In 587 BCE, the Babylonian Empire conquered the Kingdom of Judah (present day Israel-Palestine) and exiled about 25 percent of the population to Babylon, marking the true beginnings of Babylonian Jewry (including Persian Jews today). As such, the Persian and Iraqi Jewish communities are the second oldest in the world, after the Jewish community in Israel. In 539 BCE, the Babylonians allowed Jews to return to their homeland; however, many remained in Babylon. Though the writings of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) go back 3000 years, most historians believe that most of it was compiled as a cohesive text during the period of the Babylonian Exile.
The period of 247 BCE-628 CE — that is, until the Arab Islamic conquest of Persia — is considered to be the golden age of Persian Jewry. Jews amounted between 10 to 20 percent of the total Persian population and they lived in peace, with their own courts and institutions providing autonomy over their own communal affairs. It was during this period that the Babylonian Talmud was compiled (third to sixth century). The Talmud is a collection of rabbinical writings that provide commentary and interpretation of the Torah.
With the Islamic conquest in 634, the Jews of Persia became “dhimmis,” or second-class citizens, subject to extra taxation and a plethora of unequal laws, though the severity of the enforcement of such laws varied depending on the ruler. In the 1200s, the community suffered some catastrophic pogroms (anti-Jewish massacres) and forced conversions to Islam. Conditions worsened during the Safavid Dynasty (1502-1792). The 19th century saw an increase in blood libels, forced conversions, and pogroms. However, during the Pahlavi Dynasty (1925-1979), things improved dramatically for the Jewish community — that is, until Reza Shah’s pro-Nazi position in the 1930s. In 1953, under the leadership of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, things improved dramatically and the community flourished.
The 1979 Iranian Revolution nearly decimated the Jewish community, with some 80,000 Jews fleeing for safety.
Iran has the second-largest Jewish population in the Middle East, after Israel. Though some 100,000 Jews lived in Iran in 1948, the vast majority fled after the 1979 Revolution, and only 8300 remain today. Jews in Iran live under the status of “dhimmis” — second class citizenship — and are only afforded one representative in Iran’s (sham) parliament.
The Iranian regime officially makes the distinction between “Zionists” and “Jews,” but in practicality, Jews are constantly under suspicion for collaboration with Israel or the United States. “Zionism” is punishable by death. Should an Iranian Jew wish to travel abroad, they must apply with a special bureau and are immediately placed under investigation. To save themselves, the Jewish community met with the Ayatollah shortly after the Revolution and agreed to disavow Zionism. The Ayatollah stated: “We recognize our Jews as separate from those godless, bloodsucking Zionists.” However, at least 13 Jews have been executed for supposed “Zionist crimes,” though in reality, the number is probably much larger.
Since the Revolution, most Jewish schools have been shut down. In schools that remain open, the instructors have been replaced with Muslims. Jewish studies in Hebrew are forbidden (which poses a problem as most Jewish liturgy is in Hebrew). Saturday is not recognized as Shabbat, and as such, Jewish students and employees are forced to study and work, respectively. Jews continue to face discrimination in employment and other areas, and the Iranian regime frequently publishes antisemitic propaganda.
The extent of the oppression of the Jewish community in Iran is difficult to gage, as Jews are under extreme pressure not to criticize the regime for fear of government retaliation. Following the outbreak of the Jina Amini protests, Jews were warned not to attend synagogue during the High Holidays.
The current revolution in Iran is not merely a protest for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. Jina (Mahsa) Amini, whose murder sparked the protests, was Kurdish. Though she was arrested for violating the “morality code,” she was murdered for being Kurdish. In Kurdish cities, Kurds are fighting for freedom from the Iranian occupation. The slogan “women, life, freedom” is Kurdish.
Jewish-Kurdish relations go back centuries, and they have been generally very positive (additionally, about 200,000-500,000 people identify as Kurdish Jews). The “father of modernist Kurdish poetry,” Hecî Qadirê Koyî, wrote about the common Jewish-Kurdish plight in the 19th century: “Three nations live in exile, expelled from their place of honor: the Kurds, the [Roma], and Jews have gone astray.”
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Iraq expelled the majority of its Jewish population, prompting most Jews to flee to Israel. Kurds assisted Jews greatly in their escape.
Israel first made contact with Kurdish leadership in the early 1950s, when Israel’s strategy of “peripheral alliance” — that is, making allies with non-Arab groups in the region — was first enacted. Both Kurds and Israelis operated on the premise that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend;” additionally, both Jews and Kurds felt a sense of kinship given their small numbers and long-persecuted status. For example, when asked, former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin stated that Israel supported the Kurds “because we are Jews.”
Given Israel’s longstanding relationship with the Kurds — particularly in Iraqi-occupied Kurdistan — many geopolitical analysts have long suspected that Israel will be one of the first countries — if not the first country — to recognize a sovereign Kurdish state. In 2017, a referendum was held in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, in which 93% voted in favor of Kurdish independence from Iraq. In a rare move, Israel was the only country to officially support the result of the referendum.
According to Iranian-American policy analyst Karim Sadjapour, the three ideological pillars of the Iranian regime are “compulsory hijab, death to America, and death to Israel.”
From the early 1950s to the mid/late 1970s, Israel and Iran enjoyed a friendly relationship. After the 1979 Revolution, the new Iranian government adopted a hostile position towards Israel. In 2005, following the election of Holocaust denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Israeli-Iranian relations declined from cold to outright hostile. Ahmadinejad repeatedly threatened the destruction of Israel, and in 2016, Iran tested a ballistic missile capable of reaching Israel which was inscribed with the phrase “Israel should be wiped off the Earth” in Hebrew. Not unlike Russia, Iran is known to quietly feed propaganda and disinformation via social media. Notably, quite a few “anti-Israel” and “anti-Zionist” websites and social media accounts can be traced directly to Tehran (many of which pose as Palestinian).
Iran has its claws in just about every conflict in the Middle East, via the use of proxy militias, and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (and, marginally, the Lebanon-Israel and Syria-Israel conflicts) is no exception. Though Iran does not directly fight Israel, it provides funding, training, and weapons to Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, with the objective that they carry out attacks against the Israeli population. Iran sends its Palestinian proxies, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, upwards of $100 million yearly. Hezbollah, which was Iran’s first proxy, with their relationship dating back to the 1980s, receives $700 million from Iran annually.
The Iranian regime’s use of proxies against the Jewish population is not limited to Jews living in Israel. Most significantly, in the 1990s, Iran, through Hezbollah, attacked the Jewish community of Argentina twice. For more on this, see the next slide.
In the 1990s, Iran’s proxies attacked the Jewish community in Argentina — twice. Argentina is home to the largest Jewish community in Latin America and the sixth largest Jewish community in the world.
The first attack happened in 1992, when the Islamic Jihad Organization, a Lebanese terrorist organization (or “militia”) deeply connected with Hezbollah (an Iranian proxy) and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard enacted a suicide bombing at the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people, including 24 Argentinian civilians and 4 Israeli civilians. Of course, some will argue that this attack was an attack on Israel, not the Jewish People. But it didn’t end there.
In 1994, Hezbollah and Iran enacted a suicide bombing (through a bomb-laden van) on the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA), the largest Jewish community center in Argentina. 85 people were murdered and over 300 were injured. The attack and subsequent investigation have been plagued with allegations of (Argentinian) governmental coverups. Though Iran never formally took responsibility, in 2006, prosecutors Alberto Nisman and Marcelo Martínez Burgos officially accused Iran of ordering Hezbollah of carrying out the attack. In 2015, Nisman wrote a 300-page report accusing former Argentinian president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of a coverup. Nisman was murdered hours before he was set to testify against her.
Iran’s violence, abuse, and terrorism against the Jewish People is not confined to Iran or even Israel, but rather, has dire implications for all Jews across the globe.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
- Follow Iranian and Kurdish activists, educators, and creators. Make sure not to follow regime apologists or those who diminish the protests to an issue of “reform.” The regime cannot be reformed; it needs to collapse.
- Ask President Biden to urge the UN to act on Iran’s human rights abuses (link).
- Sign the petition urging G7 leaders to expel Iranian diplomats (link).
- Ask Elon Musk to ban Ayatollah Khameini on Twitter (link).
- Help Iranians have access to internet (link).
- Don’t stop posting about Iran and Kurdistan! Keep making noise. Iranians and Kurds depend on it, as Iran keeps shutting down the internet.
- Sign the petition to stop the execution of Iranian protestors (link).
- Donate to Joint Help for Kurdistan (link).
- Donate to the Center for Human Rights in Iran (link).
- Sign the petition to get Iran off the UN’s Commission of Status on Women (link).
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