This Day in Jewish History / An Execution in Iran

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Habib Elghanian.Credit: Screenshot

On May 9, 1979, Habib Elghanian, the most prominent Jewish businessman in pre-Islamic Revolution Iran, was executed by firing squad after an Islamic court convicted him of being a “Zionist spy” and of “making war against God and his Prophet.”

His death was the first post-revolution execution of a Jew or a leading businessman, and it contributed to the departure of more than three-quarters of the country’s 80,000 Jews.

Habib Elghanian was born on April 5, 1912, in the Udlajan section of Tehran, to a father who was a tailor and a mother who was a grocer’s daughter. One of eight children, he attended the Alliance Israelite Universelle School until he was 15, when he began working at a hotel owned by an uncle.

In 1936, after completing military service, he married Mah Soltan, a first cousin from his mother’s side, and opened a business in the Tehran bazaar, importing watches and women’s hats. He and his brothers later opened a larger importing business. As Iran’s oil revenues, and its middle class, grew, so did the demand for foreign-made products such as textiles, washing machines and kitchen appliances, and the Elghanians’ firm continued to expand.

In 1948, Elghanian began manufacturing plastic items. He began simply, with combs and buttons. Petroleum was cheap and this business too flourished. By the early 1960s, Plascokar, as the company was called, was using between 60,000 and 70,000 tons of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, every day in its factories.

The Elghanian brothers diversified constantly, investing in mining and in real estate as well as in other types of manufacturing, including plastic pipes, steel and textiles.

At the same time, Habib Elghanian took a leadership role in Iran’s Jewish community — he was chairman of the Jewish Association of Iran for nearly two decades — and as a philanthropist. With his brothers, he established a family philanthropy to support the country’s Alliance Israelite schools, to work together with the American Joint Distribution Committee to provide for Jewish poor and to fund hospitals, among other causes. He was also active in pushing for women’s rights, and worked with the Association of Iranian Jewish Women to have the law changed so that women could inherit property.

Elghanian had close ties with Israel, and investments here. He and his brothers built the first skyscraper in Ramat Gan’s Diamond Exchange, the Shimshon Tower.

His success made Elghanian a target even before the Islamic Revoltuion: In 1975, he was arrested, and even briefly imprisoned, as part of a government campaign to battle inflation.

So patriotic was Elghanian (who partnered with Muslims and with Armenians in different ventures) that, even after the Shah fled the country and Elghanian sent his wife and children to the United States, he decided to return to Iran, if only to try and sell his businesses before leaving the country permanently.

Family members urged him not to return, but he declared that he had nothing to fear.

Elghanian was arrested on March 16, 1979, after returning to Iran. On May 8, he was tried (according to his granddaughter, his trial lasted less than 20 minutes) and convicted of a number of crimes, including meeting with Israeli leaders. He was sentenced to death, with his execution carried out before dawn the next day.
All of the property belonging to the Elghanian family in Iran was confiscated by the state.

Elghanian’s death contributed to the departure of more than three-quarters of the country’s 80,000 Jews. 

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