Jews in Iran During the Islamic Revolution

By: Chantelle Moghadam 

When I was in elementary school and my family would discuss where we wanted to go on family vacation, I would turn to my father and say, “Dad, what about Iran?”

            I had grown up around Iranian culture or, more accurately, the Iranian-Jewish culture that thrives in suburban Los Angeles. My father had never taught my sisters or me to speak Farsi, but I heard it when he would speak on the phone to his siblings or when we would go to their houses for Yom Kippur or Passover. The floors of my relatives’ homes were covered in beautiful Persian rugs that had soaked up the smell of black tea and ghormeh sabzi, Iranian herb stew, over the years. Despite my father’s passport saying, “born in Iran,” he had taught us to say that we were Persian, in order to distance ourselves from the current Islamic Republic of Iran.

            All of these factors cultivated an idea about Iran when I was younger that seemed safe. Tehrangeles, as Los Angeles has been nicknamed for its large Persian population, was a beautiful and sunny place filled with amazing Persian food, Iranian pop music, and large conservative synagogues with Farsi-speaking rabbis. It is no wonder I did not understand when my father would lean over and reply to me with a heavy heart, “We can never go to Iran.”

            My father and his family lived in Kashan, in Esfahan province, until he was 15. They were one of very few Jewish families there, and the numbers continued to dwindle until 1975, when they were one of the last Jewish families to leave. My father was the youngest of 10 children and had been regularly bullied and physically beaten in school because he was a Jew. This was nothing unusual and anti-Semitism was simply a part of daily life there.

            Kashan was not a rural village, but it was small enough for people to know each other’s business and most of its residents were religiously conservative Shia Muslims. My grandfather, Yosef Zarabi, was in the business of selling Persian rugs, a trade that Kashan is still known for today. He also made money on the side by selling alcohol, which is forbidden in Islam, out of the back door of the house at night. Since Iran became the Islamic Republic of Iran, alcohol has been illegal. Even though it was not illegal at the time that my grandfather was selling it, it’s sale and consumption was disdained in the religious town of Kashan. When a customer rang the bell, my grandfather would open the back door and make the sale through an iron gate.

At this point, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was still in power. Since the 1960s, he had focused on modernizing and Westernizing Iran, meanwhile trying to suppress the strong religious identity of the majority Shia Muslim population. The Shah maintained strong diplomatic relations with the United States and Israel, all while spying on his own population and squashing dissent with his brutal secret police force, the SAVAK. Growing dissent among the Iranian population was leading slowly but steadily to revolution.

One night, the bell outside my grandfather’s house rang and he approached it expecting to see just another man outside waiting to buy some alcohol. When he opened the door, though, a mob was waiting for him. They poured gasoline over my grandfather and lit a match, lighting him on fire. The flames quickly climbed over his skin and clothing as my dad, still a teenager, walked in to see what was wrong and saw his father on fire. The mob had left before my father could identify any of them.

My grandfather did not die that night. He was taken to a hospital in Kashan, burns covering his entire body. Despite his critical condition, the hospital refused to give him a room and he received second-class medical treatment for his injuries because he was a Jew.

My father tried and finally succeeded in getting him transferred to a hospital in Tehran where he could receive proper treatment. But by the time he had gotten there, it was too late. His wounds were badly infected and he died what was probably a very painful death from infection.

Not long afterward, my father left Iran and moved to Salt Lake City, Utah. After marrying my mother, he joined the rest of my family in California. Within just a couple of years, my father watched on the news as the Islamic Revolution swept the country and the Iranian people overthrew the Shah and instated Ayatollah Khomeini as the Supreme Leader of the newly formed Islamic Republic of Iran.

I can understand now why my father refused to talk to me about Iran when I was growing up. Between 1948 and 2000, the Iranian-Jewish community fell quickly from 100,000 to just 12,500 today and we have developed into our own diaspora, which means that stories of exile like ours are all too common and almost never discussed, perhaps because the memory is so fresh. But it is essential to face our past, as anti-Semitism continues to threaten descendants of those Iranian Jews who escaped. The demonization of Israel, burning of synagogues in France, and the BDS Movement on college campuses have made me begin to feel the effects of the isolation and fear that my father must have felt growing up.

It has come time for Middle Eastern Jews to speak up about what happened to us. We are the answer to the claims that the only reason Israel exists is because of the Holocaust, as it was Israel who took in hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Iran and almost every other Muslim majority country in the Middle East without question. If Israel had not been there, there is no knowing where the rampant anti-Semitism might have led. Though it is impossible to bring back those we lost, we must understand and help others understand how Israel has sheltered us in the past in order to ensure our future. The small Jewish state’s ability to offer us a place of refuge and integrate us into society was nothing short of a miracle, and potentially saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Few things better display the spirit and necessity of Zionism, because history had shown us time and time again that we could not depend on others to save us, so we decided to take charge of our destiny and save ourselves.

Out of the many catastrophes that the Jewish people have been through, our story was one of the first with a happy ending - and Israel made all the difference.

Chantelle Moghadam is the Co-Founder and President of Students Supporting Israel at the University of Missouri and a recipient of the SSI National Activist of the Year Award.