Jews have lived in Iran since the Babylonian exile, approximately 2,700 years ago. A result of the harsh rhetoric between Israel, the Jewish homeland, and Iran—especially since 1979—has been the masking of the fact that the largest Jewish community in the Middle East, outside of Israel, is the Iranian Jewish community. These Jews, unlike Soviet Jewry in the 1960s-1980s, are not trapped in Iran; rather, this community makes the conscious decision to stay in the country that they have called home for the past millennia. Our story begins at the turn of the 20th century with the 1906-1911 constitutional revolution. This revolution turned Iranians, for the first time, from subjects to citizens. And for Iranian Jews—and other minorities—the promise was great: putting them on par with the rest of Iranian society. However, the process was not without its difficulties and tribulations. At first, Majlis (Iranian Parliament) Jews and other minorities (aside from the Zoroastrians) were not allowed to represent themselves, and were forced to “elect” Muslims to represent them.1 In the last years of the Qajar dynasty (r. 1795-1925) Jews attempted to maximize upon the rights and promise of the constitutional period. In those years, more and more Alliance schools began to open their doors, trying to train Iranian Jews and help them develop skills that would assist them in achieving upward mobility on the social ladder. The Alliance Israélite Universelle schools taught languages and writing; which provided their pupils certain advantages in trade, bureaucracy, and access to higher education and training in Iran and abroad. In the years between the beginning of the constitutional period and the First World War, Jews came to realize that legal barriers were not the only obstacle standing between them and social assimilation. Yet, with WWI brewing and the emergence of political Zionism—things started to change for Iranian Jews in unexpected ways. Newly disillusioned with the outcome of the constitutional revolution, all of the sudden, the promise of relocating to a place of their own sounded rather tempting. Initially, the message of political Zionism struck a chord with Jewish Iranians in 1917, following the Balfour Declaration.2 Newly disillusioned with the outcome of the constitutional revolution, all of the sudden, the promise of relocating to a place of their own sounded rather tempting. Iranian Jews thus established Zionist associations to teach Hebrew and handle the preparations for a mass exodus. However, shortly after, in 1925 with the ascendance of Reza Pahlavi as the new Shah, overthrowing the Qajar dynasty and establishing a new national project envisioning a new Iranian society where religion and religious identity were secondary, Jews shelved their plans for relocation. Reza Shah repealed all laws that barred Jews (and other minorities) from living in certain areas, from engaging in specific occupations, and from joining the army. Jews had now become an equal part of the Iranian society. Zionism remained, but as a more clandestine operation. Zionist organizations could operate openly in some fields, yet were banned in others altogether. Starting in the 1920s, sympathies towards Zionism and different interpretations of Zionism started to split the various communities. For example, Shemuʾel Ḥayyim, a leader in the Jewish community, a Zionist, and the Jewish representative to the Majlis, had a harsh disagreement with another Jewish dignitary, Loqman Nahurai. While Nahurai espoused the interpretation, and perhaps practice, that Jews should join full force Zionist international organizations, Ḥayyim believed Zionism to be an overall positive development, but felt Iranian Jews should fight for their rights and status in Iran and not forfeit it for any messianic dream. Ḥayyim published a newspaper called haḤayyim (Life), in which he preached for integration efforts for the Jews, participation in the political sphere in Iran, and the development of a national consciousness. In a twist of fate, Ḥayyim was actually executed by Reza Shah on account of the false accusations of complying with an attempt to assassinate him. Consequently, any non-Iranian organized movement was banned from operating in Iran.
Read more at: https://hasepharadi.com/2019/03/31/between-iran-and-zion-jewish-histories-of-twentieth-century-iran/