On October 30, 1910, twelve members of the Jewish community of Shiraz, Iran, were murdered and the city’s Jewish quarter was plundered as angry mobs responded to a blood libel – a false accusation that Jews had ritually murdered a Muslim girl.
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Jews have had a presence in Persia for over 2,700 years, going back before the times of the Achaemenid Empire founder Cyrus the Great. That said, the earliest explicit records of a Jewish presence in Shiraz, a large city in southern Persia, go back to the 10th century.
By the 12th century, the traveler Benjamin of Tudela reported a community of some 10,000 Jews in Shiraz.
However, by the 20th century, that number was far smaller. Many Jews had converted to Islam. Yet others continued to adhere to the Jewish faith but in secret, because of persecution.
The status of Jews in Iran over the centuries was a shaky thing, changing with the times and regimes, and locality. Hopes that their inferior status would improve after the rise of the Islamic forces, following maltreatment by the previous rulers of the area, proved to be in vain. Under the Islamic rulers, the Jews of Iran, like the Zoroastrians and the Christians, were ascribed inferior status: they were free to practice their religions but had to pay a special tax.
In that atmosphere, pogroms against Jews in Iran were not unusual, and the events of October 30 were not unique.
The soldiers join the mob
The pogrom of October 30, 1910 followed rumors that a sacred Quran book had been desecrated by Jews. If, when and how a copy of the Quran got into the cesspool of a Jewish house remains unclear but that was the story that scavengers told the local authorities.
Despite the efforts of a representative of the French human-rights organization Alliance Israelite Universelle in Shiraz to alleviate tensions, the situation worsened when the body of a Muslim girl was reported to have been found near the Jewish cemetery. (The Alliance representative later reported that the decayed remains turned out to belong to a Jewish girl who had died some time before.)
An angry mob gathered, and rather than being dispersed by government troops, was actually led by them in surrounding and then attacking the Jewish quarter.
Over the course of the following hours, every home in the quarter was looted, and everything of value that belonged to the quarter’s residents was stolen. Although most of the Jews escaped, among those who remained or tried to defend themselves, a dozen were killed and more than 50 were wounded, with fists, knife and bullet.
According to the first-hand account filed the next day by the Alliance representative, “The thieves formed a chain in the street. They passed along the line carpets, bundles of goods, bales of merchandise (...) Anything, which did not have commercial value or which, on account of its weight or size, could not be carried off, was, in a fury of vandalism, destroyed and broken."
Not as single Jewish home was spared the looters: "the 5,000 to 6,000 people comprising the Shiraz community now possess nothing in the world but the few tatters they were wearing when their quarter was invaded,” the Alliance representative wrote.
In April 2000, history seemed to repeat itself when 13 Jews from Shiraz were accused by the Islamic Republic of spying for Israel, a charge that could have carried the death penalty. This time around, though, international pressure in favor of the Jews mounted, and by 2003, all had been released from prison.
An estimated 5,000 Jews remain in the city to this day.
With writing by Ruth Schuster