Iran, a home for Jews for more than 3000 years, has the Middle East’s largest Jewish population outside of Israel.
Most Iranian Jews live in the capital. In Tehran, there are 13 active synagogues that hold weekly services, five Jewish schools, two Jewish kindergartens, and a 100-bed capacity Jewish hospital. Although there are active Jewish communities all around the country, Tehran’s community is the most significant.
Since Iranian president Rouhani took office, Jews say they have been heartened by the support they’ve received. His government agreed to allow Jewish schools to be closed on Saturdays to mark Shabbat, the day of rest. Rouhani also allocated the equivalent of $400,000 to a Jewish charity hospital in Tehran and invited the country’s only Jewish lawmaker to accompany him to the United Nations General Assembly in New York last year.
Rouhani also offers New Year’s greetings to Jews on Rosh Hashanah — and the Jewish community in Iran is hopeful that a July nuclear deal signed by Iran, U.S. and five other world powers could bring an end to international isolation and improve their place in society.
The official recognition of minorities was rooted in the Iranian constitution: Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only recognized religious minorities who, within the limits of the law, are free to perform the religious rites and ceremonies and to act according to their own cannon in matters of personal affairs and religious education.
Within this framework, the Jewish minority was guaranteed permanent representation in the Iranian parliament. The constitution also dictates that the Islamic Republican government and Iranian Muslims must treat non-Muslims according to Muslim principles of ethics and justice.
In practice, Jewish freedom of worship has not been limited in a meaningful way, and to this day Jewish holidays receive coverage in the media. Each year, local television stations broadcast programs on Jewish holidays–especially Passover, when the state media carries the blessings of the Jewish community head and Majles representative. The community has continued administering its own schools, synagogues, and other institutions, including Jewish hospitals, nursing homes, cemeteries, and libraries.
Today, Jews participate in Iranian civic and political life. Many Jews join the Iranian masses in protesting the State of Israel on the annual “Qods Day” (Jerusalem Day), and during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), Iranian Jews supported the war effort by donating ambulances and surplus goods as well as making hospital visits. Some Jewish youth even took part in the fighting and were wounded in combat.
Many Jews fled the country after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. However, most of the remaining Jews of Iran feel an unbreakable bond to their homeland and continue to live there. In a gathering of Iranian Jews in Shiraz at the end of 2002, several months after the release of some of the detainees, one of the leaders of the Jewish community made the following speech:
“We are not the same subdued people as before. We are alive, joyful, active and Iran-lovers. We’ve been inhabitants of Iran for the past 2,700 years … and Iran is our native country. We are essentially Iranians first and then Jews. We are proud to be Iranians. Long live Iran. Long live Iranians Jews.” (From the movie “Jews of Iran,” directed by Ramin Farahani)
Homayoun Sameyah Najafabadi, head of Tehran’s Jewish community, said it goes beyond simply coexisting — his community is deeply rooted in what is now called Iran.
“Iranian Jews are even more Iranian than Muslims — we’ve been here for 2,700 years,” he told NBC news.
Images: Iranian Jews pray at the Abrishami synagogue on Palestine Street in Tehran. (photos credit:REUTERS)