An ancient community that is slipping away
The number of Iran's Jews has been dwindling. Now the trial
of 13 of their menfolk could hasten the exodus
By GUY DINMORE
Financial Times (London)
May 20, 2000, Saturday
The family shop on Dastgheib Street, backing on to the ancient Jewish
quarter in the Iranian town of Shiraz, is shuttered and locked. Its owners,
Hamid and Omid Tefilin, brothers who sold shoes for Dollars 3 a pair, are
among 13 Iranian Jews on trial in a Revolutionary Court, accused of spying
In nearby Jerusalem Street, the chant of evening prayer and the scent
of orange blossom drifts over the walls concealing Shokr synagogue. Across
an alley wide enough for an apple-cart, workmen brew tea while renovating
Kohanim, another place of worship.
Elderly Jews run grocery stores and a kosher butchers. Most of the nearby
cloth and shirt shops are also owned by Jews. Turbaned Afghan refugees,
Armenian Christians and Shia Moslems add to the ethnic mix.
But for the small and dwindling Jewish community in Shiraz, the arrests
of the 13 men more than a year ago and their continuing trial have raised
troubling questions of the commun-ity's identity and loyalty to Iran, which
has been its homeland for more than 2,500 years since Jews migrated as
freed slaves from Babylon. But this long chapter appears to be drawing
to a close.
Over the centuries the Jews of Iran have enjoyed privileges and prestige
bestowed by some dynasties, but also suffered pogroms and persecution.
In the 21 years since the Islamic revolution, the Jews have kept a low
profile and are free to practise their religion.
"Muslims are very respectful of us. Most of my customers are Muslims,"
says a 64-year-old stall-keeper. His friend, selling cloth, agrees: "We
Jews have been here for 2,000 years and this is the first time we are accused
of spying. It must be a misunderstanding. We felt fear and shock at the
news. More Jews are leaving Shiraz these days but I'm not sure if it's
because of the trial. When we meet to pray we notice people have left."
Leaders of the Jewish community in Shiraz and the capital Tehran might
be deeply disturbed by the trial. But they stress that Jews are treated
fairly in the Islamic Republic and express confidence in the judicial system,
although one man acts as judge, jury and prosecutor.
"We live freely. We have no problems," says Manouchehr Eliasi,
the outgoing member of parliament for Iran's Jews, who are reserved one
seat as a religious minority recognised by the constitution. "We work,
have students in schools and pray. We have a special school run by the
Jewish Society where Hebrew is taught. We can make wine."
But in private, Jews voice unease and explain why their numbers have
more than halved since 1979.
Like many Iranians they left in search of higher living standards. But
as a minority they also feel vulnerable and potential pawns in a broader
The revolution in 1979 divided the Jewish community. Some prominent
Jews in Tehran were avowed anti-Zionists and helped overthrow the Shah.
But smaller communities in Shiraz and Mashhad had close links with Jews
in Palestine even before Israel was founded in 1948.
Iran under Mohammad Reza, the last Shah, had good relations with Israel
too. It was widely known that Jews worked in the Savak, his detested secret
But after the Shah fell, some religious Jews felt they were unfairly
targeted by Islamist vigilantes, subjected to fines, harassment and confiscation
of property. Soon after the revolution, one of Iran's best-known Jewish
figures, Habib Elghanian, was executed for corruption and contacts with
Zionists and Israel.
Jamshid Sedaghat, a historian and Muslim in Shiraz, has researched Jewish
persecution. Under the Kajar dynasty in the 19th century, laws regulated
their lives. They had to wear a sign identifying them as Jews, they could
not build houses higher than their Muslim neighbours, they had to dismount
from their horse when passing a Muslim.
Pogroms were also known. According to some accounts, about 5,000 Jews
were killed in Kashan in 1693. Sedaghat said the Jews of Shiraz were attacked
once a year in the late 19th century until pressure from western ambassadors
halted the violence.
When pressed, Jews will relate the events of 1910, the last time they
were seriously attacked in Shiraz. According to contemporary accounts,
a mob looted the whole Jewish quarter and killed 12 Jews, blaming them
for the death of a Muslim girl. "All of them, rich and poor, are now
helpless and miserable," wrote the British consul of the day. He believed
the riots were staged as part of a power struggle being waged across Iran
as the Kajar dynasty crumbled.
Nonetheless, Iran's Jews make up the largest Jewish community in the
Middle East outside Israel. But just how many is not known.
Eliasi, an MP who lost to a more liberal candidate in recent elections,
estimates 30,000 Jews remain in Iran, including one qualified rabbi, and
about 50,000 have left since 1979. According to the 1996 census, however,
fewer than 14,000 Iranians declared themselves as Jewish.
Whatever the figure, all agree the community is slipping away and that
the outcome of the trial will have an impact, although few believe a guilty
verdict will mean death sentences, as some conservative clerics demanded.
Most of the 13 prisoners are shopkeepers and some also played important
social roles - prayer leaders, teachers of Hebrew, kosher slaughterers
of meat, a baker and mortician. Haroon Yashyaee, head of the Jewish Society
in Tehran, is proud to have joined the Islamic revolution but warns that
the trial risks destroying the ancient community.
His appeal to the judiciary to allow a Jewish observer in court was
Although the trial is closed, state television has carried interviews
with several accused, including Hamid Tefilin. They confessed to spying.
Hamid is described by his lawyer, however, as "semi-literate".
In court Hamid said he had only "intended" to commit espionage.
The defence has also questioned the legality of the televised confessions
and their impact. "The whole country is watching these confessions.
Iranian Jews are becoming more isolated and their children are regarded
with contempt by classmates," said Esmail Naseri, one of the lawyers.
As the trial nears its conclusion - a verdict could be known this month
- the sense of insecurity grows. A poster at the main gate of Shiraz University
medical faculty attacks an unnamed Jewish professor for supporting a class
boycott led by reformists.
"He is one of the biased Jews and we hope he has no Zionist inclinations,"
the unsigned poster says. Students said it was put up by the Basij, a hardline
Three Jewish prisoners have been bailed, including Omid Tefilin, whose
widowed mother lives in Israel and was visited twice by brother Hamid.
Tefilin tells reporters he is innocent. Will he stay in Iran after the
trial? "One hundred per cent," he replies. "There's no reason
to leave. The trial is a misunderstanding."