The Jews of Iran

A new book looks at the story of the Jews of Iran in the twentieth century.

The immediate object of this essay is to review the book Between Iran and Zion, penned by Lior Sternfeld, a historian of Iran and a scholar of Jewish Studies at State University of Pennsylvania. Anticipating my arguments below, the book is a pioneering and innovative—and perhaps even subversive—study of the history of Iranian Jews in twentieth-century Iran, largely untold until now. To understand Sternfeld’s valuable contribution, it is crucial to first situate this study within the larger context of the historiography of Middle Eastern and North African Jewries.  

From its very inception, the Zionist movement’s attitude toward the Orient and its inhabitants was quite ambivalent. On the one hand, the movement’s leaders, like the European colonialists of old, conceived the Arabs as inferior subalterns at best, or as merely another part of the landscape to be tamed. But on the other hand, the Zionists were attracted to the region, its cultures and peoples. As an example: Zionists were fascinated with the notion of the Bedouin as noble warriors and sought to emulate them, imagining the life of the fellahin as a window onto biblical times. In short, before 1948, many Zionists viewed the Orient as the realm of the enemy, but also as a utopian space for Jewish renewal. 

This ambivalence survived the 1948 transition from the British Mandate to the nascent State of Israel. Still, the ensuing Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict, coupled with the military government imposed between 1948-1966 over districts of the country that continued to be home to significant Palestinian populations, soon put an end to any tensions and contradictions. From that point on, denial of the Orient and the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people became one of the main pillars of the Jewish state. This pillar is neatly captured by Ehud Barak’s description of Israel as “a villa in the jungle”—a phrase with wide resonance in Israeli society. The emergence of this pillar also sealed the Palestinians’ fate: as objects, and not subjects, of Zionist ideology and practice.

These aspects of Zionism were not reserved merely for Palestinians, but were also applied to the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa, the Mizrahim, who today constitute the majority of the Jewish population of Israel. Zionism not only assumed the role of speaking for Palestine and its Arab inhabitants—and thus silencing their voices and self-representations; it did much the same to Middle East Jews. As Ella Shohat argued in her seminal essay, “Sephardim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Jewish Victims” (1988): “The Zionist denial of the Arab-Muslim and Palestinian East […] has as its corollary the denial of the Jewish ‘Mizrahim’ […] who, like the Palestinians, but by more subtle and less obviously brutal mechanisms, have also been stripped of the right of self-representation.” 

This outlook had important implications. For the most part, the historiography of Middle Eastern and North African Jewries rested on Zionism’s foundation myth of the “negation of exile” (shlilat ha-galut). According to this myth, as historian Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin opined, “every Jew was ‘proto-Zionist’ in that he lived a state of perpetual transience, yearning ‘to return’ to the Land of Israel—the only territory where the nation can fulfill its mission.” The monolithic and massive Zionist historiography that rested on this myth treated these Jews in similar terms as non-European colonized subjects in general: consigned to backwardness, imagined as people living outside of the boundaries of culture and civilization. It also forced these Jews into a social and cultural isolation from the Muslim environment that, until not long before, had been their home. It imagined that the only points of contact between Jews and Muslims had been in the form of recurrent oppression, riddled with periodic pogroms and expulsions; of a helpless existence imbued with fear and humiliation, reminiscent of the history of twentieth-century European Jewries. Thusly, this historiography not only dislodged these Jewries from their concrete Middle Eastern contexts, situating them within a Europeanized Shoah narrative; it also offered a terribly narrow and selective reading of their history. It failed to assess these Jews’ conditions between one documented onslaught and another, and it did not make allowances for extended periods during which Jewish-Muslim cooperation and mutuality overshadowed other aspects of their relationship.

Related to Zionist convictions, an isolationist approach to the history of Middle Eastern Jews also stemmed from the disciplinary partitions and enclosures of academic research. The older generations of scholars of Middle Eastern and North African Jewries belonged to departments of Jewish history and/or Jewish Studies, and were thus lacking in the contextual knowledge of the region’s history, cultures and—no less important—languages. Consequently, they studied Jewish communities as though they existed in self-sufficient, enclosed spaces, thereby preserving a ghetto paradigm within which seeing Jews as part of broader Muslim societies was inconceivable. 

In recent years, a younger (and, at times, more radical) generation of scholars began to challenge the accepted Zionist historiography of Middle Eastern and North African Jewries. Predominantly trained in the field of Middle Eastern studies, and unbeholden to the Zionist narrative as their predecessors had been, they made extensive use of their expertise and linguistic skills in revisiting the early modern and modern histories of Middle Eastern Jewries in different regional settings, including Egypt, Iraq, Morocco—and pre-1948 Palestine. Even in acknowledging instances of persecution and conflict, the thread that runs through much of this research is the poignant critique of the notion that these Jews lived a precarious and persecuted life in their countries of birth, until the Zionist state came to the rescue. According to this historiography, some of these Jews, a small number, were committed Zionists; many, however, saw no contradiction between being Zionists and their national identities as citizens right up to the War of 1948. Other Jews still, especially amongst the well-off, were suspicious of Zionism, fearing that it would undercut their comfortable position in in their home countries. The vast majority, however, simply wanted to be left alone to manage their daily affairs in peace and quiet. In actual fact, Middle Eastern Jews did not constitute a monolithic group. They held a range of attitudes, spanning the socio-political spectrum of the time, toward both their country of birth and Zionism. 

The same goes for Jews in pre-1948 Palestine. Before the Mandate era, veteran Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews—and, significantly, some East European immigrants (including Eliezer Ben-Yehuda)—functioned as vital mediators between Arabs and Jews, transcending the ethnic and national divide. They were united with Palestine’s other religious communities and, like them, embraced Ottoman citizenship. Cultural and other interactions between Jews and their Arab neighbors persisted in the post-Ottoman, Mandate era. These interactions were, at the very least, as commonly established as the (richly documented) level of conflict and friction that existed between them. Veteran Sephardi Jews in particular shared the customs and traditions of their fellow Palestinian Arabs. They inhabited what Abigail Jacobson and Moshe Naor described, in their important book Oriental Neighbors: Middle Eastern Jews and Arabs in Mandatory Palestine (2016), the very same “Semitic or Levantine surroundings and context.” 

Which brings me to Lior Sternfeld’s book. It is crucial to note at the outset that, as opposed to the vigorously critical histories of Ottoman, Arab, and North African Jewries, critical scholarship has thus far remained conspicuously reluctant to engage with the modern history (or rather, histories) of Iranian Jewries in meaningful, inspiring and innovative ways, instead adhering strictly to Zionist paradigms. To the best of my knowledge, Between Iran and Zion is the first utterly successful attempt to liberate the historiography of twentieth-century Iranian Jews from its conceptual and institutional straitjackets. Hence, it provides exciting, novel and thought-provoking insights and findings regarding the modern history of Jews in Iran. Significantly, it is carefully (and, presumably, intentionally and strategically) written in understated and dispassionate language, so as to make its truly radical and innovative findings more amendable for assimilation.

By drawing on an impressive body of primary and secondary sources in Persian, English and Hebrew (including oral histories), Sternfeld’s valuable contribution falls under three interrelated headings: (1) the fluidity and multiplicity of Jewish identities in Iran; (2) the high level of integration of Jews in twentieth-century Iranian society, especially during the second half of that century, and; (3) the Jews’ active involvement in support of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. 

First, Sternfeld demonstrates that from the 1940s to the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranian Jews could be at once ardent Iranian nationalists, liberals, communists, Marxists, Zionists, anti-Zionists, Jews, and even―lo and behold―supportive of revolutionary Islamists. They had these options available to them and they pursued them all. Sternfeld compellingly historicizes these affiliations, showing that they were neither homogenous nor fixed, and carried different meaning to various groups, Jews and non-Jews alike. For example: like in many other countries in the Global South, Marxism in twentieth-century Iran has been wedded to, and embedded in, a form of nationalism (in this case, Iranian), providing yet another example of the translation of the universal into the idiom of the local. Through his unearthing of the Jewish participation in, and support of, the Tudeh (Communist) Party in Iran, Sternfeld earns the right to confidently state that they “wanted to see a transformation of the Jewish community in Iran, [a transformation that will allow them] to fit more seamlessly into Iranian society […].” 

The same goes for Iranian Jews’ perceptions of Zionism and the State of Israel. It suffices to note that their position toward Zionism and the Jewish state varied from the highly sympathetic to the vehemently critical—depending, of course on the circumstances in Iran, Israel and the world at large. Yet, even if Iranian Jews embraced Zionism, this was not at the expense of their loyalty to their homeland, Iran, which usually came first. Hence, with the exception of a brief period of time (1948–1952), during which the Shah allowed Zionist organizations to operate freely in Iran, they rarely considered relocating to Israel. Their sympathies to the Zionist movement never translated to massive immigration to Israel, even during and after the Islamic Revolution, when anti-Jewish sentiment was at a periodical peak. Their sympathies to Zionism notwithstanding, during and after the revolution Israel was hardly in the Iranian Jews’ minds. Although a handful did migrate to Israel, many others either remained in the Islamic republic, or fled to the West.

Second, Sternfeld points to the energetic involvement and engagement of Jews across all shades of Iranian politics, again a story largely untold before now. During the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1979), Iranian Jews had a leading role in Tudeh politics; in Muhammad Mosaddeq’s National Front and in the anti-colonialism-inspired struggle for nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (1950-1953); in pro-monarchy politics; in Zionist activities; and in anti-Zionist activities. Under the second Pahlavi Shah (r. 1941-1979), Iranian Jews were high-ranking bureaucrats, industrialists, merchants, physicians and journalists in the Jewish and national press. They climbed the social ladder and amassed wealth, flooding the ranks of universities and professional organizations. 

This unprecedented integration of Jews into larger Iranian society was, among other things, an achievement brought about by the White Revolution. This was an ambitious reform program undertaken by the second Pahlavi Shah in the 1960s and 1970s, with the objective, among other things, of creating a unified and homogenous nation—what the late renown historian Eric Hobsbawm described as making “state frontiers coincide with the frontiers of nationality and language.” But this was a pyrrhic victory by the Shah. As Sternfeld convincingly shows, it was this very assimilation of Jews into Iranian society―and their consequent identification and empathy with the plight and grievances of their largely disenfranchised and/or indigent compatriots―that prompted not a few of them to participate in activities to topple the monarchy and to cooperate with high-ranking revolutionary figures of the likes of Ayatollah Mahmud Taleqani. True, in the course and after the 1979 revolution the population of Jews in Iran sharply declined from one hundred thousand to about twenty-five thousand—with most of the Jews choosing to emigrate to Europe and North America.  However, those Jews who remained in their country of birth have done so by choice: they enjoy relative prosperity, and are free to come and go as they please. This previously untold history, of the Jews during the Islamic Revolution and its aftermath was, at least for me, the most exciting and intriguing section of the entire book. I am confident that this particular story will shock—and possibly utterly confound—Jewish Israeli readers, for whom the notion of Jewish participation in the Islamic Revolution and their loyalty to their country of birth is inconceivable. For this alone, a Hebrew-language translation of Between Iran to Zion should be nothing less than an imperative for the author. 

In sum, Sternfeld throws open for the curious reader a window to a hitherto untold history, of the Jews of twentieth-century Iran. This is an especially important topic, not the least because of the problematics of Israeli-Iranian animosities over the last four decades. These animosities reflect heavily on the way most Israelis perceive the everyday lives of Jewish communities in Iran. Sternfeld’s book offers a major corrective to these distorted perceptions. 

*Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran, Lior B. Sternfeld, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018

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