The Jews of Iran: From Persian Empire to Islamic Republic

Andrew Kahn
Jewish Culture & History / International Relations

Course Description

Prior to the Iranian (Islamic) Revolution in 1979, there were 100,000 Jews in Iran, mostly concentrated in Tehran. Due mainly to religious persecution, all but 8500 emigrated abroad, 60,000 to the U.S., and 20,000 to Israel, the remainder to European countries. During the peak of the Persian Empire, Jews may have comprised as much as 20% of the population. Over the centuries, the Jews of Iran became physically, culturally, and linguistically indistinguishable from the non-Jewish population. This presentation will evaluate the living conditions of assimilated, Farsi speaking, Iranian citizens of the Jewish faith who regard themselves as Iranian first, and Jewish second. To what extent has the Islamic revolution made their lives harder and less safe? According to biblical scholars, the Persian Kings Cyrus and Darius freed Jews from Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BC, allowing them to return to Judea, and assisted in the re-building of Solomon's Temple. The Pahlavi Dynasty (1925-1979) of Iran implemented modern reforms which greatly improved the lives of Persia's Jews. During the reign of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iranian Jewry prospered economically and enjoyed religious freedom. Iran also had a close, cooperative relationship with Israel. Today's crowds at political rallies in Tehran shout, "Death to Israel! Death to America!" Thirteen Jews have been executed in Iran since the Islamic revolution, most for alleged spying for Israel. The Jewish experience in today's Iran contrasts sharply with its historic legacy.

About the Instructor

  • Andrew Kahn has studied political and social science at Johns Hopkins University, the Universities of Pittsburgh and Maryland, and the New School University in New York. He has taught at St. Cloud University in Minnesota and Western Connecticut University in Danbury. Mr. Kahn helped found AEGIS, the Association for Education in Global-International Studies at Stanford University. He is a world traveler.