Judaism in Iran
Iranian Jews are among the oldest religious minorities in the country. The earliest mention of the Jews in Iran comes from the Assyrian annals, which testify to the Jews’ deportation from Israel to Media in 727 B.C. under the Assyrian king Tiglath _ Pileser III, and later in 721 B.C. under Sargon II. The chronicles indicate that 27,290 Jews were forced to settle in Ecbatana (Hamadan) and Susa. These settlers are referred to as one of the “Ten Lost Tribes of Israel” in biblical records.
The following wave of Jewish immigrants arrived in Iran around 580 B.C., ﬂeeing from the persecution of the Assyrian king Nebuchadnezzar II. Most of them settled on the site of modern Isfahan, in a district that became known as Yahudiyeh (The Jewish City).
The conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great and the release of Jews, who had been held captive there since the Babylonian conquest of Judah and the destruction of Jerusalem, also brought many Jews to Iran. Although the Jews were permitted to return home, only some 40,000 of them made their way back, many others remained in Babylon or spread throughout the Achaemenid Empire, where they maintained their religious identity and independence. Cyrus is greatly praised in the Book of Isaiah as the instrument of God’s salvation.
The Book of Esther tells us of the fate of the Jewish Diaspora under Xerxes. Esther, the adopted daughter of Mordecai, became the favorite concubine of the Persian King of Kings. In the Biblical account (there is no historical evidence of the fact), Xerxes was urged by one of his courtiers to order the total eradication of the country’s Jewish population. However, Esther intervened with the King, and as a result, the Jews were allowed to defend themselves so that all were saved. The mausoleum of Esther and Mordecai in Hamadan remains one of the most sacred Jewish pilgrimage sites.
The early Achaemenid policy of religious toleration continued under later rulers. According to the Old Testament, Artaxerxes I wrote to Ezra, a royal scribe in Susa, and then by the king’s will, the governor of Judah, an Achaemenid satrapy at that time, “I make a decree, that all they of the people of Israel, and his priests and Levites, in my realm, which is minded of their own free will to go up to Jerusalem, go with thee. And to carry the silver and gold, which the king and his counselors have freely offered the God of Israel, whose habitation is in Jerusalem.”
Correspondence left by Ezra and his successor Nehemiah indicates a strong Jewish community with its organs of self-administration, in whose affairs the Persians did not intervene. Like the other ethnic and religious minorities within the Achaemenid Empire, the Jews had to pay taxes, this was a fee that paid for their freedom to follow their regulations in all cultural, legal, and administrative matters. Many documents mention Jewish names engaged in a trade or as property owners.
Marriage contracts testify to mixed marriages in the Jewish community, to the extent that Ezra had to object to it and enforce the regimen of the Torah. There are no mentions of racial hatred, religious persecution, or feelings names on of the superiority of one people over another under the Achaemenians. Even when the Jews or other groups were mistreated, there is no evidence that such actions were based on race or religion.
After the collapse of the Achaemenid Empire, almost all of its former principalities passed under Seleucid control. At ﬁrst, the Jews seem to have enjoyed some political autonomy and complete religious liberty, particularly under Antiochus III of the Syrian Seleucid dynasty.
The most important literary work of the early Hellenistic period, which according to tradition dates from the 3rd century B.C., is the Septuagint, a translation of the Pentateuch into Greek. (The translation of the whole Hebrew Bible was completed during the next two centuries.)
Under Antiochus IV, Jewish fortunes changed dramatically. In his effort to Hellenize the Jews of Palestine, Antiochus attempted to force them to abandon their religion and practice the common pagan worship of his realm. Increasingly sterner restrictions were imposed upon the Jews, and the city of Jerusalem was pillaged. This led to the revolt of the priest Mattathias and his ﬁve sons the so-called Maccabees. It has been conjectured that one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, The War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness, mirrors the fierceness of this struggle. In any case, the term “martyr” the person who bears witness to the faith through his suffering and death, dates from this episode. In his visions, Prophet Daniel, contemporary with the events, probably relates to the persecution of the Jews under Antiochus IV.
Prophet Daniel is buried in Susa, and his mausoleum is the second most important pilgrimage site of the Jewish community in Iran. The Parthians were relatively liberal toward the Jewish population. The only serious incident that happened between the Jews and the central administration during the Parthian period was the rebellion staged by two Jewish brigands, Asinaeus and Anilaeus, who set up a free state north of Ctesiphon. This state lasted ﬁfteen years before it was overcome by the Parthians. The Jewish chronicles mention the Parthian period as one of the best in their history.
During this time, the Jews maintained close and positive contacts with the reigning dynasty. Their active participation in the silk trade may have been a special privilege granted by the royal house.
During the Parthian rule, the Jewish community of Iran again increased, particularly due to the inﬂux of Jewish refugees ﬂeeing from the Roman holocaust in Palestine in 135 A.D. The main centers of Jews in the Parthian Empire were Syria, Asia Minor, and Babylon. Little is known about the number of Jewish residents in the Sasanid Empire, but it must have been quite considerable, especially in Babylonia.
Although the Sasanid rule is characterized by its extreme and contradictory policies toward the religious minorities, Jews suffered less as compared with other creeds, because they did not meddle in politics as Christians, Manicheans, or Mazdakites did. In 470, however, many Jews were killed in the suppression of a massive revolt occasioned by the assumed arrival of a new Messiah on the 400th anniversary of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Another large campaign against the Jewish community was launched after the suppression of a coup d’etat by Bahram Chubin, who had many Jewish supporters. In short, the persecution of the Jews under the Sasanians was more politically motivated rather than religiously so. The advent of Islam opened a page entirely new in the history of Iranian Jews.
Though Christianity and Judaism were accepted by Muslims as the only other true religions, the freedom of Christians and Jews was, however, substantially restricted, and their legal status lowered. Under the new law, the religious minorities (Zoroastrians have added to Christians and Jews shortly afterward) had to pay a religious poll tax called Jizya. In many cities, Jews had to live in closed quarters and wear distinguishing marks on their clothes to indicate that they were non-Muslims. This practice persisted in Iran till the end of the 19th century.
Muslim treatment of religious minorities varied following the attitudes of different governors. Because most Non-Muslims were forced out of the government institutions, these people went into trade and banking. There emerged a class of Jewish merchants who had money, but little political inﬂuence.
Evidence exists of the loans provided by Jewish bankers to the courts of the Buyids, the Ghaznavids, and the Seljuks. The Mongol dynasties acted with far more tolerance toward the religious minorities. Ghazan Khan even had a vizier, Rashid al – Dinp Fazlollah, who was a Jewish convert to Islam. He is known as the greatest minister of the Ilkhanid dynasty and is credited as the initiator of a major administrative and tax reform under the Ilkhanids. He is also the author of Jameal-Tavarikh (“Universal History”), the famous history of the Mongol rulers.
Among the worst times for Iranian Jews were the Safavid and Qajar periods. Jewish chronicles of the time are full of accounts of massacres, forced conversions to Islam, and general mistreatment. Reports from European travelers and miss wineries add further details to the story of the tragic situation of the Jews under the Safavids and early Qajars.
The situation of the Jewish community of Iran changed slightly during Naser al-Din Shah’s rule, mainly because of heavy pressure from Europeans and the International Jewish Alliance. In 1891, the ﬁrst modern Jewish School was opened. As a result of active participation the Bahais, who were never recognized secured their right to have one delegate in the National Majles.
Although the constitution of 1907 put an end to the segregation of religious minorities, it was not until the time of Reza Shah that they were able to integrate themselves into the larger Iranian society. After the formation of the State of Israel in 1948, many Jews left Iran for Israel. This was the ﬁrst wave of Jewish emigration in the 20th century.
The second wave followed the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The constitution of 1979 recognizes the Jews as an ofﬁcial religious minority and accords them the right to elect one representative to the Majles. The Jewish population of modern Iran is predominantly urban and is concentrated 1n Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz.