' (physical punishment) and 'diyeh' (monetary compensation)
would apply. If a Muslim killed a Jew or a Christian, there was no ghesas
-- they only pay diyeh, which is half of what the Jew or the Christian
would have to pay. There is no punishment for killing koffar (non-believers)
or mortad (Muslims who converted to other faiths).
In short, all except Muslim males became second class citizens (dhimmis).
When Jerusalem was conquered, the Covenant of Ummar 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 worsened by the time of Harun Al Rashid in 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 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. Non-Muslims who were forced out of government institutions took
up 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 post was appointed by Muslim authorities.
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 converted or
were forced out of government services.
The Abbasids improved the position of dhimmis 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
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, Nahavand, 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 minster 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 cloths. 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 much more tolerant toward religious minorities.
Under the Mongol leader, Hulagu (1258 AD), the concept of dhimmi and the
division between "believers" and "non-believers" 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 Jewish a 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 around 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 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
becomes a norm (this period is one of the worst with respect to human rights
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 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; 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 were 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. Anti-Jewish
sentiment reached its peak when the whole Jewish community in the city
was forced to convert into Islam in 1839 under Mohammad 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 Nassereddin 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 specially girls' schools were subjected
to the same attacks instigated by religious fatwas). Jewish chronicles
report the 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 multi-ethnic Secret Society of 1905, which began the
debate 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 high-ranking non-Muslim
government officials -- even Bahais -- 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. 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 in the larger Iranian society without
fear from Muslim fundamentalists.
Reza Shah was the first Iranian monarch in 1400 years to pay 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
among Jews after Cyrus the Great.
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, 8,000 Iranian
Jews had moved to Israel, the first major emigration in the 20th century.
After the formation of Israel in 1949, all Muslim countries in the region
expelled their local Jewish population except Iran. By 1966, the number
of Jews who 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 Yahudi Iran) was established in 1947. Headed by 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 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 more elaborate,
reminiscent of pre-Islamic celebrations.
In Iranian folklore, Jews are portrayed as mean, miserable 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 Rumi, Nezami, Sadi and many
other literary figures. They could not touch water sources and stayed in
doors when it rained, since rain touching them would pollute the soil.
At the times their water sources would be cut off.
The Jewish quarter of Kerman 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 on the top to discourage
entry. Massive oak 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 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 so as not to pollute Muslim tradesmen.
The Islamic Revolution of 1979, made Shariat the legal code and therefore
gender and religious discriminations has become an integral part of the
system. Bahais once again are not recognized at all, but Jews, Christians
and Zoroastrians each have one or two representatives in the Parliament
and are not legally forbidden from employment in the government sector.
They are accepted into universities, but are usually not given access to
post graduate studies, though no law prohibits it. There were 85,000 Iranian
Jews before 1979, but almost half have emigrated since, mainly to the U.S
-- the largest exodus from Iran since Darius' time when 30,000 left joyfully
to rebuild their temple.