History of Iranian Jews
Levy, Habib (1896-1984), Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran: The Outset of the Diaspora, abridged and edited from the 3-volume 1960 Persian version by Hooshang Ebrami, translated into English by George W. Maschke, Mazda Publishers, 264 pp., 2005. [ISBN 1-56859-086-5]
In this review/summary/analysis, I have tried to give the reader a sense of the book”s content and how it relates to other sources on the subject. The review is much longer than my usual ones, primarily because the subject matter is of immense interest to me.
I started reading thebook, which covers the history of Iranian Jews up to and including the Pahlavi era, with the aim of learning about where Iranian Jews came from and how/when they settled in Kurdistan, the land of my ancestors. I also wanted to discover the root causes of anti-Semitism in Iran. The recent history of Iranian Jews during the Qajars and Pahlavis, where historical documents are abundant and thus the events are less open to speculation, wasn’t of as much interest to me. Therefore, I read the second half of the book, covering the latter eras, much less carefully.
Other than the book under review, sources for exploring the history of Jews in Iran are quite limited. One such source, which also cites other sources, is Wikipedia’s “History of the Jews in Iran”:
Among useful pieces of information provided by this article are estimates of the number of Jews in Iran at various times. For example, a 2012 census indicated a population of less than 9000, down from more than 100,000 in the late 1940s and 80,000 in the late 1970s, just before the Islamic Revolution.
Anti-Semitism in Iran has had its ups and downs, with periods of ethnic cleansing at one extreme and tolerance (particularly over the last century) at the other, but deep down, anti-Semitic feelings persist in a vast majority of Iranian Muslims. For example, over my own lifetime, educated Muslims have been outwardly tolerant of, and even cordial toward, Jews. But in private, where Jews are absent or unrecognized, many behave quite differently. In Iran, the politically correct terms for a Jew are “Kalimi” and “Yahudi,” but “Johud” is used to denigrate Jews (the latter, which came to be used during Shah Abbas II’s reign, is to the former as “nigger” is to “negro” and “African-American” in the US). Many Iranians use the politically correct terms in public, but switch to the denigrating term in private, particularly when telling jokes about Jews.
As a believer in the power of graphical aids in all fields of human communication, I was very disappointed with the total absence of maps and timelines in this book. The 16 pages of images, inserted between pages 348 and 349, are inadequate for a book of this size and scope, especially since most of them are inconsequential photos of individuals and social groups.
Thus, to make things clearer for myself and for the readers of this review, I have put together the accompanying diagram that shows the geographic distribution of the Israelites, my ancient ancestors of some 3100 years ago, alongside a timeline that I have constructed from the book under review and some external sources. Please bear in mind that dates associated with ancient history are approximate, as various sources tend to disagree. I tried to reconcile the dates on the timeline with The Oxford Handbook of Iranian History, a book about which I posted a review in late March 2013, but there were a number of irreconcilable differences; I chose to use dates from the current book in such cases.
Let’s start at the very beginning, when Israelites settled in the Holy Land (today’s Israel). The Israelites, who entered Egypt some 3500 years ago and were delivered by Moses in 1280 BCE, were descendants of Abraham, who was born near Basra 3600 years ago and migrated to Canaan at age 75. Abraham had 8 sons and a daughter, Dinah. His first son, Ishmael, was from Hagar; his second son, Isaac, was from Sarah; the other 6 sons were from Keturah. Isaac had 2 sons with Rebekah: Esau and Jacob. The Israelites were in Egypt for 210 years (some accounts, that appear less reasonable, indicate 430 years by adding the lifespans of Jacob’s son Levi, his son Kohath, his son Amram, and Moses, but this does not account for overlap between generations).
The 12 sons of Jacob, nicknamed “Children of Israel,” are said to have been patriarchs of tribes which were distributed in today’s Israel/Palestine according to the map. In actuality, it seems, the 12 tribes were not led by the 12 sons of Jacob, but by 10 of his sons and two of his grandsons whom he adopted as his own. Ten of these tribes, residing in the northern region of the Holy Land, later became known as the “lost tribes,” when they disappeared from the face of the earth around 720 BCE. Two of the tribes residing in the southern Judea region were captured and taken to Babylon. Babylon, the former hub of Judaism, was a province of Persia for more than 1000 years.
The 10 lost tribes were captured by the Assyrians and were taken, or were forced to go, to Samaria, Aleppo, Ninevah, Kurdistan, Azarbayjan, then to Gilan, Mazandaran, Gorgan, and Khorasan. The Judah and Benjamin tribes were captured by Babylonians and were taken from Jerusalem to Babylon, Elam, Shush, Stakhr, and Pasargadae, and later to Yazd, Kerman, Kashan, and Isfahan, and points further north and west. A traveler’s account around 1165 CE notes that Jews of Kurdistan and Azerbaijan speak the Syriac language, a dialect of Middle Aramaic. Benjamin of Tudela, the 12th-century traveler who visited Kurdistan in 1170, found more than 100 Jewish communities. Many Afghan Muslims are from the tribes of Israel who settled in the area during the reign of Cambyses and later converted to Islam.
The accounts in the preceding paragraphs provide some clues as to the origins of Kurdish Jews, but details are somewhat at odds with the information in Wikipedia’s “History of Jews in Kurdistan”:
The latter associates Kurdish Jews with the tribe of Benjamin. According to Wikipedia, genetic studies have shown that Kurdish Jews and Kurdish Muslims have common ancestors, which may indicate significant religious conversions in one or the other direction. Kurdish Jews, now mostly relocated to Israel, spoke a dialect of Aramaic that was at one time prevalent in today’s Middle East region and subsequently influenced Arabic.
The history of Iranian Jews during the Achaemenids is better documented than the periods before and immediately after, thanks in part to the account in the Old Testament and partly owing to extensive archeological discoveries from the period. Prophet Daniel’s role during the Mede’s rule (he is buried in Iran), Cyrus the Great’s liberation of Jews from Babylon, rebuilding of the Second Temple, and the story of Queen Esther (also buried in Iran, alongside her uncle Mordecai) are well-known.
According to Chapter 6, Iranian Jews lived in obscurity for 5.5 centuries, spanning the Greek rule and 470 years of Parthians. When Alexander destroyed Persepolis in 330 BC, the area’s Jewish inhabitants fled to nearby cities, possibly settling in Shiraz and Lar. Macedonians ruled both Judea and Iran; at that time, Jews adopted a new calendar, known as the Shetarot (covenant), whose starting point was 331 BCE, the year the Seleucus’ rule was firmly established. Under the Greek rule, Jews of Judea were divided into two factions: most of the well-to-do supported the Greek culture, which was violently opposed by the Hasidim.
With the fall of Judea, many Jews migrated toward Arabia, settling in an area that later became Medina. Iran’s western border during the Parthian period was the Euphrates River, making Iran and Judea not very far from each other. Many of the western provinces of Iran had large Jewish populations. In Mesopotamia and Babylon, there were regions were the entire population was Jewish. During this period, Iranian Jews constituted a council that was recognized by the Iranian state. The Jews had some level of autonomy in their affairs. A leader known as “resh galuta” (head of Jewish affairs) presided over the Jewish-Iranian community.
With the end of Arsacid dynasty, the Jews also abandoned their struggle for independence and freedom. During the reign of Anushirwan (531-579 CE), who was a fanatic Zoroastrian, some religious minorities, particularly the Mazdakites, were persecuted. During the Sasanid dynasty (400+ years), the Jews lost the broad freedoms they had enjoyed in the past. In 456, a decree was issued to ban the observance of Sabbath. A list of Jewish community leaders during the Sasanian period, from 210 to 520 CE (15-16 leaders, with average tenure of about 20 years) is provided on p. 131. The peak of the Sasanid persecution of the Jews occurred during the reign of Peroz (457-483). As Jews of Mesopotamia fled to Arabia, Jews of Eastern Iran fled to India and some went as far as China.
In 614 CE, Jerusalem was freed from the grip of the Byzantines by Iran. Later, Arabs ruled both Iran and Judea, so, in a sense Iran and Judea were part of the same empire. Early during the Islamic period, Zoroastrians mistreated Jews, because they considered followers of Muhammad and Moses of the same creed; so, when Muslims mistreated them, they retaliated against the weaker Jews. When Imam Ali conquered the city of Peroz Shapur, local Jews greeted him in drones. Ali accepted the Jewish community leader position and preserved it. During the Islamic caliphate, Jews pursued trades such as weaving, dye casting, goldsmithing, pharmacy, shopkeeping, and trading in spices and antiques. Continual reinstatements of dress codes for the Jews are indications that the codes were not uniformly enforced.
During the first six centuries of the Islamic Iran, the country’s Jews expanded eastward. There were significant populations of Jews in Nishapur, Balkh, Kabul, Sistan, Marv, Samarqand and Bokhara, stretching as far as China. The supremacy of Arabs over Iran lasted about two centuries. Afterwards, Iran was divided into 3 parts: One part was ruled by the caliphs of Baghdad, another by independence-seekers, and a third part by Iranian patriots. Khorasan and other eastern parts of the country remained beyond the Arab influence. From the advent of Islam in Iran, Jews were caught in the middle. They were required to pay jizya (an exorbitant annual poll tax) to Islamic rulers and whatever rebel group happened to be in their area also forced them to pay large sums of money for protection.
The Mongols were a brutal bunch, but I was surprised to find out that before attacking Iran, Genghis Khan sent a 100-person commercial and political delegation to Iran’s Sultan. The entire delegation was massacred before reaching the Sultan’s court, as was a group sent later to investigate the incident. These events enraged the Mongol Khan, and he unleashed his rage on Iran. Genghis died in 1227, leaving Iran in disarray for several decades. Genghis’ grandson Hulagu Khan attacked Iran in 1256, seizing land as far as Baghdad.
During the rule of the Seljuqs, religious tolerance came to an end in Iran and regulations, similar to those previously instituted by Umar, were put in place for non-Muslims. The restrictions and the extent of their enforcement evolved over time, but they included bans on praying aloud or living in houses that are higher than those of Muslims, and requirements for special clothing and footwear. Many members of religious minorities converted to Islam during this period to escape denigration and persecution. In 1026, wine taverns were closed, an action that would be repeated some two centuries later, causing Hafez to write: “They shut the doors of the tavern—God be not pleased / For they shall open the doors of the house of falsehood and hypocricy.”
درِ میخانه ببستند خدایا مپسند / که درِ خانه ی تزویر و ریا بگشایند
The vizier Nezam al-Mulk, in his book Siyasatnameh (“Book of Politics”), wrote that non-Muslims should not be appointed to state offices, although he maintained cordial relations with some Jewish financiers. Property confiscation from Jews was widely practiced during this period, causing Iran’s Jewish population to further decline due to migration and conversion. A prominent Jewish merchant, Banu Sahl al-Tustari, who migrated to Egypt during this period, attained high office there and became highly influential in the Egyptian government.
The Crusades took place from 1095 to 1270, devastating Iran and other lands in today’s Middle East. A false messiah appeared and became very influential in Kurdistan and Azerbaijan. Some of his followers remained loyal to him even after his death. A novel based on these real-life events was published by Benjamin Disraeli in the 1830s.
Traveler Benjamin of Tudela provides much information about Iranian Jews, including estimates of their numbers in Hamadan (30K), Shiraz (10K), Tabaristan (4K), Ghaznin (80K), Isfahan (15K), Amadiayah (25K), Susa (7K), and Samarqand (50K). For Azerbaijan and Rudbar, his estimates are in terms of communities (100 and 4, respectively), rather than numbers. Another Jewish traveler, Petahiah ben Joseph ha-Lavan, gave an estimate of 1.2M for the total number of Jews. Even if not quite accurate, these large numbers indicate that from that day until Iran of the Pahlavi era, many Jews must have fled Iran or converted to Islam to escape mistreatment. In addition, many Iranian Jews were killed in the east by the Crusaders and in the west by the Mongols.
At times during Iran’s history, such as during the Ilkhanid period, Jews rose to high offices. One well-known Jew of this period was the Judeo-Persian poet Shahin who put the Torah and Jewish tradition into verse in the style of classical Persian poets. The Safavid era (1501-1722) brought with it a revival of the arts and great achievements in architecture, but it also opened the country’s doors to European spies and intensified anti-Semitism, which climaxed amid religious wars among Sunnis and Shi’is, as well as among Muslims and non-Muslims.
Persecution occurred in some very weird combinations: Priests called Muslims and Jews infidels, while Mullahs in Spain declared Jews and Christians infidels. Ottomans killed Shi’is and Christians, but protected the Jews (the Ottoman Empire was one of the few remaining safe havens for European Jews); Iranians killed Sunnis and Jews, but not Christians. Anti-Semitic ideas were spread by European spies in Iran. The colonial powers of Europe also fueled the Shi’i-Sunni conflict, which occupied the Sunni Ottomans with the Shi’i Iran, preventing them from harboring expansionist thoughts toward Europe. The Ottoman, who initially protected Jews, eventually started to kill them.
Many Jews in Iran led dual religious lives, praying as Muslims in public and following Jewish traditions in private. Lack of leadership due to the