The Persian Story in Israel (Part 1)
By Aaron Baron
A Brief Word
Today, the Iranian-Israeli community stands at 300,000. Before diving into the complexities of their history, it is important to first understand Iranian Jewish views on Zionism, the shifting dynamic of Iranian-Israeli relations, the Islamic Revolution, the different waves of Iranian Jewish immigration to Israel, the Persian psyche, and the cultural and economic hardships of immigrants. This is the first of two articles which give the necessary context to truly understand the Persian Jewish story in Israel.
Fluctuating Zionism in Iran (Pre-1948)
The ideological birth of modern Zionism in the late 19th century gained virtually no traction amongst Iranian Jewry within its first years of existence. Zionism’s Eurocentric nature presented a foreign ideology to many eastern Jews. Mizrahim had not experienced the process of secularization as the Ashkenazi world did, hindering their understanding of the Zionist paradigm. As Professor Lior Sternfeld of Penn State University put it: “no leader of the national Zionist movement considered Oriental Jews as part of the future Zionist society”.
According to Professor Sternfeld, Zionism only began to gain favor within Iran after the Balfour Declaration’s strong statement of British support for a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine was issued in 1917. The Balfour Declaration’s endorsement came a few years after religious minorities became legal equivalents to Muslim citizens after Iran’s Constitutional Revolution (1906–1911). As a result, Jews were permitted to engage in the political sphere and work alongside Zionist organizations. According to Tel Aviv University’s Yehuda Shenhav, Iranian Jews within Abadan, in particular, established Zionist organizations to teach Hebrew and “handle the preparation for a mass exodus to the Promised Land.”
Despite their newfound freedoms, Iranian Jews did not yet enjoy the full autonomy that their Muslim counterparts did. Living in certain areas and joining the army were among the privileges that were barred from Iran’s religious minorities. After Reza Shah Pahlavi’s successful coup overthrew Ahmad Shah Qajar in 1925, Iranian Jews received an immediate boost of hope. Under Iran’s new dynasty, Reza Shah removed all laws that alienated religious minorities from Iranian society. As the nation religious rights improved under Reza Shah, the Zionist cause in Iran lost much of its appeal. After all, what could entice Iranian Jews to leave their homeland just as they gained full equal standing?
Before the establishment of the state of Israel, World War II was the final incident that swayed the Iranian Jewish opinion of Zionism. According to Sternfeld, by 1943, roughly 300,000 Polish refugees arrived in Iran after fleeing Nazi persecution. Reports by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) cited in Sternfeld’s work estimate that less than 1% of the refugees were Jewish. Despite their lack of representation within the Polish refugee population, the harrowing experiences of the Holocaust shook Iranian Jews to their cores. For Iranian Jews, the accounts of these chilling experiences reaffirmed the need for Zionism and a Jewish homeland.
Israel’s Independence and the First Wave of Iranian Immigration (1951)
The Jewish population in nearly all Middle Eastern nations virtually disappeared within a decade of Israel’s declared independence in 1948. High tensions surrounding the newly-established Jewish state led to hundreds of thousands of Mizrahim fleeing to Israel after being persecuted religiously or forcibly expelled from their homelands.
Iran, on the other hand, stood as a rare ally of its Jewish community and Israel. In fact, Iran became the second Muslim nation to recognize Israel’s independence in 1950. For decades, Iran and Israel maintained a symbiotic, yet unofficial, relationship — Israel primarily aided Iran in its agricultural endeavors, while Israeli energy thrived thanks to Iranian oil exports. Beyond the ties within their governments, the two nations shared a love for each other’s art, academia, and cultures.
As relations deepened between Israel and Iran, the first wave of Iranian immigration to Israel began in 1951. In the decades prior, a small number of Iranian Jews immigrated to Mandatory Palestine to join the Yishuv in their ethnic homeland. In 1952, amidst an Israeli immigration plan titled “Operation Cyrus,” roughly 30,000 Iranian Jews moved to Israel. Unlike their predecessors in the 1920s and 1930s, a majority of the Iranian Jews in the first wave of immigration were extremely poor.
While the Zionist ideologies of Iranian Jews were firm, they were not the ultimate motivating factor for immigrating to Israel. For example, my maternal grandfather, Ezra Neeman, immigrated to Israel from Iran when he was four years old. His family came from one of the most impoverished areas of Borujerd — a small city to the west of Tehran. He confirmed that his family’s decision to make aliyah was out of purely out of dire need: “my family was desperate,” he explained, “Israel provided us with a new beginning.” In general, the expectations of a “fresh start” that my family envisioned in the 1950s held true. While Israel was not perfect by any means — especially in its early years — the Iranian Jews who came during the first wave of immigration saw their lives drastically improve.
Further reading can be found in Lior Sternfeld’s book “Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran,” as well as Yehuda Shehav’s book “The Phenomenology of Colonialism and the Politics of ‘Difference’: European Zionist Emissaries and Arab-Jews in Colonial Abadan.”