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)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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

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.

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

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



If you enjoyed this article and want to read more by Norman Berdichevsky, click here.