A Retrospective on the Jews of Iran and Iranians in Diaspora

Prompted for yet another exodus during the Revolution of 1979, there are as many as five million Iranians, comprised of up to four consecutive generations, who now reside outside Iran. Many have been assimilated rather well into their adopted homes, as typified by the one million in the U.S. whose multifaceted contributions to the advancement of American quality of life is unsurpassed by any other recent immigrant communities. These recent Iranian émigrés preclude the past influence of Iranian (Persian) cultures and languages, due in part to the earlier political influences of Iran in the past millennia, that is pronounced in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Central Asiatic (e.g., Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan), the Caucuses (Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia) and the Persian Gulf regions. Although the current population of Iran stands at over seventy millions, there is, nevertheless, a complementary one hundred million neighbors in the above regions whose indigenous cultures are influenced markedly by the Iranian/Persian cultures.

Iran, situated on the southwestern Asian plateau with over ten thousand years of diverse human history and as evidenced by numerous archaeological artifacts, has held a continuous form of sovereign government for at least 2,500 years since the Achaemenids. Formerly known to the outsiders as Persia until 1935, it has, nonetheless, been called IRAN the land of the Aryans analogous to Ireland, in Persian and other Indo-European dialects spoken there since its inception. Although its political boundaries has essentially remained the same for the past hundred or so years, at several junctures in her turbulent history, it has stretched from India, the central Asia and the Caucuses extending both sides of the Caspian Sea, and along both sides of the Persian Gulf to as far as North Africa, and Asia Minor.

Amongst the highly diverse ethnic and religious population of Iran, that has today encompassed (mostly Shiites) Moslems, but also Iranians of Zoroastrians, Armenian and Assyrian Christians, Jewish and Baha’i faiths, the eminent presence and reciprocal cultural influence of Iranian/Persian people of Jewry is of particular merit and thus significance. According to some historical accounts as narrated by a European Orientalogist of the 16th century, who then surmised half the Iranian populations with Jewish heritage, many of the ‘missing’ Jewish tribes were said to have actually assimilated into the Iranian tapestry before the 16th Century.

Notwithstanding their massive exodus after 1979 along with millions of other Iranians, clusters of Iranian Jews who still live reasonably well mainly in Hamedon, Susa, Shiraz, Kashan, Mash-had, Tehran and Esfahan, and in the past Iranian influenced cities like Samarghand, Bukhara, Baku, Baghdad and Basrah, are testimonials to a relative degree of tolerance and integrations that has existed in Iran since antiquity. The literacy Persian masterpieces by Rumi, Ferdowsi, Hafez, Saadi, and Khayam support such multiculturalism of the Iranian society for millennia; the same paradigm holds true of Iranian scientists, physicians and philosophers such as Avicenna, Rhazes, Farabi and Algorithm of nearly a thousand years ago. In fact, Iran ranks second after Israel in the Middle East when it comes to her Persian Jewish population and members of other religious minorities as well. The Jews of Iran are respected by all Iranians and referred to as Kalimi, literally meaning the Believers of the Words of God. In Torah, there are numerous references to the Persian King as the savior, who conquered Jerusalem from the Babylonians and invited all the scattered Jews to return, if they so wished to do so.

What ties all peoples of Iranian ancestry, irrespective of their religious divergences, is their common cultural heritage. That includes Persian, their common language, a distinct family of languages that has its roots in the Indo-European languages, and along with them traces its origin to northern India. Such common heritage also includes Iran and its natural and historical beauties where they have lived, their commemorative annual celebrations such as Norooz, the new year as observed at vernal equinox the first day of spring, their Persian cuisines, their ways of life, their strides for education to do better than their parents and to safeguard the same for their children, to contribute immensely toward their respective society at-large, the manner by which they hold the family together and raise their children, the respect for the elderly, Their common arts, entertainments and sports, and their wedding and mourning rituals.

Such Cultural commonalities are so embedded that even an anthropologist can not readily distinguish between the various religious or sub-ethnic groups of Iran, until they themselves identify themselves as such. So, the Iranian-Jewish cultures are intertwined much deeper than otherwise recognized. In a recent documentary, the Jews of Iran, now Americans citizens, look back at their homelands, Iran, with nostalgia. Numerous institutes such as the Center for Iranian Jewish History, as well as numerous synagogues and Hebrew schools inside and outside Iran, have also endeavored to preserve such unique culture.

The pinnacle commonality that unites all Iranians worldwide, irrespective of their religious preferences, and notwithstanding the personal pains they may have endured in life as inflicted upon them from within or without adversaries, is to safeguard their sovereignty and cultural integrity. As articulated by the populace in the events leading to the 1979 fundamental home-grown, indigenous change, Freedom, Democracy and Sovereign Independence, I. Republic.. (Azadi-Esteghlal, Jomhoori…) remain the major slogans.


Professor Davood N. Rahni writes for PersianMirror from Pleasantville, New York. He is a Professor of Chemistry at Pace University, New York since 1986. He is recognized for his three decades of community based leadership endeavors in the Persian American Community and his extensive written work on civil and constitutional rights for immigrants.

His writing on the historical and cultural aspects of the people of Iran is regarded well in the community.

His personal web site can be found at www.drrahni.com


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