“Our life is at the mercy of the gentiles,” my great-grandmother said to my grandfather after a Muslim boy beat him to the point of bleeding.
This is one of many stories that reflect the life of the Jews of Baghdad and more generally, the experience of many Jews in the Middle East.
Last November, CAMERA on Campus held its annual Mizrahi Stories campaign profiling the Jews of North Africa and the Middle East. Eager to participate in the effort, Isreality, a student group at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem hosted its first major event in collaboration with CAMERA on Campus with author, researcher and founder of the IDF Spokesman Office in Persian, Beni Sabti.
Sabti specializes in researching social networks in Iran at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
Born in Iran in 1972 before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Sabti has a firsthand perspective on the history of Jews in Iran, and a fascinating story surrounding his arrival in Israel.
Sabti gave us a tremendous historical background on the history of Jews in Iran, I hope that by understanding the history of Jews in the Middle East, campuses around the world will better understand the historical connection between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Leaders in the Middle East have a history of antisemitism that includes denying Jews the right to live in their indigenous homeland.
This is similar to what groups like Students for Justice in Palestine in the United States and Solidary for Palestinian Human Rights in the United Kingdom and Canada promote on campus.
Historians believe that Jews were present in Iran (then the Kingdom of Persia) from the time of the first Jewish exile, during the reign of Cyrus II 2,500 years ago. For instance, the Cyrus Cylinder, an ancient artefact inscribed in ancient Babylonian cuneiform mentions a decree that allowed exiled peoples to return to their homeland. Given the overlap in the timeframe, it is believed that this policy allowed Jews, who were once held in Babylonian captivity to return to build the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
The Book of Esther in the Bible is also believed to detail the lives of Jews under the rule of Ahasuerus (believed to be Xerxes I) who succeeded the lineage of Cyrus II. Furthermore, Jewish tradition identifies the tomb of Daniel, Mordecai and Queen Esther, all important biblical figures located in Iran.
The presence of historical records, archaeological artefacts and traditions point to a prominent history of Jews in Iran.
As a minority Jews in Iran faced many challenges throughout the centuries. For instance, Jews were treated especially badly in the Safavid era (1501-1736) and under the Qajar rulers (1796-1925). In 1925, growing secularization and Western influence under the rule of Muhammed Reza Shah appeared to improve the circumstances for Jews in Iran.
Jews lived in peace alongside the Muslims and could even practice their Judaism in public, and this of course with limitations.
Under the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi between 1941-1979, Iranian society became increasingly Westernized, for instance granting women rights. During this period the Jews integrated into the Iranian way of life. They sang Persian songs, celebrated national holidays and even changed their names to Persian names.
Not everyone was pleased with the Westernization of Iran. When Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi became the subject of numerous corruption scandals, a group of clerics, headed by the exiled clergyman Ruhollah Khomeini started a religious revolution in 1979 that turned Iran into a radical state that violates the rights of women, minorities, foreigners and government opponents.
After the revolution, circumstances for Jews in Iran deteriorated. The government accused Jews of being Zionist spies for the State of Israel. Such government-sponsored stoked antisemitism and increased religious intolerance.
Although the new government claimed that the Jews had nothing to fear from under the new empire and that “Zionism and Judaism could be separated” Jews in Iran experienced widespread persecution. Following the revolution, the majority of Iranian Jews immigrated to Israel and countries in the West.
Today, eight thousand Jews remain in Iran; the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside of Israel. This is of course, considering that most countries in the Middle East Jews have no Jews left and that Jews are a largely insignificant minority in Iran, a country home to 87 million people.
Sabti argued that the Jewish community in Iran that remains is used by the government as a propaganda tool to support the false notion that Iran’s antagonism toward Israel is politically, and not ethnically motivated.
Unfortunately, the situation for Jews in Iran is challenging as they are unable to share their true sentiment about the repressive and brutal regime without the risk of being killed or incarcerated. Iran’s intolerance for the West and Israel also means that Jews, including those of Iranian Jewish heritage, cannot visit Iran – severely hindering communication with friends and family as well as access to important heritage sites.
Hearing about the history of Jews in Iran impacted me immensely as my paternal grandfather is Iraqi, like the Jews of Iran, Jews in Iraq also have a long history dating back to the destruction of the First Temple in 586/587 BC.
Five centuries later during the Sasanian Empire, the region experienced a period of spiritual growth. At the time, the empire encompassed much of what is now modern-day Iraq and Iran. The Sasanian emperors allowed Jews to maintain their way of life without hindrance. The Babylonian Talmud, which to this day is considered one of the cornerstones of Judaism was preserved as a result.
Jews in Iraq before the First World War saw ups and downs. In 1860, there were about 20,000 Jews in Baghdad. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 brought economic improvement and in 1884 their number rose to 30,000. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Jewish community numbered 50,000 people.
In 1933, following the rise of Nazism in Europe, antisemitism intensified in Iraq with growing sympathy for the Nazi regime in the Middle East from Arab and Muslim leaders.
One such leader, with arguably the most influence was Muhammad Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, who led the great Arab revolt in British Mandate Palestine in 1936 that resulted in the murder of innocent Jews.
When Al-Husseini arrived in Iraq in the early 1940s, he collaborated with Iraqi Prime Minister Rashid Ali al-Gaylani and Iraqi deputy Yunis al-Sabawi (who translated Mein Kampf into Arabic) to launch a massive propaganda campaign inspired by Nazi Germany.
In 1941, Rashid Ali al-Gaylani, who was known for his support of the Nazi regime, came to power in Iraq. The increase in support for Nazism in Iraq subsequently led to the great pogrom, known as the Farhud, on June 1-2, 1941. Disturbances during the Farhud caused the murder of 179 Jews and the injury of another 2,118.
My grandfather who was born and raised in Iraq during that period, remembers an angry Muslim mob running through the city streets and setting fire to Jewish shops and businesses.
He remembers his father and older brothers standing by the windows and doors at the entrance to the house with weapons and hiding in their home as a small child quivering in fear surrounded by my great-grandmother and great-aunts.
My grandfather recounts that the Farhud brought enmity against the Jews in Iraq, who until that time lived relatively in peace with their neighbors.
Increasing discrimination and government policies that stripped Iraqi Jews of their rights, property and jobs led to massive immigration to Israel in the early 1950s in Operations Ezra and Nehemiah. It was under these circumstances that Iraqi Jews returned to Israeli their ancestral homeland.
The 20th century which raised the radicals like Nazism and the Revolutionary Guards in Iran caused the persecution of the Jews both in Iran and Iraq.
While it is invariably true the raison d’etre for the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 is our indigenous and enduring ties to the land of our ancestors, its establishment also provided a safe haven for Jews living as second-class citizens who were later persecuted in Muslim and Arab lands. I will forever be grateful that Israel was a refuge when my family had nowhere else to turn.
This article was originally published in Hebrew on the CAMERA on Campus Blog.