The history of the Jews and Iran goes way, way back in time.
I am currently reading a book called A History of Iran: Empire of the Mindby Michael Axworthy. It is a fascinating book, if you want some understanding of world events, and if you have an interest in the history of religion (did you know that the Bahai faith started in Iran? I didn’t know that before reading that part of the book last night).
The history of the relationship between Iranians and Jews is almost as old as the history of Iran itself. After the conquest of the northern Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians around 720 BC, large numbers of Jews were removed to Media, among other places, setting up long-lived Jewish communities, notably in Ecbatana/Hamadan. A second wave of deportation, this time to Babylonian territory, took place in the 590s and 580s under Nebuchadnezzar…Babylon came under Persian control in the 530s, and thereafter many of the Jews eventually returned home. Some scholars believe that Judaism changed significantly under Mazdaean influence in the period of the Babylonian exile…For hundreds of years thereafter, first under the Persian Empire and later under Hellenistic rulers, diaspora Jewish and Mazdaean religious communities lived adjacent to one another in cities all over the Middle East.
In the 17th century:
After 1642 there was a particularly grim period of persecution and forced conversions. Orders were issued that Jews should wear distinguishing red patches on their clothing to identify themselves, that their word at law was near worthless, that they must not walk in the middle of the street or walk past a Muslim, that they must not enter a shop and touch things, that their weddings must be held in secret, that if they were cursed by a Muslim they must stay silent, and so on. Many of these would-be rules probably reflect the aspirations of a few extremist mullahs rather than the reality as lived. Conditions would have varied greatly from town to town and changed over time, but they were still indicative of the attitudes of some and appeared to legitimize the actions of others.
Under Nader Shah in the 18th century:
Nader was generous to the Armenians, and his reign was regarded later by the Jews one of relief from persecution (though minorities suffered as much as anyone else from his violent oppression and heavy taxation, espeically in later years).
In the late 19th century, relating to the assassination of the shah:
One aspect of the assassination illustrates the complexity of attitudes towards Jews in Iran. Apparently in his interrogation Kermani said that he had had an earlier opportunity to kill the shah, while he was walking in a park, and had not done so—despite the fact that he could easily have escaped because he knew that a number of Jews had been in the park that day and they would be blamed for the killing. Kermani did not want the assassination to be blamed on the Jews and did not want to be responsible for the riots and attacks on the Jews that might follow. For every anti-Semitic preacher or rabble-rouser, there many educated humane Iranians—clerics and others— for whom it was a matter of conscience to do what they could to help the Jews and other minorities, irrespective of the radicalism that might characterize their other beliefs.
I haven’t finished the book yet; I am almost up to the twentieth century.
If you want to read a book about growing up Jewish in 20th century Iran, I highly recommend Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iranby Roya Hakakian. It is written by the sister of a friend who lives here in Highland Park.
In my own experience, my first encounter with Iranian Jews was when 4 Jewish Iranians joined my high school class in 1979. I later became friends with an Iranian Muslim when I worked at M.I.T. I was surprised to learn that she was friends with one of my high school classmates. Apparently, having both grown up in pre-revolutionary Iran, the two had much in common, including language, that went beyond religion.
Finally, to keep up with what is going on for Jews in Iran today, And now, the truth about the Jews of Iran.