New Book—Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran

The social and political transformations of the Jews of Iran between 1941 and 1979

Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran sheds light on the social and political transformations that Iranian Jews experienced in the twentieth century. A thoroughly researched and engaging read, by sheds light on the social and political transformations that Iranian Jews experienced in the twentieth century. A thoroughly researched and engaging read, by Lior Sternfeld, an Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies at Penn State University and the recipient of a 2013 Fred and Ellen Lewis / JDC Archives Fellowship, the book also attempts to explore the relationship between the various groups within the Jewish communities and the broader Iranian society.

While most countries in the Middle East saw their Jewish populations decrease after the 1940s, the majority of Jews remained in Iran, and the Jewish community began to grow and become more diverse than any other Jewish community of the Middle East outside of Mandatory Palestine (or Israel after 1948). Sternfeld stresses the heterogeneous nature of the Jewish community. This was largely due to the waves of Jewish immigration that Iran witnessed between 1914 and 1945. Jewish migration to Iran began during World War I when many Iraqi Jews fled to Iran to avoid forced conscription into the Ottoman army. A second wave of immigration from Iraq took place between 1941 and 1951. Jews left Iraq due to persecution and pogroms. This second wave of Iraqis stayed in transit camps in Iran that were operated by the JDC and other Jewish relief organization until they were able to immigrate to Palestine/Israel. By 1951 the Iraqi Jewish population in Iran numbered fifteen thousand and was indeed a minority within a minority.

World War II also saw the arrival of Polish Jews who had found themselves under Soviet rule after the partition of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union at the outset of World War II. The Soviets deported 1.5 million Poles whom they considered “anti-Soviet elements,” including a large number of Jews, to Siberia and other remote locations in Eastern Russia. In mid-1941, after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, prompting it to ally with Britain against the Axis powers, Poles who had been deported from the eastern sector were relocated to India and Iran. According to Sternfeld, refugees were transported from Siberia to the Soviet north shore of the Caspian Sea. From there, they traveled by Soviet tankers and oil boats to Iranian ports, where they were greeted by aid organizations such as the JDC which provided them with assistance. Sternfeld sheds light on the assistance that Iranian Jewish community provided to the refugees. In Tehran, the community established a Jewish Relief Committee. While some Jewish refugees stayed in synagogues and Jewish clubs, others were hosted by Iranian Jewish families.

Jewish refugees approaching Russian-Persian border, 1940s.

The establishment of the State of Israel also altered the demographics of the community. In the years of 1948-1952, between one-fifth and one-quarter of Iran’s Jewish population moved to Israel. According to Sternfeld, those who left were the poor and disenfranchised, who came from remote villages. This situation helped to consolidate Iran’s Jewish population in urban centers, such as Tehran, Shiraz, and Isfahan. In these cities, Jewish communities reorganized and strengthened their institutions by obtaining the support of the JDC and other organizations.

From the mid-1940s onward, the Jews of Iran took advantage of their improving legal status under Mohammed Reza Shah. They became increasingly integrated. Their integration manifested itself in their upward social mobility, and their visibility in the public sphere. They became increasingly invested in the political sphere. They participated in the activities of the communist Tudeh party, in the oppositional Jewish student movement, and Jewish organizations, such as the Association of Jewish Iranian Intellectuals. The Jewish community was divided in the face of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. While they possessed a great deal of freedom under Mohammad Reza Shah, many of them participated in professional unions and sympathized with the revolution.

Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran captures the complexities that accompanied the changing circumstances of the Jewish community of Iran and discusses aspects of Jewish- Iranian history that have been largely overlooked. It is recommended reading for those interested in the history of Jews in the Middle East.