The Iranian Jews Who Joined the Islamic Revolution

Thousands flocked from Tehran's synagogues to protests, led by their rabbis. Jewish delegates met with Khomeini to express support for his struggle. A groundbreaking study sheds light on the life of Iranian Jews, their complex view of Zionism and their surprising stance on the Islamic Revolution

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The Islamic Revolution in Iran. Newspapers termed the December 11, 1978, protest a “demonstration of millions.” The Jews were there.
The Islamic Revolution in Iran. Newspapers termed the December 11, 1978, protest a “demonstration of millions.” The Jews were there.
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Lior Sternfeld is dismissive of the Israeli drama series “Tehran.” In contrast to many others, Sternfeld, a historian who specializes in modern Iran, wasn’t bothered by the final episode of the popular show, in which our aircraft turn back – and not safely – from their mission to bomb a nuclear reactor. What irked Sternfeld was the episode in which the protagonist, Mossad agent Tamar Rabinyan, takes shelter with her Jewish aunt, who remained in Tehran even after the 1979 revolution. The aunt broke off her ties with the rest of her family, all of whom immigrated to Israel, and she established a model Muslim family with a husband who holds a senior government job and a daughter who demonstrates in support of the regime. However, at the moment of truth, when the relative – the Zionist spy – needs help, she opens the door and hides her from the authorities.

“It’s absolutely enough to make your blood boil – it’s a scene that is irresponsible in so many ways,” Prof. Sternfeld tells Haaretz in an interview to mark the publication of the Hebrew version of his book, “Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran” (Stanford University Press, 2018). What riles him, he says, is the stereotypical, one-dimensional depiction of the only local Jew who’s seen on the screen. “For decades, Iran’s Jews toiled to make it clear that there is a difference between Jews and Zionists, and to show that they are loyal first and foremost to Iran. And along comes this series and provides ammunition for those who claims that in the end the Jews will be more loyal to Israel than to Iran,” he says. He backs up his anger with selected quotes from Persian- and English-language social networks by Iranians familiar with the show. “Overall,” he adds, “the way life in Iran is depicted in the Israeli discourse is terribly superficial, and that applies to Jewish-Iranian life in particular.”

Sternfeld, 40, is an assistant professor of history and Jewish studies at Pennsylvania State University. Born and raised in Holon to two Ashkenazi parents, and after earning his bachelor and master’s degrees at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva, he obtained his Ph.D. in history from the University of Texas at Austin. His research interests lie in social and political movements in modern Iran. He decided to study the life of the Jews in modern Iran when he noticed that “throughout my studies, from undergraduate degree to doctorate, whenever we were given a reading assignment about the Jews in Iran, the feeling was that when it comes to the modern period, there is no ‘meat’ or analytical richness” to the scholarship.

As a student, he notes, he read excellent articles, for example, about the Jews in early, pre-Islamic Iran, or about Jewish language and literature in the Safavid period (16th to 18th centuries). “But when we came to the 19th and 20th centuries, almost everything entered a mold with clear boundaries,” he says, and draws a picture whose contours are familiar to many, including non-historians. Its crux is that under the Pahlavi dynasty (1921-1979) the Jews flourished, in particular thanks to Iran’s good relations with Israel, but following the Islamic Revolution (1979), they found themselves isolated and were only redeemed by the Zionist movement, and the hope of reaching Israel. Sternfeld sums up the dominant narrative, to which he objects: “Jewish history [in Iran] more or less ends, and since then the Jews who remained in Iran became conversos.”

But Sternfeld’s “gut feeling was that there was more to it than that.” The turning point for him came when he started to study a minor but significant subject: the involvement of Jews in the 1979 revolution. “Every Iran scholar can tell you that the revolution was supported by 90 percent of the country’s population, so why is it that so little has been written about the Jews in that period?” he wondered. When he decided to track down the testimonies and documents himself, he discovered that the material he had in hand was a project that could suffice for an entire book.

The testimonies he presents to demonstrate Jews’ support of the revolution, which transformed Iran from a pro-Western state into an Islamic state under Shi’ite religious rule, are surprising and thought-provoking. “I am convinced that this story will shock and completely bewilder many Israeli Jews,” he says – and rightfully. After all, many will wonder, what do Jews have in common with the oppressive rule of the ayatollahs, which is murderous in character and hostile to Israel?

Sternfeld offers a number of illuminating examples to prove that history is not black or white and that there is a disparity between the widespread, often simplistic, narrative and the complex reality. An illustrative case in point is the Jewish hospital in Tehran. Dr. Ruhollah Sapir, a Jewish physician, established the facility in 1942 after witnessing abuse undergone by a Jewish patient in another hospital in Iran. On September 8, 1978 – “Black Friday,” as it came to be known – when mass demonstrations erupted in Tehran, the shah (Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi) sent in the army to open fire on the demonstrators with live ammunition. Many opponents of the regime were wounded. Supporters of the revolution found shelter in Sapir Hospital. The demonstrators, Sternfeld writes, knew that the hospital would not turn them over to the shah’s secret service and also that they would receive good medical treatment there, in contrast to the governmental hospitals.

Jews take part in one of the mass demonstrations that led up to the Islamic Revolution in 1979. From the Jewish newspaper “Tamuz”

The book quotes a senior physician in Sapir at the time, whom Sternfeld interviewed. (Like most of the interviewees in the book, his name is not divulged.) “That Friday, the head nurse, Ms. Farangis Hasidim, called me and told me that they are bringing many casualties to the hospital,” the physician said. He noted that almost 90 percent of the wounded arrived at Sapir and were treated in the hospital’s four surgical wards. Sternfeld describes the close cooperation that existed between the hospital’s senior staff and Ayatollah Taliqani, one of the revolutionary movement’s most popular leaders, who was Ayatollah Khomeni’s representative in Tehran before he returned from exile and seized power. Together with Taliqani, the hospital sent out rescue crews for the demonstrators. “After ‘Black Friday’ he [Taliqani] called me and told me how he appreciated all the humanitarian work we did there. And yes, everybody knew about it,” the physician said.

At the end of 1978, a delegation from the Jewish community traveled to Paris to meet with the leader of the revolutionary movement, Khomeini. “The true goal of the meeting was to ensure that the Jews would not be considered enemies of the revolution, but rather its supporters,” Sternfeld explains. It was the first of many meetings between the two sides. Dr. Siamak Moreh-Sedeq, one of the hospital’s directors and until recently the one guaranteed Jewish delegate in the Majlis (the Iranian parliament), told Sternfeld that shortly before Khomeini returned to Iran he sent a letter of thanks to the hospital’s director for its help in treating wounded revolutionaries. To this day, in 2020, there is a plaque at the hospital’s entrance with the inscription, in Hebrew and in Farsi, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

On December 11, 1978, one of the largest demonstrations against the shah took place in the capital. Newspapers termed it a “demonstration of millions” and it became a milestone in the struggle against the regime. “Jewish participation [in the demonstration] set records,” Sternfeld writes, noting that “according to some sources, five thousand Jews participated in these protests.” Others estimate the number to have been far higher. “The Jewish religious leaders marched in the front row and the rest of the Jews followed them, showing great solidarity with our Iranian compatriots,” Sternfeld quotes a veteran activist in the Iranian Jewish community who helped organize the Jewish community’s participation. It turned out that the Jewish religious leadership legitimized and supported the appearance of young Jews in the demonstrations. “From the first days of the revolution, we had considerable support from religious leaders,” the activist said.

Kafka in Tehran

On the eve of the revolution Jews saw themselves as an integral part of the Iranian nation and identified with the people’s struggle for democracy, independence, freedom and equality.

Explaining the roots of the Jewish support for the Islamic revolutionaries, Sternfeld takes note of the heterogeneity of Iran’s Jews, who formed a community with multiple identities, voices and worldviews. There were Zionists and anti-Zionists, advocates of Iranian nationalism alongside communists and Marxists, liberals and even some who were allied with the leaders of the Islamic Revolution.

The origins of the Jewish community of Iran date back 2,700 years, to the period of the Babylonian exile. Throughout most of the 20th century, until the revolution, the country’s Jewish population numbered about 100,000, with natural growth being offset by emigration. By the 1970s, following socioeconomic, cultural and educational transformations, the Jews of Iran were fully integrated into the public arena and stood out in the business sector, the sciences and politics. Jews were administrators, industrialists, merchants, physicians and journalists. Some grew rich and climbed higher on the social ladder. Others filled the ranks of the universities and the professional organizations.

Sternfeld writes that Jews sometimes gave their children first names bearing a Muslim character, such as Habib, Abdullah and Ruhollah. Jews who made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem even added the term “hajj” to their name, like Muslims who went on pilgrimage to Mecca. In 1960, the iconic high-rise Plasco building was added to the Tehran skyline; it was built by the Jewish industrialist and philanthropist Hajji Habib Elghanian (who would become the first Jew to be executed after the revolution).

The Jewish hospital in Tehran, established by Dr. Ruhollah Sapir, sheltered and treated supporters of the Islamic Revolution. From the Jewish newspaper “Tamuz”

On a visit to Iran in 1959, former U.S. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt paid a public visit to the Jewish hospital. Shahbanu (empress) Farah Diba Pahlavi visited fashion students in one of the schools of the Jewish ORT vocational network. Synagogues and Jewish institutions were “rich, open, full and scattered across the country,” Sternfeld says.

Moreover, beginning in the 1940s, translations of works by Jewish thinkers had appeared in Iran and been well received. Freud, Kafka, and Isaiah Berlin became familiar names to respectable Iranians. Yosef Cohen, the last Jewish delegate in the Majlis before the revolution, was also a member of the Tehran city council. Following Israel’s establishment, El Al flew the Tel Aviv-Tehran route 18 times a week, and friendly athletics and other sports competitions were held regularly between Iranian and Israeli teams. “Jews were part of every walk of life in Iran, visible, prominent, and integrated,” Sternfeld writes.

Against this background, it is easily understandable that, alongside the Jewish aspect, the identity of the Jews also included an Iranian national element. On the eve of the revolution they saw themselves as an integral part of the Iranian nation and identified with the people’s struggle for democracy, independence, freedom and equality. Sternfeld describes how many of them experienced the shah’s tyranny and his dictatorship as Iranians, not only as Jews. From there the way was short to their integration in diverse political groups and organizations, whose common denominator was their opposition to the shah’s authoritarian monarchic regime.

This was the background to the establishment of the organization of Jewish intellectuals in Iran in 1978, which gave expression to the Jews’ dissatisfaction with the monarchical regime. The organization immediately started to cooperate with other revolutionary factions, including Muslim activists. “We formed this group in order to show the rest of the people in Iran that we Jews were not woven from a different fabric of society than other Iranians, but that we also supported goals for democracy and freedom,” Said Banayan, one of the organization’s founders, told Sternfeld. The author sees this as an example that illustrates well that the Jews “stood shoulder to shoulder with their compatriots and placed the national need ahead of the needs of the community.”

There is an irony here. It was the shah who drew the minorities, including the Jews, closer to Iranian nationalism, and then they joined the 1979 revolution in order to topple the regime. Accordingly, you title the chapter dealing with this “Unintended Consequences.”

“Correct. The shah’s nationalism project scored a success to the point where the Jews were able to think of themselves first of all as Iranians, and to go into the streets in protest against the situation of the Iranians, and not only to think about relations between the shah and the Jews. The great majority of the Jews were against the continuation of the monarchy and supported the looming revolution.”

There were also Jews who participated actively in the fighting, though their exact number is unknown. Some of them did so within the framework of their activity in Iranian professional organizations or in explicitly Jewish organizations. Others were active in organizations that were almost wholly Muslim and that supported the revolution. One of those organizations was Mujahedin-e Khalq (People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran). One of the Jewish activists in the organization was Edna Sabet, who was born in 1955 to a Tehran Jewish family from the urban middle class, and many of whose relatives were engineers and industrialists who acquired their education in the United States. During her years of study at Ariyamehr Technical University in Tehran, Sabet began to become involved in political activity. Subsequently, in the wake of her Muslim husband, she joined the Mujahedin and became a prominent figure in the movement. The members of the movement fought alongside the revolutionaries against the shah’s oppressive regime, but after the revolution they were denied the right to take part in the elections and they opposed the new regime and were persecuted by it. Among those who suffered that fate was Sabet: She was arrested and executed in 1982, at the age of 27. What was a left-wing Jewish woman doing in an Islamic revolutionary organization in the first place? “Despite her tragic end, her story illustrates another aspect in the complex weave of identities and loyalties that characterized many of those from her generation,” Sternfeld says.

Protesters attacking the El Al office in Tehran in 1978. Prior to the revolution, the airline flew the Tel Aviv-Tehran route 18 times weekly.Credit: Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images

Sabet’s activity in the Mujahedin-e Khalq, like her activity in Sapir Hospital during the period of the revolution, is an example of what Sternfeld terms a “departure from the traditional patterns of social assimilation of the Jewish community.” In his view, “These cases show us that at the end of the 1970s the majority of Iran’s Jews preferred the interests of their compatriots over their personal good or over the narrow interests of their community.”

Researchers disagree about how prominent the Jewish involvement in the revolution itself was. There is also a dispute over the causes and background of that involvement. Was it a significant phenomenon, which deserves reexamination, as arises from Sternfeld’s book? Or was it no more than a marginal anecdote? Did the Jews truly see themselves as part of the Iranian society, or did they conduct a pragmatic policy for internal reasons?

Many of them started to see Zionism as a genuine solution to a genuine problem, but not necessarily their own personal problem. The State of Israel was not part of their Jewish identity.

Sternfeld is aware of the complexity. Along with the Jews who supported the revolution ideologically, he relates, many Jews understood that its triumph was inevitable and that it was necessary to exploit the opportunities and advantages it might bring to the community and to its future in the homeland.

David Menashri, professor emeritus from the Middle Eastern and African history department of Tel Aviv University, and who established the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies there, was resident in Iran conducting academic research at time of the revolution’s outbreak. “For the great majority of the Jews, the connection with the revolution stemmed primarily from an instinct for survival,” he says. The Jews who supported the revolution were a “small ideological minority,” he maintains, and likens them to the German Jews who tried, futilely, to remain integrated in German society on the eve of World War II. “It’s not very different from the attitude of the German Jews toward their country: Very connected to the high culture, but not actually wanted,” he says.

Iranian protesters in front of the Azadi Tower during the Iranian Revolution.Credit: Angelo Cozzi/Archivio Angelo Cozzi/Mondadori via Getty Images

Nevertheless, Menashri, too, presents a complex picture. In his view, the Islamic Revolution was preceded by a “revolution” in the Jewish community. “A generation of young people, educated, generally left-leaning and not all that much Zionist, ousted the veteran leadership and took control of the community council. They were close to their Muslim colleagues in the leadership of the Islamic Revolution and they made contact with Khomeini’s circle. Their slogan, which was adopted by Khomeini, was that there was a difference between Judaism and Zionism. The veteran leadership [of the community] also connected with that line in the revolution. The same line continues today within the leadership of Iran’s Jews.”

Another explanation that differs from Sternfeld’s for why Jews supported the revolution is offered by David Yeroushalmi, professor emeritus of Middle Eastern studies at both the Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University. It was “mainly from a lack of choice and for pragmatic considerations, in order to ensure their safety and the community’s property,” he says. On the one hand, he reinforces the testimonies that appear in Sternfeld’s study, talking about young, educated Jews who supported the revolution. However, in contrast to Sternfeld, he maintains that “the support was partial and far from sweeping,” and notes the “all-encompassing recoil from the revolution by most of the Jewish groups.” In his view, “Looking back, and based on all we know, the vast majority of the members of the [Jewish] community in Tehran and outside it were deterred and were fearful of supporting a move to remove the regime [of the shah] that had been so beneficial to them.”

However, in the view of Prof. Haggai Ram, from the Middle East Studies Department at Ben-Gurion University, Sternfeld’s identification of the involvement of Iranian Jews from across the political spectrum in the revolution is a research innovation that has not previously been told in this way. “The story of the participation of the Jews alongside the Iranian revolutionaries is the most riveting part of the book, and I am convinced that it will shock and completely bewilder many Israeli Jews,” he writes at the conclusion of the book. In any event, Sternfeld is convinced that this was a “historic milestone” in the annals of the Jewish community in Iran. For the first time ever, the Jews supported in an organized manner a national goal that transcended their own community’s narrow boundaries.

“The unique ability of Iranian Jews to develop highly complex identities – and to be largely successful because of their sensitivity to nuances” was often confusing to those who observed them from outside Iran, Sternfeld writes. In this connection, he quotes Haim Tsadok, a Jewish Agency emissary to Iran in the last century, as saying that Iranian Jews and Iranian non-Jews share a common denominator of 90 percent, whereas between Iranian Jews and Israeli Jews there is a difference of 90 percent. “That common denominator is what impelled Iran’s Jews to struggle for their integration into Iranian society,” Sternfeld observes.

‘Heroic Palestinian people’

How does an Israeli Jew who lives and works in the United States go about writing a book on the Jews of Iran, when visiting Iran poses a danger to him? Sternfeld admits that “going to Iran is out of the question,” but as an alternative he chose Los Angeles (“Tehrangeles”), home to the largest Jewish Iranian community outside Israel, most of whom immigrated to the United States in the wake of the revolution. “After a few long visits to Los Angeles, I was able to build relations of trust with the members of the community, and they shared stories, photographs and documents with me. They also put me in touch with their relatives in Iran,” Sternfeld relates.

Lior Sternfeld. ‘This story will shock many.’ Credit: Michael T. Davis / Department of History, Penn State

In addition, he conducted interviews in New York, Europe and Israel. With the aid of research assistants and friends, he was also able to obtain the Jewish newspapers that were published in Iran in the last century and were stored in a central library in Tehran, and also to gain access to other publications held in the Iranian National Archives. Among the sources he used in writing the book are reports and correspondence of state and international bodies and agencies, biographies, memoirs and films.

Sternfeld is adept at portraying the diversity of the Jewish community in Iran, and its cosmopolitanism. “Iran and its Jewish population were part of global and transregional trajectories of displaced persons who found short- and long-term sanctuaries in countries not their own,” Sternfeld writes. Thus a number of Jewish communities – European, Arab, Sephardic – commingled in Iran during World War II and following the creation of the State of Israel.

Many European Jews found a have in Iran during World War II and following the Holocaust. A remnant of this migration remains there to this day in the form of the only Ashkenazi synagogue in Tehran. The authorities and the Iranian people “generously welcomed” the refugees, Sternfeld writes, in contrast to other governments and peoples in the Middle East. In the light of an unexpected and incomprehensible tidal wave of hundreds of thousands of Polish refugees – Jews and non-Jews alike – Iran, the Iranian people and the urban communities mustered their forces, Sternfeld writes. Not only did they welcome the refugees generously, they also helped them in their efforts to lead a normal life again.

You present a complex conception of Zionism, which at times may also seem somewhat confusing.

There may be Jews in Iran who are concealing their identity for diverse reasons, but in general there is no need for that. In the regions where they reside, the Jews constitute part of the fabric of life in Iran.

Sternfeld: “Iran’s Jews advocated Zionism, but in a softer and more spiritual version than what was accepted in Israel. Even if they maintained a spiritual bond with Israel and Jerusalem, their interpretation of Zionism was not political, and they did not devote themselves to the Zionist movement and its goals: the establishment of the modern State of Israel. Many of them started to see Zionism as a genuine solution to a genuine problem, but not necessarily their own personal problem or as a suitable solution for them. The State of Israel was not part of their Jewish identity, even though many Iranian Jews had family in Israel and also visited the country. Those who remained in Iran were totally devoted to their beloved homeland. They had no intention of replacing Iran with Israel.”

In the book you quote, in this connection, Elias Eshaqian, who was a teacher and headmaster in Alliance schools [an international network of Jewish schools] for over 25 years, who wrote in a memoir, “Iran has been my homeland and Jerusalem has been the source of my belief in God and the direction of my prayers.”

“Eshaqian, who was a role model for many Iranians, didn’t allow his religious identity as a Jew to diminish his national identity as an Iranian. He took pride in his combined identity throughout his career, and in this sense offered inspiration and direction to his pupils.”

You describe how Iran’s Jews avidly supported Zionist organizations, donated money and accommodated refugees on their way to Israel, but to the chagrin of the Zionist leadership, that support did not produce a large-scale of migration. You write that during the first four years of Israeli statehood, the overwhelming majority of the Jews chose to remain in Iran.

“The proportion of Iranian Jews who opted for the Zionist alternative was quite low. Even though the Jewish Agency prepared passports and entry visas and expected an unprecedented number of immigrants, most of the candidates for aliyah decided not to leave.”

And as though to complicate even further the already complex picture, Sternfeld also documents fierce criticism, at times bordering on the anti-Israeli and the anti-Zionist, that could be found among members of the Iranian Jewish community following the fall of the shah. In order to conform to the official policy of the Islamic Republic after the revolution, the leadership of Iran’s Jews assailed Zionism, leveled criticism at Israel and expressed support for the Palestinian people. Some of the examples make for unpleasant reading. Thus, in 1981, the Association of Jewish Iranian Intellectuals published an acerbic statement accusing “the Zionists [of] carrying out Nazi-style attacks against defenseless people.” The statement included sentences such as “Long live the heroic Palestinian people” and “Success to the joint struggle of Muslims, Christians and Jews against imperialism and Zionism.” Was this just lip service with the aim of currying favor with the new leadership, or is it further evidence of the complex identity of Iran’s Jews? That question is difficult to answer unequivocally.

What is certain is that the revolution quickly veered away from its democratic, national and liberal promises, launching instead violent measures of suppression against individuals and organizations suspected of criticizing or opposing the Islamic regime. “Already in the first decade of the revolution there was mass emigration of Jews,” says David Yeroushalmi.

The Jewish community shrank in size in the wake of the revolution. Today, only some thousands of Jews live in Iran. Estimates of their number range from 10,000 (according to the official census) to 25,000 (the number cited recently by Yehuda Garami, the chief rabbi of the community. In any case, it’s the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside Israel.

Esti Yerushalmi and Niv Sultan, in the Israeli series “Tehran.” Sternfeld calls the show “superficial.” Credit: Kan Public Broadcasting

Against the background of this book, one wonders why the creators of the series “Tehran” chose to depict the Jews as a minority living in fear and forced to conceal its identity.

“The discussion in Israel of Iranian life and in particular of Jewish-Iranian life is terribly superficial. There may be Jews in Iran who are concealing their identity for diverse reasons, but in general there is no need for that. In the regions where they reside, the Jews constitute part of the fabric of life in Iran. The synagogues, the clubs, the schools, the Jewish hospital and the other institutions are central and prominent. The state underwrites the religious institutions and schools where Hebrew is taught and religious studies take place. There are at least two kosher restaurants in Tehran and even a matza factory. The community has a publishing house. The Jews have stores and businesses and a student association, they have a representative in parliament. For the most part they are middle-class with a tendency to upper middle-class. In the past few years, under the Rohani presidency, they have had several political achievements, such as an exemption from attending school on Shabbat for Jewish children in the public schools, an inheritance law that prevents discrimination toward Jewish heirs if there is also a Muslim heir, and more.”

The Iranian Jewish woman in the television series is arrested after her daughter informs on her to the authorities. The viewer gets the impression that the Jews in Iran are persecuted.

“Iran executed tens of thousands of people in horrific lightning trials, but to this day, to the best of my memory, fewer than a dozen Jews have been executed, and for various excuses and reasons.”

Even so…

“It’s not a simple matter to be a Jew in Iran, and it would be naive to say otherwise, but it’s not simple to be an Iranian these days at all. There is some sort of assumption that if we portray complexity, we are acting as defense counsel for the Iranian regime and dismissing the suffering it is causing. My view is that when we present a complex picture, the criticism is far more focused and accurate. It is impossible to claim, as no few charlatans do, that Iran treats Jews the way Germany did in the 1930s, and as such presents an existential threat to Iran’s Jews and to Israel. There is plenty to be critical of in regard to the Iranian regime: about its attitude toward minorities, toward groups for political, religious or gender reasons. I don’t wish to dictate a different narrative, but to request a broad range of analyses and approaches to Jewish life and history in Iran.”

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