A Complex History of Jewish Presence

The complicated history that Jews have had in Iran cannot be disputed. Jews have been present in Iran ever since they arrived there during the reign of Cyrus the Great, one of history’s most powerful kings. In fact, it’s believed that there are still 10,000 Jews living in the nation today.

Despite their continuous presence, the majority of Jews with Persian ancestry no longer reside in Iran. Instead, they are mainly found in Israel and the US, with lesser populations in cities like Baltimore, Maryland, and the Twin Cities. Two significant changes that occurred in Iranian society during the course of its history are primarily responsible for this dramatic contrast.

The first change was during the Shah and Pahlavi dynasty’s rule, which was a time when Islamic pressure was lessened and religious minorities were given legal equality protection. Many Jews in Iran felt safer and more at ease during this time than at any other time in history. But following the Islamic Revolution in 1979, when 13 Iranian Jews were killed for allegedly having ties to Israel, everything changed.

Many Iranian Jews experienced a change as a result of this incident, and many became more devout than before. In spite of increased animosity from other Iranians towards their community, they started keeping Shabbat and following kosher food restrictions meticulously as a method to show their fidelity.

There are still some visible indications of Jewish life in Iran today, despite all the conflict between Jews and other members of society. This is especially true in Tehran, where there are 11 active synagogues as well as three Jewish schools, two kosher restaurants, an elderly home, a cemetery, and a Jewish library with 20,000 books. Some places, like Mashhad or Isfahan, which are both revered by Shia Muslims and where large ancient synagogue ruins from many centuries ago may still be found, have a variety of historical sites that show traces of prior Jewish life.

In the end, it is evident that although Iran has gone through phases in which its relationship with Judaism was tense or even hostile, its current situation allows for the recognition of its complicated history with Judaism while permitting some semblance of religious freedom (at least compared to other countries in that region). While we may not be able to predict what will happen to Iranian Jews in the future, it is crucial to keep in mind their particular past in order to comprehend our larger global community and our shared human experience.