MYTH vs. FACT: Jews in Iran

The nuclear deal with Iran has endured an endless hailstorm of opposition. Detractors have experimented with various lines of criticism, but none have attracted such visceral support as the charge that Iran will use the agreement to advance its alleged anti-Semitic agenda.

In 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to Washington, D.C., just weeks before his country held its elections, in an attempt to stop the nuclear agreement. In a speech to the United States Congress, he warned[1]

“Today the Jewish people face another attempt by yet another Persian potentate to destroy us. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei spews the oldest hatred, the oldest hatred of anti-Semitism with the newest technology. He tweets that Israel must be annihilated – he tweets. You know, in Iran, there isn't exactly free Internet. But he tweets in English that Israel must be destroyed.”

Even in this small excerpt, the rhetoric of outrage is palpable. But Iran’s relationship with Jewish people is not as black-and-white as Netanyahu would make it out to be. It is true that the Iranian state has a long history of anti-Zionism.[2] But do Iranians – distinct from the central government – hate Jews? Are Jews in Iran the targets of severe state-sponsored oppression or sociocultural marginalization?

The answer, in brief: not really. But it gets a little more complicated.  

Siamak Moreh Sedgh, the medical chief of Tehran’s only Jewish hospital, sums the situation up nicely: “Iran is the country of unbelievable paradoxes. You can find that there is the greatest Jewish community in the Middle East in Iran, in the country with the greatest political problem with Israel.”[3]

Today, Iranian Jews, who number anywhere between 9,000 and 30,000[4], constitute the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside of Israel. They live comfortable, middle-class lives; have access to numerous synagogues, Jewish schools, and kosher restaurants[5]; and even have political representation.[6]

And, contrary to popular belief, Iranian Jews are not barred from emigrating – they choose to live in Iran, on a completely voluntary basis. In fact, in the mid-2000s, the Israeli government and wealthy Jewish expatriates established a cash-incentive program to encourage Iranian Jews to leave the country. Individuals considering emigration were offered up to £5,000, and families over £31,000. But Jews in Iran were decidedly unenthusiastic about the initiative. In a statement, the Society of Iranian Jews declared[7]:

“The identity of Iranian Jews is not tradeable for any amount of money. Iranian Jews are among the most ancient Iranians. Iran’s Jews love their Iranian identity and their culture, so threats and this immature political enticement will not achieve their aim of wiping out the identity of Iranian Jews.”

“The fact is, Iran is a place where Jews feel secure and we are happy to be here. We are proud to be Iranian,” Moreh Sedgh, who is also the only Jewish member of parliament, notes.[8]

The story of Jews in Iran is one of tremendous resilience and adaptability. It is generally believed that Jews found their way into Iran over two thousand years ago, after Assyrian and Babylonian conquerors expelled early residents of Israel.[9] The Jewish community in Iran flourished under the Sassanid dynasty, which took root in the third century C.E.[10] Even after the formation of Israel in 1947, over 100,000 Jews chose to remain in Iran. But the population dwindled dramatically in the upheaval of 1979, after revolutionaries accused an influential Jewish business leader of espionage and executed him.

Since those tumultuous times, the condition of Jews in Iran has stabilized. By and large, they are seen as manifestly Iranian, and have protection under the law. Full equality, though, continues to be elusive; currently, there are several prejudicial restrictions that prohibit Jews from reaching senior posts in the government or serving as judges. As Homayoun Sameyah Najafabadi, the chief of the Tehran Jewish Committee, a governing organization for Iranian Jews, puts it, “There is no oppression. But there are limitations.”[11]

But, despite the discrimination, Iranian Jews are not a voiceless entity. While they cannot express public support for Israel – this is official Iranian state policy, applicable to all Iranians – they have openly disagreed with the language of Iran’s leaders. In 2006, for example, Haroun Yashayaei, then the head of the Society of Iranian Jews, addressed former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in a public letter, decrying his ardent denial of the Holocaust. “How is it possible to ignore all the undeniable evidence existing for the killing and exile of the Jews in Europe during World War II?” Yashayaei asked.[12]

Ultimately, the intricate relationship between Iran and adherents of Judaism transcends the simplistic bickering of partisan politics. Currently, Jews in Iran do face disparities in career advancement and other realms of public life, but they also enjoy important protections in Iranian society. And, one year after the implementation of the nuclear deal, further progress towards peace and security – perhaps, even some sort of diplomatic rapprochement between Israel and Iran – no longer feels hopelessly unconceivable. Already, the region has become safer. Moshe Ya’alon, Netanyahu’s former Minister of Defense, said that Iran’s nuclear program “has been frozen in light of the deal signed by the world powers and does not constitute an immediate, existential threat for Israel.”

While there is much work to be done in improving Iran’s treatment of Jews, the common fears of apocalyptic, anti-Semitic repression are unfounded. Iran has long been a deeply pluralistic society, and Jews have made indelible contributions to the Iranian story. Indeed, an Iran without its vibrant Jewish community would not be Iran. Unfortunately, this is a message too nuanced for stump speeches or evening political talk shows.