The Persian Story in Israel (Part 2)
By Aaron Baron
A Brief Word
This article is a continuation of “The Persian Story in Israel (Part 1).” Part 1 examined the fluctuating views towards Zionism in Iran and the first major wave of Iranian immigrants to Israel. This installment focuses on life before, during, and after the Islamic Revolution. The Islamic Revolution sparked the second major wave of Iranian Jewish immigration to Israel and changed the course of the Persian Jewish Story forever.
Life in Pre-Revolution Iran
From the 1950s to 1970s, Iran transformed from an agriculture-based society to an industrial one. During the early 1970s, Iran’s economy experienced unprecedented growth due to the nation’s stranglehold on the oil industry. Dr. Andrew Cooper, a scholar of Middle Eastern affairs, went as far to refer to pre-revolution Iran as “the most powerful member of OPEC.” In the decade leading up to the Islamic Revolution, Iran’s GDP increased nearly tenfold. As the nation continued to thrive financially, Iranian Jews were reassured in their decisions to refuse to make aliyah.
Mohammad Reza Shah ushered in a new era of Iranian society that was built on three pillars: education, modernization, and westernization. His ultimate goal was to establish Iran as an undeniable superpower of the world. Could the Shah have done this? Most Iranian Jews would call you crazy if you believed otherwise. “If it were not for the [Islamic] Revolution,” my father boldly claimed, “there’s no doubt in my mind that the world would see Iran in the same light as the United States or China!” This sentiment is frequently shared amongst Iranian Jews as they reflect on distant memories of their homeland and the developing trajectory that Iran was on. While my father’s hypothetical remains somewhat dubious, one thing is painfully evident: the zeitgeist of pre-revolution Iran represented a completely different reality from what the nation is today.
Unlike the vast majority of Iranian society during the late 1970s, Iranian Jews looked at Mohammad Reza Shah favorably because of his respect for religious minorities. In fact, the Shah’s father, Reza Shah Pahlavi, was the first Iranian monarch to pray in a synagogue, and displayed high respect to the Jewish community. Following in his father’s footsteps, Mohammad Reza Shah ushered in a “golden age” for Iranian Jews through political and social reforms. Due to his admiration from Iranian Jews, Mohammad Reza Shah was dubbed “The Jewish Shah.”
The Islamic Revolution
During the 1970s, civil unrest arose because of the White Revolution — Mohammad Reza Shah’s intense initiative started in 1963 to modernize Iran. The Shah was accused of repressing conservative Islamist ideals in the name of westernization. One of the shah’s most controversial decisions was outlawing the hijab from being worn in public. My father, amongst a majority of Iranian Jews, did not give a second thought to these reforms. He does, however, acknowledge that in hindsight, the Shah should have been more cautious while forcing modernization — especially in a nation as traditional as Iran.
Despite Iran’s financial achievement in prior decades, hostility to the Shah’s economic policies heightened in the 1970s. Serious fluctuations in oil consumption during that time put a great amount of economic pressure on Iran. Because of the financial crisis, Iran’s lower class suffered tremendously as the nation’s stability teetered. The Deer, an acclaimed 1974 Iranian film, detailed a snapshot of life under Mohammad Reza Shah’s rule. The film critiqued the government’s attempt to uplift the lower socioeconomic classes by driving unskilled farmers into industrial labor. As more anti-Shah propaganda gained traction, full-fledged riots and constant demonstrations became the norm from 1978 to 1979.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was capable of overthrowing Mohammad Reza Shah because he appealed to the nation’s repressed groups. The Islamic Revolution succeeded because it was “characteristically Iranian:” various ideologies — ranging from Marxist-Islamic to Democratic-Islamic — were represented in the revolt against the Shah. Iranian society was in dire need of change. Ayatollah Khomeini was willing to purge Iran of its western influences while declaring himself to be Allah’s messenger. By presenting himself as a martyr for Iran’s vulnerable citizens, Ayatollah Khomeini was praised as a “leader of the free.” Iranian Jews rejected Ayatollah Khomeini’s self-appointed heroism and radical ideals. Unfortunately, vocalizing these opinions would have fatal consequences. “I already watched Tehran go up in flames,” my father recounted as he thought back on the turmoil, “[supporters of the revolution] would have killed me if I spoke a word against Khomeini.”
The Revolution’s Aftermath
As Ayatollah Khomeini took power, Iranian Jews began to fear for their futures. Shia Islam, the second largest branch of Islam in the Muslim world, compromises nearly 90% of Iran’s current population. Unlike Sunni Muslims, Islamic missionary activities are historically common amongst Shia Muslims. The wounds from the forced conversion efforts of Iranian Jews to Shia Islam in the 19th century, seen most drastically in the city of Mashhad, were still left wide open. Iran’s questionable past, paired with the nation’s swift adoption of conservative Islamic values, made fleeing their mother country the safest option for tens of thousands of Iranian Jews.
Iranian society’s threats towards non-Persians also instilled fear within the Iranian Jewish community. Dan Shadur’s documentary Before the Revolution focuses on Israeli business people who temporarily lived in Iran prior to the Islamic Revolution. Towards the end of the film, there is a harrowing scene that details Iranian hostilities towards non-Persian Jews. During his interview, an Israeli living in Iran spoke about the anti-Israeli propaganda he witnessed during political demonstrations: “we saw graffiti that said, ‘Do not touch the Jews…but any Israeli you see — kill him.’” Israelis living in Iran were pinned as Shah sympathizers and supporters of American imperialism. Despite not being the target of this attack, Persian Jews were still put on alert as they witnessed firsthand how quickly the public turned on the Israelis living in Iran. Furthermore, Ayatollah Khomeini’s anti-Zionist stance made Persian Jews question if they would be accused of dual loyalty towards Israel. This worry was justified, since numerous Middle Eastern nations have discriminated against and exiled their Jewish citizens due to such allegations.
Iran’s economic reforms significantly hurt the Iranian Jewish middle class. Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime ruled to nationalize Iran’s banks in June 1979 in order to “protect national rights and wealth,” leading to job losses for many middle-class Jews. My paternal grandfather was a manager at Sepah — one of the largest banks in Tehran. When the nation announced its takeover of all private banks, Iranian Jews saw immediate cuts in their income. As my father bluntly put it: “everybody lost money.” Shortly after the revolution, my paternal grandfather retired early to avoid heavier financial losses.
The “what could have been” attitude towards Iran still remains prevalent amongst Iranian Jews today. With the concerning rise of Islamic fundamentalism, Iranian Jews no longer felt safe in their homeland. Over the next few decades the Jewish population in Iran shrank by nearly tenfold — a direct result of the Islamic Revolution’s aftermath. Many Iranian Jewish refugees moved to Israel during the second wave of Iranian immigration to Israel — the focus of the next installation of the Persian Story in Israel.