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By Massoume Price


The next major change comes with the Safavids in 16th century. Shiism is introduced as the state religion. A religious hierarchy is established with unlimited power and influence in every sphere of life. The concept of "ritual pollution" (najes) of the non-Muslims is introduced. Suffering and persecution of all religious groups particularly the Sunnis becomes a norm (this period is one of the worst with respect to human rights in Iran).

Jewish chronicles are full of accounts of massacre, forced conversion into Islam and mistreatment. New institutions are created; nasi became the head of the Jewish community assisted by the rabbi, mullah (Jewish one), or dayyan. The nasi was responsible for the prompt payment of jizya to local authorities. All relations between Iranian Jews and others outside the country were completely severed. Christians and Zoroastrians were subjected to the same harsh treatments and Sunnis suffered most. Segregation became a reality again for all minorities and Jewish Ghettos were reinforced. The reports by European travelers and missionaries describe the tragic situation of the Jews and other religious minorities. Jews were forced to wear both a yellow badge and a headgear, and their oath were not accepted in courts of justice. A Jew who converted to Islam could claim to be the sole inheritor of the family property, to the exclusion of all Jewish relatives. If one Jew committed a crime or an illegal act, the whole community would be punished (other religious minorities were subjected to the same harsh treatments).

The Jewish community of Iran saw little change till 19th century. In one incident the Jewish quarters were looted in Mashad. The anti Jewish sentiment reached its peak when the whole Jewish community in the city was forced to convert into Islam in 1839 under Muhammad Shah Quajar. Europeans intervened for the first time and the decree was reversed. The first modern
Jewish School, Alliance was opened after a long and frustrating debate with heavy pressure from Europeans and the International Jewish Alliance in 1891 by an order from Nasser E' din Shah. Once opened, the students and the teachers would have to be escorted by the police to stop the mob from attacking them (All modern schools specially girls' schools were subjected to the same attacks by religious Fatwas). Jewish chronicles report Quajar period as one of the worst in their history.

The end of the 19th century is the beginning of fundamental changes in Iran and the start of the Constitutional Revolution. Jewish partisans along with other minorities participated in the movement. They were instrumental in forming the first multiethnic Secret Society of 1905, which began the debate on political change. Jews, Christians, Bahai and Zoroastrians fought hard with the constitutionalists to form a National Consultative Majlis instead of an Islamic Majlis as demanded by the religious hierarchy. Along with other religious minorities they succeeded in their efforts to ratify laws that gave equality to Muslim and non-Muslim (male) citizens in 1907 and defined a new concept of Nationality not based on religious origins (with the exception of Bahai who were not recognized).

According to the new constitution Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians had the right to elect one delegate each to the Majlis, but they could not participate in elections of other delegates. The constitution also prohibited non-Shiite Muslims from becoming a member of the Government. This was ignored by the Phahlavi regime and there were non-Muslim high government officials even Bahai by the 1970's.

Such gains did not put an end to discriminatory practices and attitudes. Jewish quarters were still attacked and looted in Mashad, Tabriz and Tehran at the beginning of this century by religious Fatwas. Though the constitution of 1907 put an end to the segregation of religious minorities and Jewish Ghettos, it was at the time of Reza Shah that they were able to integrate in the larger Iranian society without fear from Fatwas.

Reza Shah was the first Iranian Monarch after 1400 years that paid respect to the Jews by praying to the Torah and bowing in front of it, when visiting the Jewish community of Isfahan. An act that boasted the self-esteem of the Iranian Jews and made Reza Shah the second most respected Iranian leader after Cyrus the Great. Still when in the 1970's, they showed up to support the Iranian Football team against Israel in the Asian games in Tehran, they were beaten up by the mob and the Iranian flags they were carrying were taken away.

In 1948, there was a high concentration of Jewish communities in Kurdistan. There were around 12,000 Jews scattered in approximately 15 Jewish settlements in Iranian Kurdistan. After the formation of the State of Israel many Jews in the area left for Tehran, in transit to Israel. The move angered the Muslim authorities. In March 1950, 12 Jews were murdered in Kurdistan. As a result more Jews moved to Tehran and demanded protection. The Iranian government guaranteed their safe passage. By March 1951, 8000, Iranian Jews had moved to Israel, the first major emigration in 20th century. After the formation of Israel in 1949, all the Muslim countries in the region expelled their local Jewish population except Iran. By 1966, the number of Jews immigrated to Israel had reached 22,000.

Kanoun e Javanan Yahudi formed in 1938, was the first Jewish Youth Organization in Iran. The first Iranian Jewish women's organization (Sazman Banovan Yahud i Iran) was established in 1947. Headed by Mrs. Shamsi Hekmat, the organization provided help to the needy and established branches in several towns. The first Jewish hospital opened in Tehran in 1958.

Since the conquest of Islam, Iranian Jews (and other religious minorities) have been instrumental in preserving Iranian music especially in Safavid times when music was restricted. Also many ancient rituals and traditions long forgotten by the Iranian Muslims are still practiced by the Jews as part of their festivals and celebrations. Illanout (tree festival) celebrated in February by Iranian Jews is identical to Shab e Cheleh and is a lot more elaborate, reminiscence of the pre Islamic celebrations.

In Iranian folklore, Jews are portrayed as mean, misery and polluted (Najes). Children were warned not to go to Jewish quarters because they would be kidnapped and Jews would drink their blood. They are used as stereotypes to portray evil characters by the likes of Mulana Jalaledin Rumi, Nezami, Sadi and many other literary figures. They could not touch water sources and when rained stayed in doors, since rain touching them would pollute the soil. At the times of persecution their water sources would be cut off.

The Jewish quarter of Kirman had preserved many characteristics of these segregated ghettos till recently. The lanes were extremely narrow, rarely more than five feet wide. The compound walls on either side were 10 to 12 feet high, with jagged glass and stone set in the top to discourage entry. Massive oaken doors strengthened by metal studs guarded the entrances to the houses. One had to stoop to enter the low portals since the height should be lower than the Muslim homes. These details were also designed to prevent mounted horsemen from effectively attacking its residents. All facilities necessary were inside the quarter. The synagogues bore no external symbols, so they were difficult to locate. All transaction with Jews would be through special intermediaries not to pollute Muslim tradesmen.

The Islamic Revolution of 1979, made Shariat the legal code and therefore gender and religious discriminations are an integral part of the system. Bahai once again are not recognized at all, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians each have one representative in the Parliament and are not legally forbidden from employment in the government sector. But since the authorities only employ Muslims and a 'Shariat test' is required, in reality these people are once again barred from working for the government. Like Bahaies it was very difficult for them to leave Iran for a decade after the revolution and restrictions still apply. They are accepted into Universities, but are not given access to post graduate studies, though no law prohibits them. Their monetary transactions are monitored closely to make sure no money is sent out. There were 85000 Iranian Jews before 1979, almost half have emigrated mainly to USA. The largest exodus since Darius' time when 30,000 left joyfully to rebuild their temple. Their departure this time has not been a happy one!

Massoume Price

For information on Jews in Quran search ' THE KORAN' online at the University of Virginia or many other English translations of  (Quran/Koran) online. Use the words Jews, Jewish, Moses to conduct your search.

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