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Cyrus to Ahmadinejad, The Ancient Persian Ally Turned into Shi’ite Foe

Part Five in Series of the Sephardi-Mizrahi Communities in Israel
by Norman Berdichevsky
(January 2013)


Previous New English Review articles dealing with the “Eastern” Jewish communities of Yemen, Morocco, and Iraq traced the Mizrahi-Sephardi communities in Israel. The fourth largest wave of immigration to Israel (following Morocco, Algeria and Iraq) from among these communities are the Jews of Persia (modern Iran).

Lurking behind the Hamas mini-terror state in Gaza stands, the new Persian Shi’ite menace not only to Israel but to the established Sunni majority states of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. Like a democratic and largely secular Turkey following the Kemalist doctrine of a modern national state, Iran under the Shah recognized Israel in 1949 proving to the world that moderate Islamic Sunni majority states have nothing to fear from Israel.

The history of the Jews of Persia reveals a Diaspora presence almost as old as Iraq  (see New English Review, February 2012) and one marked by a radical shift over time to the present evil dictatorship of the mullah thugocracy threatening to use nuclear weapons to wipe Israel “off the map.”

In 1948, approximately 100,000 Jews lived in Iran including the Kurdish areas (13,000) of the country. Today, there are a total of about 20,000, the overwhelming majority in Teheran, constituting the largest Jewish community left in the Middle East in a Muslim majority state, thus presenting an immediate paradox. The only country in the region left with a functioning Jewish community is the one currently most hostile to Israel.

As of 2010, Israel is home to just over 47,000 Iranian-born Jews and roughly 95,000 Israeli-born Jews with fathers born in Iran. While these numbers add up to over 135,000, when Israelis with more distant or solely maternal roots are added to the total, the number of Israeli Jews with a Persian heritage exceeds 200,000, roughly 4% of Israel’s Jewish population.

The Jews of Iran have been best known for certain occupations like making gold jewellery and antique dealing, textiles and carpets. Thousands of Persian Jews had already begun to make aliyah and reach Palestine during the last two decades of the nineteenth century and established a recognizable presence in the so called Bukharan quarter of Jerusalem and played a major part in the expansion of Jewish Jerusalem outside the walls.

Prominent Israelis of Persian origin include Moshe Katzav, Israel’s former president, the enormously popular singer Rita Yahan-Farouz (known to fans simply only as Rita), and Shaul Mofaz, former Chief of the army’s General Staff, and Vice Prime Minister as well as Minister without a Portfolio in a coalition government until July, 2012.  The largest concentration of Persian Jews in Israel is found in the city of Holon adjacent to Tel Aviv. The great majority of those Jews who left the country and who emigrated elsewhere chose the United States (where they number 80,000, with their American-born children and grandchildren most of whom live in California). Many are still proud of their Persian heritage and ensure that their children speak Farsi.

The greatest irony of the present conflict between Israel and Iran under the rule of the overtly hostile mullah regime since the overthrow of the last Shah (1977) is that in ancient times, Israel had no greater friend and ally than Persia. No gentile ruler is treated with more reverence in the Bible than Koresh, the Hebrew form of Cyrus. Jews have lived in Iran at least since before the days of Cyrus testifying to the presence of a Jewish community for more than 2,600 years.

President Truman, in an emotional moment a few months after the end of his Presidency spoke to the Jewish Theological Seminary at which he was introduced by his former business partner in the haberdashery business, Eddie Jacobson. The two of them had run the business in the early 1920s and on the basis of their close friendship, Jacobson had been instrumental in getting Truman to change his mind and eventually reject the overwhelming advice of his State Department and Secretary of State, General George Marshall who urged the President to follow a pro-Arab policy against partition and recognition of a Jewish state in Palestine.

Jacobson introduced Truman with the words…”This is the man who helped create the State of Israel!”  Truman shot back…’What do you mean “helped?”, he exulted, “I am Cyrus!, I am Cyrus!” Only those raised in the Baptist faith as Truman had been in his native Missouri and with the deep familiarity he had with the Old Testament, were such words so fitting, authentic and meaningful. They would mostly be lost on an American audience today.

The Persian empire Cyrus created was the largest the world had ever seen until Alexander the Great, the man who conquered it. We do not know precisely when Cyrus was born, but his reign began in 553 BC. He died in 529 BC while attempting to extend his conquests beyond the Caucasus. His rule was undoubtedly more enlightened than that of most oriental despots in ancient or modern times. Cyrus is favorably mentioned in the Books of Daniel, Ezra and Isaiah. A passage in the book of Ezra 1:2 (repeated in II Chronicles 36:23) has Cyrus issuing a proclamation: "The Lord God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he hath charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah."  Isaiah goes even further and refers to God calling Cyrus, his messiah and proclaiming a vision of monotheism at a time when he ruled over Judea, a small autonomous province within the Persian kingdom.

Cyrus, like other Persians at that time (more than a thousand years before the advent of Islam), was a Zoroastrian yet he tolerated other religions and revered their deities, including the God of Israel. The historical record confirms the Biblical passages in every detail. The Cyrus Cylinder in the British Museum, and additional recently discovered documentary evidence confirms that Cyrus indeed decreed after his conquest of Babylon in 539 B.C. that the captive peoples including the Jews be allowed to return to their ancestral homes, along with their liturgical artifacts and symbols.

The last Shah of Iran even claimed that the Cyrus Cylinder was the “First charter of human rights.” Like the Magna Carta, both documents imply that the king, no less than his subjects, is equal before the law. Cyrus's ecumenical empire was extended to Egypt under his successor Cambyses and consolidated by Darius I. The two centuries of Persian domination of the Near East following Cyrus's death were a “Golden Age” for the Jews, infinitely better than the subsequent Greco-Roman era.

Judah became a thankful vassal state of the vast empire, with Jewish warriors serving as part of the Persian military. Judean garrisons served in places such as Elephantine, Egypt, near today's Aswan. Ancient papyri have been discovered there that give additional testimony to this vibrant community which pre-dated the Iranian conquests and, among other things, had its own temple.

Besides the account of Cyrus the Great's liberation in the Jews' own scriptures (Ezra 1:1-8), we have historical corroboration of this in ancient Iranian records as well. Within a half century of Cyrus's decree, the events that led to the story of Purim found in the Book of Esther occurred. The new ruler was Xerxes (Ahasuerus) who began his reign in 486 B.C.E.


Festival of Esther, Edward Armitage, 1865

The Book of Esther that tells the story of the festival of Purim concludes with a Jewish victory over the evil Haman and followed by her cousin Modechai serving as the principal advisor to the Persian king. It is remarkable from a number of aspects. God is not mentioned anywhere or thanks for divine deliverance offered. The traditions of a carnival atmosphere, masquerades and excessive drinking have caused some scholars to believe that it was written to give a Jewish slant to an already existing Persian holiday at a time of congenial relations between the two peoples.

The Parthian Empire, successors to the ancient Persian Kingdom in Babylonia following its break up, saw themselves as the heir to the empire of Cyrus the Great. The Parthians continued the pro-Jewish policies of Cyrus and an old Jewish proverb tells, "When you see a Parthian charger tied up to a tomb-stone in the Land of Israel, the hour of the Messiah will be near."

The Jews wanted to fight in a common cause with their Judean brethren and their zeal increased when the Romans waged war under Trajan against Parthia. Their alliance with the Parthians prevented a full scale Roman conquest of neighboring Babylonia. Philo speaks of the numerous Jews resident in that country, a population that undoubtedly increased following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. (A.D).

A Long Historical Development

The Sassanids

By the early Third Century, a new Persian dynasty seized control from the Parthians and founded the illustrious dynasty of the Sassanids. The Sassanids intensified their ancient Persian culture, favored the indigenous Pahlavi language, the ancestor of Farsi (an Aryan rather than a Semitic language) and restored the old monotheistic Zoroastrianism which became the official state religion. According to a declaration of the Sassanid king, Shapur I, The Jews (Yahud), Buddhists (Shaman), Hindus (Brahman), Nazarenes (Nasara), Christians (Kristiyan), and Manichaeans (Zandik) were declared “smashed” and “the habitations of their idols annihilated and turned into abodes and seats of the gods.”

Apparently, Shapur II's mother was Jewish, and as a result, the Jewish community gained additional favorable status. The king’s friend named Raba helped obtain a relaxation of the oppressive laws enacted against the Jews. The Parthian kings elevated the Jewish “Princes of the Exile” to a kind of nobility, called Resh Galuta (Head of the Exiles), thus giving the Jews in Persia titular status as the most important Jewish community in the world for several centuries.

Early Islamic period (634–1255)

Following the Islamic conquest of Persia, the Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians were assigned the status of dhimmis, non-Muslim subjects of an Islamic empire. They were “tolerated” but forced to pay a protection or “poll tax” known as the jizya exempting them from the military draft. Viewed as "People of the Book," they were variously treated depending on the ruler at the time. Many served as doctors, scholars, and craftsman, and gained positions of influence in society during this early period of domination by Sunni Muslims.

Mongol rule (1256–1318)

In 1255, the Mongols led by Hulagu Khan invaded parts of Persia, and in 1258 they captured Baghdad destroying the Abbasid caliphate.  The Mongol rulers abolished the inequality of dhimmis and one of their rulers, Arghun Khan, even preferred Jews and Christians for the administrative positions appointing Sa'd al-Daula, a Jew, as his vizier. These policies led to severe antagonism among the Muslim subjects and clergy leading to the assassination of, al-Daula in 1291 and a period of violent persecution of the Jews. The Orthodox Christian historian Bar Hebraeus wrote that the violence committed against the Jews during that period "neither tongue can utter, nor the pen write down.”

The conversion of Mongol chief Ghazan Khan's to Islam in 1295 signaled a pronounced turn for the worse, as the Jews once again were relegated to the status of dhimmis and succeeding rulers ordered the destruction of many synagogues and decreed that Jews had to wear a distinctive mark on their heads. Christians endured similar persecutions. Under this pressure, some Jews converted to Islam.

In 1383, Timur Lenk (Tamurlane, i.e., Timur the Lame) a Turkic chieftain started the military conquest of Persia. He captured all eastern Persia in 1385 and carried out infamous massacres in many Persian cities. Timur plundered Persia and deported many artists and artisans to embellish his capital Samarkand. Skilled Persian Jews were imported to develop the empire's textile industry.

Safavid and Qajar dynasties (1502–1925) and Shi’a Islam’s View of Ritual Purity

During the reign of the Safavids (1502–1794), Shi'a Islam was proclaimed as the state religion. This led to a marked deterioration in their treatment of Persian Jews. Shi'ism continues to assign great importance to the issues of ritual purity ― tahara. Non-Muslims, including Jews, are deemed to be ritually unclean ― najis. One cannot understand the regime in power today in Iran and its proclamations of “wiping Israel off the face of the map” without relating it to their religious conceptions. Any physical contact would require Shi'as to undertake ritual purification before doing regular prayers.

Thus, Persian rulers, and the general populace, sought to limit physical contact between Muslims and Jews. Jews were excluded from public baths used by Muslims. They were forbidden to go outside during rain or snow, as an "impurity" could be washed from them upon a Muslim. As the most despised class in Persian society, Jews were relegated to occupations considered beneath the dignity of a believer such as singers, dancers, musicians and entertainers. Jewish men almost never dared to appear in the streets with their wives for fear of being unable to protect their honor. Jewish women were not permitted to wear the chador – an  ill-fitting garment proscribed to disguise an attractive female figure so that they were regarded as little better than prostitutes and invited offenses from Muslim men.

The reign of Shah Abbas I (1588–1629), an enlightened ruler, was initially quite moderate and Jews briefly prospered throughout Persia and were encouraged to settle in Isfahan, which became the new capital. Toward the end of his rule however, treatment of Jews became harsher and the Shi'a clergy persuaded the Shah to require Jews to wear a distinctive badge on clothing and headgear. In 1656, the Shah ordered the expulsion from Isfahan of all Jews because of the common belief of their "impurity" and they were forced to convert to Islam. After five years, it became clear that the treasury had suffered from the loss of jizya and there were many rumors that the converts continued to practice Judaism in secret. By 1661, the government relented and allowed Jews to take up their old religion, but still required them to wear a distinctive patch upon their clothing.

Nadir Shah (1736–1747) allowed Jews to settle in the Shi'ite holy city of Mashhad. However, following his murder, many Jews were massacred in Mashhad, and survivors were forcibly converted. This became known as the Allahdad incident. The converts, "Jadid al-Islams" (new converts) appeared to accept the new religion, but often lived as Crypto-Jews. This community maintained a separate identity and permanently left Iran in 1946. It still lives as a tightly knit community in Israel today.

In 1830, the Jews of Tabriz were massacred; the same year saw a forcible conversion of the Jews of Shiraz and several European travelers reported that the Jews of Tabriz and Shiraz continued to practice Judaism in secret. In the middle of the 19th century, the traveler J. J. Benjamin wrote ….."…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… "

This contemptuous behavior designed to humiliate Jews until well into the twentieth century at every level marked Shi’a Islam both in Persia and in Yemen and reached a level of degradation unmatched anywhere in Western Central Europe from the time of the Crusades until the Nazis.

Iran Following the Imposition of Islam in its Shi’ite Form

Unlike the Ottoman Empire under the influence of the European powers, the formal legal status of the Jews and Christians of Iran underwent no change whatsoever until 1906. From the 1870s however, the intervention of the European powers in Iranian affairs began to make itself noticeable. It was primarily Britain that took steps to help improve the legal status of the Iranian Jews. This principally affected those who lived in Teheran. However, Jews residing outside the capital remained on the level of residents without any rights. They had to pay the “jizya” as specified in Islamic law and which was only abolished in the Ottoman Empire in 1864.

The legal system of Sharia courts was unopposed by any form of civil legislation. Therefore in all practice, the testimony of a Jew against a Muslim was entirely worthless. No Muslim could be punished for the murder of a Jew, even if two Muslim witnesses could be produced to verify the claims made against the murderer. There were a few sporadic more enlightened shahs prior to 1906, but their power to influence the religious courts was non-existent. Two Muslim witnesses were sufficient to condemn any Jew for having insulted Islam or the prophet. Even though a higher court of appeal existed, whose members were appointed by the Shah, and who were directed to act solely on the basis of their conscience, Jews did not dare to make use of it.

Only In Teheran, could Jews make a personal appearance for justice to the Shah, but they were wholly at the mercy of corrupt administrative officials in the provinces. The attitude of Shiites towards all non-Muslims was based on the principle of “contamination,” explaining the long history of active persecution, pogroms, suffering and torture which Jews suffered along with Christians, Zoroastrians and Bahais.

A Jewish visitor to Iran in 1884 – Ephraim Neimark - wrote that whatever the Shah’s true intentions, he was unable to adopt any measures that might be perceived as benefiting the Jews. In 1881, the British ambassador to Iran was requested by the Foreign Office to act on behalf of the Jews to enable them to open shops in the marketplace and to try to influence the Shah to change the laws of inheritance that bequeathed all the possessions of a Jew who had converted to Islam to his Moslem beneficiaries.

The Twentieth Century, the Last Shahs, the Islamic Republic and the Jews

The reigning Shah, Nasser al-Din, was murdered in 1896 after a rule of 48 years and was succeeded by his son Mozzafer e-Din. This provoked outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence throughout the kingdom although Jews played no part in the assassination. By 1906 the new Shah was forced to sign a constitution imposed on him by reformers who opposed the religious fanaticism prevalent at the time and demanded an elected parliament (Majlis) and full equality before the law to all citizens including Jews and other non-Muslims. Such heretical ideas were met with bitter opposition from the shi’ite clergy. A further reform in 1909 assured Jewish representation in the Majlis of one seat to be elected by the Jews themselves.

Mozaffar-e-din Shah was a moderate but weak ruler. Royal extravagance exacerbated financial problems. Two large loans secured from Russia were wasted and public anger focused on the policies of moderation in religious affairs and granting concessions to Europeans in return for generous payments to him. The discovery of oil in 1908 by the British led to intense renewed interest in Persia by the British Empire and rivalry with Russia. During World War I, the country was occupied by British and Russian forces. In 1919, after the Russian revolution, Britain attempted to establish a protectorate in Iran, which was unsuccessful. Amidst this turmoil, an ambitious army officer of the ‘Persian Cossack Brigade’ Reza Shah Pahlavi seized control in 1921, abolished the Qajar dynasty and proclaimed himself Shah in 1925.

Pahlavi era (1925–1979)

Reza Shah followed the path of Ataturk in Turkey and introduced many socio-economic reforms to westernize Iranian society, reorganizing finances, administration and the army. His watchwords were law and order, discipline, central authority, combined with an ideology of militarism, nationalism and secularism as well as the modern amenities of schools, trains, buses, radios, cinemas, and telephones, revolutionary new opportunities for women and the minorities including the Jews and Bahais – all of which were denounced by the shi’ite clergy as well as critics who regarded the reforms as either too radical or “superficial.” Although a huge step ahead of previous regimes, his reign was regarded as typical of an oppressive police state and unable to end endemic corruption.

The new shah followed Attaturk even in such matters as requiring the wearing of western clothing, including a hat with a brim and for women to discard the hijab, and freely allowing them to congregate in public gatherings. In 1935, Reza Shah requested all foreign ministries to use the term Iran (a word of Aryan origin to emphasize the Indo-European nature of the language) instead of Persia in formal correspondence.

Simmering religious opposition led to open rebellion in 1935 but was crushed by the army. Rezah Shah nevertheless ruled until September 16, 1941, when he was forced to abdicate by the threat of an Anglo-Soviet invasion designed to ward off pro-Axis forces. Although he had generally protected his Jewish subjects, the Shah flirted with a pro-German policy to offset British and Russian influence and as a sign of his independence. During the war, Iran became a vital oil-supply source and link in the Allied supply line for the remainder of the war.

The New Shah, Israel, Prosperity and the Ayatollahs

Reza Shah was forced to abdicate in favor of his pro-British son Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi who ruled with British and American support until his fall in 1979. The reforms and prosperity brought by the export of oil led to a considerable improvement in the standard of living and education of the general population and greatly benefitted the more educated Jews and Bahais, among them prominent Jewish converts, leading to the charge by the dispossessed Shiite clergy of a ‘conspiracy’ (see Israel: World Center for Three Great Faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Bahaism; New English Review, May 2011), linking western European and Christian, influences, and Jewish and Bahai support for the corrupt royal family.

In 1957 the Shah ended martial law after 16 years and drew Iran closer to the West, joining the Baghdad Pact and receiving military and economic aid from the US. In 1961, Iran began major economic, social, agrarian and administrative reforms to modernize the country that became known as the Shah's "White Revolution."

Many Jews had indeed prospered in trade, industry and new professional occupations as engineers, lawyers, doctors, and technocrats, making it all the easier for the new theocratic state of the mullahs that arose on the ashes of the monarchy and exile of the shah in 1979, a tragedy ensured by the abandonment of America’s most faithful ally in the Muslim world by President Jimmy Carter.

While still in exile in Paris, the Ayatollah Khomenei had written that “the Jews are wretched people who wish to establish a world-wide Jewish domination.”  Khomenei’s supporters raged against the Jews and in September 1978 during a crackdown on rioters in Jaleh Square in Teheran known as "Black Friday," and spread rumors that the shah had issued an emergency call for help to Israel.

Upon the return of the Ayatollah to Teheran on February 1, 1979, a Jewish delegation led by the chief rabbi was there to greet him among more than a million Muslim supporters – they had seen the writing on the wall and were struggling to reach an accommodation. Although a promise of tolerance had been given by the Ayatollah to a Jewish delegation in Paris, an anti-Zionist campaign was immediately launched against seven prominent and wealthy Jews including the President of the Jewish community, Habib Elghanian. They were accused of being Israeli spies, and drug-dealers. Jewish schools were closed and those in government and university posts dismissed. Fear, bordering on terror caused many Jews to place ads in the newspapers that they were converting to Islam.

Once firmly in power, the regime began to see that their policy towards the Jews and even Israel could be bent in order to realize important objectives. Israel was pressured into selling arms to the new regime for use in the war against Iraq and in return, thousands of Jews were allowed to emigrate. Those who remained were recognized as an official ‘protected’ religious minority and upon demonstrating the proper anti-Israel rhetoric, were accorded some showcase ‘benefits’ in the repair and maintenance of schools and synagogues.  

Today Tehran supposedly has 11 ‘functioning’ synagogues, many of them with Hebrew schools, two kosher restaurants, an old-age home, a Jewish library with 20,000 titles and an intermittent newspaper, Ofogh-e-Bina). The regime has clearly changed course to try and highlight the distinction between what they would like to present as their ‘tolerance’ of the Jewish community and Judaism as a religion (in spite of the awful Shi’ite historical treatment of non-believers as ‘contaminated’) and their opposition to Israel and Zionism.

In 2003, Chief Rabbi Yousef Hamadani Cohen met with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami at Yusef Abad Synagogue. This was the first time a President of Iran had visited a synagogue since the Islamic Revolution. On January 26, 2007, Haroun Yashayaei, the head of the Iranian Jewish Society, courageously sent an open letter to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad criticizing his denial of the Holocaust. The fact that this brave act did not result in immediate repercussions was interpreted by many as a sign of some internal dissension within the government, and particularly an attempt to rebuke Ahmadinejad. However, his victory in the obviously fraudulent election in 2009, condemned by all three opposition candidates and protested by hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in the streets make it clear that he has regained a tactical advantage in the leadership and sought to strengthen his support among the rural masses, the most traditionally supportive of Shi’ia doctrines. This includes first and foremost the end of days scenario in which Israel must be destroyed. 

Norman Berdichevsky's latest book is The Left is Seldom Right.

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Norman Berdichevsky contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all his contributions, on which comments are welcome.



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