The Persian Jewish Community

The Jewish presence in Iran dates back to the time of Daniel, when the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem and took the younger aristocracy into captivity in 597 BCE. Daniel and the rest of the Jewish community remained enslaved under the Babylonians until the Persians conquered the Babylonian Empire nearly seventy years later.

Cyrus, ruler of the Persian Empire, issued an edict allowing the Jewish community to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Some Jewish residents of Persia (modern-day Iran) returned to Jerusalem, but many remained in Persia and Babylon, such as in the Persian cities of Hamadan and Susa. The Jewish community flourished under Persian rule; Daniel ascended to prominence in the Persian Empire and King Ahasuerus chose a young Jewish maiden, Hadassah (Esther), as his queen.

The Jewish community remained in Persia through the era of the Parthians, who ruled the Persian region for nearly five hundred years and continued Cyrus’ benevolence toward the empire’s Jewish citizens. The Parthians introduced a political office known as the Rosh Galuta, a Jewish prince responsible for governing the exiles. Before the Islamic conquest of Persia, the Jewish community faced occasional persecution, but generally enjoyed relative freedom of religious expression.

The Muslims conquered Persia in the early 7th century. Under Muslim rule, the Jewish people received dhimmi status – a designation for a second-class, non-Muslim citizen of an Islamic country. Muslim law limited Jewish interaction with their Muslim neighbors, stemming from a belief that the Jewish population might spread ritual uncleanness through physical contact or in public baths. By the 19th century, thousands of Persian Jews had fled the increasing persecution and immigrated to present-day Israel.

Iran’s Jewish community both flourished and suffered during the 20th century. By the mid-1920s Jewish people had begun to experience relative equality with Muslims, but as the Nazis seized control of Germany, persecution of the Iranian Jewish community increased once again. Violence against the Jewish population of Iran heightened around the time that the modern State of Israel was established in 1948. This violence continued until 1953, prompting another large wave of emigration from Iran to Israel. However, the Jewish community then went on to experience a time of peace and prosperity in Iran – until the Islamic revolution.

In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Iranian monarchy, the Shah of Iran, and established an Islamic republic. The Islamic Revolution led to another period of emigration, both to the United States and Israel. Today, the largest Jewish population in Iran is centered in Tehran. The estimated Jewish population of Iran ranges from as few as 11,000 to as many as 90,000. Despite this small number, Iran has the largest Jewish community in the Middle East (apart from Israel) and has a greater Jewish population than any other Muslim country.

Both Israel and the United States are home to large Persian Jewish communities. Israel has around 250,000 Persian Jewish citizens, and the United States has a population close to 100,000. The largest community lives on the West Side of Los Angeles, California. The Great Neck region of Long Island, New York contains the other significant Persian Jewish community. The Persian Jewish communities in both Israel and the United States remain close-knit, maintaining a strong cultural identity.