The Persian Story in Israel Part 3

By Aaron Baron

Persian Israelis are often caught between their two opposing cultural identities. Photo: Naomi Zeveloff/The World

A Brief Word

This article is a continuation of “The Persian Story in Israel” series. Part 1 discussed the different viewpoints of Zionism in Iran and the first wave of immigration to Israel. Part 2 examined life before, during, and after the Islamic Revolution. This installment focuses on the second wave of Iranian immigration to Israel, the struggles of Iranian immigrants, and the clash they had between their Iranian and Israeli identities.

The Second Wave of Immigration (1979)

Iranian Jews’ attitudes in 1979 regarding Israel were more pessimistic than they had been during the first wave of immigration to Israel. Estimates show that in the decade following the Islamic Revolution, nearly 20,000 Iranian Jews fled to Israel. America, however, was a far more popular destination to seek refuge for Iranian Jews. After 1979, roughly double the amount of Iranian Jews fled to America than did to Israel. Many Iranian Jews refused to make aliyah because they did not want to be labeled as “social welfare cases.”

Iranian Jews did not see the appeal in moving to such an unstable nation. In contrast to the 1950s, Israel was no longer constructing its social identity. Instead, the nation was trying to tame its high inflation and government expenditures. Realizing Israel’s flaws, well-off Iranian Jews were not prepared to forfeit their high standard of living. Additionally, the constant threat posed by neighboring Arab nations and the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict made Israel appear “as much of an unstable country as Iran” to my grandfather.

Many Iranian Jews chose to flee to America over Israel due to a collective mentality. My father decided to “follow the herd” and flee to America in the 1980s over Israel (Baron). Despite his affinity for Israel, he saw America as an obvious destination because of its reputation as “the land of opportunity.” Those who decided to break from the American trend did so because they either had family already in Israel, wanted to become more religious, or thought they could receive benefits from the Israeli government.

The Land of Expired Milk and Rotten Honey

Israel was not equipped to absorb immigrants with a Persian business mindset. Iranians pride themselves on their business savviness and diligence. Israeli society in the 1970s and early 1980s, however, still felt the influence of a generation raised under the kibbutz movement and a collectivist philosophy. Iranian Jews, like most Mizrahim, were appalled by Israel’s socialist economic model. To Iranian Jewish immigrants, Israel’s dependence on communal farms reflected what many saw as an underdeveloped Iran prior to the White Revolution. It was troublesome for Iranian immigrants to live in a nation with an inferior economic model to their mother country.

Many Persian immigrants were shocked to see the intersection of religious and secular Jews in Israel. Photo: Zack Wajsgras/Flash90

To make matters worse, typical Iranian expressions of social status were misunderstood by Israeli society. The Israeli government taxed Persian rugs — an essential expression of Iranian culture — as a luxury good. This infuriated Iranian Jews since other immigrants did not pay taxes on their luxury items — such as televisions and other electrical appliances. Iranian immigrants felt unnecessarily singled out by the Israeli government and experienced continued difficulty in navigating its economic structure.

The business style in Iran was the polar opposite of the Israeli approach. Iranian business operated on proper etiquette and interpersonal relations, while the Israeli economy was based on entrepreneurship and competition. These discrepancies led to several Iranian business failures in Israel. Priman Cohen, an Iranian living in Tel Aviv, was one such immigrant who found himself defeated by the Israeli economic structure. When trying to develop a carpet business, Cohen suffered a loss of over 1.1 million ILS, primarily because he did not understand Israel’s high cost of labor or Israeli negotiation tactics. A well-known joke in Israel says that the best way to make a small fortune is to start with a large one. Unfortunately, for immigrants, this joke reveals a bitter truth: they would not be as financially comfortable in Israel as they were in their mother country.

Persian vs. Israeli: A Cultural, National, and Religious Clash

Culturally, Iranian Jews were isolated from the Israeli public. Iranian immigrants viewed themselves as more sensitive, family-oriented and polite than Israelis. Israel was built on a society of immigrants who were quick to embrace the national identity. Iranian immigrants, however, rejected the Israeli mindset. When asked to break down his identity, Menashe Amir, an Iranian immigrant to Israel, defined it as “60 percent Iranian and 40 percent Jewish.” Iranian immigrants only viewed themselves as Israelis citizens, not as culturally Israeli. Since Iran still existed as their homeland, Iranian Jewish immigrants were outcasts in Israel.

To the ire of Iranian immigrants, Persian rugs were taxed as a luxury good. Photo: Reza Derakhshesh/Carpetship

The traditional religious customs of Iranian immigrants were also not well received in Israel. Upon coming to Israel, Iranian immigrants were shocked by how Israelis celebrated Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Iranian dinners typically have an abundance of rice, vegetables, and stews. When arriving at an Ashkenazi colleague’s house for Passover, my uncle asked where the rice was — what self-respecting holiday would forbid rice? Iranian immigrants were dumbfounded by the Askenazi customs that dominated Israel’s religious identity. The wide range of religious practices also shocked Iranian Jews. “In Iran,” my father explained, “there was no such thing as a reform or conservative Jew.” In Israel, this was not the case. Iranian Jews could not believe that young women wearing “shorts and tank tops” stood beside Hasidic men.

Due to their differences, Iranian immigrants were often labeled with offensive stereotypes. Israelis referred to Iranians as “Parsim,” a derogatory term used to describe Iranian immigrants as cheap, lazy, and untrustworthy. Iranian immigrants resented these labels because they hit a very sensitive chord. Iranian immigrants could not be uniquely Persian in any aspect of Israeli life without being labeled as “Parsim.” They felt ridiculed for not conforming to Israel’s Ashkenormative standards.

Some Iranian immigrants fell into depressive states after not being able to handle the clash between their Persian and Israeli identities. Esghel Dayanim, an Iranian immigrant living in Tel Aviv, fell into a deep depressive episode in 1980. Despite yearning to “return to Zion” every holiday, Dayanim could only think of Iran when he arrived in Israel. Dayanim lacked the mental energy to do much else other than “visit the market” and “watch Iranian TV”. A small number of Iranian Jews, with similar experiences to Dayanim, returned to Iran after fleeing to Israel. These individuals would have rather forfeited their newfound freedoms than live in a society as foreign as Israel’s.

Concluding Thoughts

Today, Iranian Jews are more assimilated to Israeli life. New generations have strayed from the Persian psyche, and only identity with specific aspects of Persian culture, such as their food or music. Having said this, the longing to return to Iran is still prevalent amongst older Iranians in both Israel and America. In academia, significant strides must be made to shed a wider light on the Persian Jews in Israel. Israel has been dominated by influences that distract from its Mizrahi population. The stories of Iranian Jews — from the details of fleeing Iran to their economic hardships within Israel — deserve to be told.

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