Jewish History

The Jewish diaspora into Babylonian and Persian lands began in the 6th century BCE, during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar following the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem. Forced into exile from Judea into Babylon, Jews were not allowed to return to Judea until Cyrus the Great took control of the Babylonian Empire in the 5th century BCE. In the famous “Cyrus Declaration”, he permitted Jews to return to Judea and rebuild their homes. Although many returned, those that remained in Babylon and Persia formed the nucleus of the ancient Persian-Jewish society that still exists today.

In 642 AD, after the Battle of Nehavend, Arab Muslims established Islamic rule over Persian land and its people. Jews, along with all other non-Muslims, found themselves reduced to second-class citizens. They soon found themselves deficient in social and political equality, with the state imposing a special poll tax which applied only to non-Muslims. Jews also had to wear a gold patch at all times, signifying their religion and distinguishing them from all other citizens. This gold patch became a permanent symbol for Judaism, reappearing several times throughout Persian history as recently as the early 20th century.

During the rule of the Safavid Dynasty in the 17th century, Jews were forced by the government to proclaim themselves “New Muslims.” After this, the poll tax and gold patch were no longer required. However, they were left with no choice but to practice Judaism in secret under the threat of persecution if they were discovered. During the rule of the Qajar Dynasty, from the 18th to early 20th centuries, Jews were given a greater degree of religious freedom. The Persian government granted constitutional rights and equality to Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. These minorities could also each elect one member to participate in Persian parliament.

Jewish life further improved under the reign of Reza Shah in the Pahlavi dynasty of the 20th century. Hebrew was taught in Jewish schools and Jewish newspapers were established. Reza Shah prohibited the mass conversion of Jews to Islam, and disagreed with the idea that non-Muslims were unclean. However, Reza Shah’s pro-Nazi sympathies and the rise of Hitler brought persecution to the Jews of Iran once again. Jewish schools were closed, and anti-Semitic propaganda became widespread throughout Iran. After the war, Reza Shah’s son Mohammad Reza Shah took over, and Iran soon saw an economic boom that did not escape Jewish citizens. Persian-Jewish society flourished, and the vast majority of Jews entered the middle-upper class.

This lasted until 1979, with the Iranian Revolution when Ayatollah Khomeini took over and established the Islamic Republic in Iran. While this made daily life much more difficult and dangerous, there were also advantages to Khomeini’s rule. Because Jews were considered a people of the book, they were granted religious freedom in Iran, although a clear distinction was made between the Jews living in Iran and those living in Israel. Although religious freedom was a big step forward, persecution of Jews in Iran has not disappeared and many Jews have been executed or forced into exile due to allegations of being collaborators with the State of Israel. There have also been several seemingly arbitrary crackdowns on the wealthy Jews of Iran in recent years.

Since the foundation of Israel in 1948, over 80% of the Jews in Iran have emigrated to Israel and other parts of the world. In the last 20 years, the Jewish population has dropped from 80,000 to what had been believed to be 25,000.