When one thinks of Iran, they probably don’t think of the largest Jewish community in the Middle East. However, the embattled country is home to the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside of Israel. The Jews of Iran have a home in Tehran, where they say they are now free to worship without pressure to convert to Islam. The community says that Iran’s engagement with the global community has been a major factor in the improvements as the country’s place in society is secured. They also note Iran’s reformist President Hassan Rouhani as a welcome change. In fact, the President was even seen offering New Year’s greetings to Jews on Rosh Hashanah, in stark contrast to ex-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s actions, in which he questioned if the Holocaust was even real.
NBC News reports that Jews in Iran are feeling hopeful now that the country is engaging with the global community. The U.S.-Iran nuclear deal was noted as a contributing factor to the changes in Iran as the country is now openly engaging with other countries in positive dialogue. Additionally, the country has a new reformist President who is engaging with the Jewish community as a whole.
It was reported that new reformist President Hassan Rouhani even greeted Jews on Rosh Hashanah as part of their New Year’s celebration. Though the Jewish community has long held a protected legal status in Tehran, which guarantees them a spot in Parliament, they have not always been welcome. Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went so far as to make statements that the Holocaust wasn’t real. Also during the Iranian Revolution, the “protected” Jewish Parliament leaders were executed.
The relationship between Iran and its Jewish community has been a series of ups and down. One Jewish Journal reporter, whose grandfather was executed by Iran, attempts to put the relationship into perspective by outlining the times of peace and prosperity for Jews in the region and contrasting times of extreme hardship.
“From 1925 to 1979, under the Pahlavi kings, Iran’s Jews and other religious minorities were able to enter society as productive and educated citizens, prospering and living in relative peace within the Muslim majority society. In my opinion, the real nightmare for Iran’s Jews began in May 1979, when our community’s beloved leader, Haji Habib Elghanian (the writer’s grandfather) was executed by the current Iranian regime on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel and the United States.”
It is noted that with the execution of the prominent Jewish leader taking place, many Jews fled Iran out of fear. The Washington Post points out that Jews in Iran at the time just prior to Elghanian’s execution were thriving. In fact, they claim that by 1979, “80 percent of Iran’s estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Jews were middle class or higher, and 10 percent were part of the economic elite.” This meant that Jews in Iran were not only successful businessmen, but also prominent university professors, journalists, and doctors. The community was thriving.
However, following the execution of a number of Jewish officials during the Iranian Revolution, Jews fled the region, and today, the Iranian Jewish community is roughly 9,000. Following such a dark period for Jews in Iran, much of the community seems refreshed by a renewed sense of hope that they may be able to go back to their glory days in the place they claim they are entitled to live. Homayoun Sameyah Najafabadi, head of Tehran’s Jewish community, claims that the Jewish community has every right to remain in Tehran as their roots run deep.
“Iranian Jews are even more Iranian than Muslims — we’ve been here for 2,700 years.”
With things looking up in the community, some Iranian Jews who fled the region are returning, noting that they are no longer pressured to convert and that strict security monitoring of the community has been dropped.
What do you think about the potential of a booming Jewish population in Iran? Do you think the reformist President in Iran can help encourage these changes?
[Photo by Sean Gallup / Getty Images]