Alex Rose
Alex Rose

From My Archives – Nov./Dec.2015: From Persia to Iran – A Legacy of Antisemitism.

By way of an introduction, the author acknowledges publication of this paper by Think-Israel.

“The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded—away; the Greek and Romans followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone;—-the Jew saw them all, beat them all—-All things are mortal but the Jew; What is the secret of his immortality?” [Mark Twain, Harper’s Magazine, September 1897].

Perhaps because Cyrus the Great, King of Persia from 559 to 530 BC, did so much to help Jews return to their land after the Babylonian Exile, it is believed by many that the Jews of Persia/Iran suffered less from anti-Antisemitism than Jews living in other Islamic countries.

Contradicting this, at least for more recent times, we find the statement by Matthew Kuentzel:[1]

“…in no other Islamic land were Jews so poorly treated and so brutally persecuted as in Persia. In 1830, 400 Jews in Tabriz had their throats slashed. In 1839, all the Jews in Mashhad were forced to convert to Islam. In 1910, following rumors of a ritual murder, 6000 Jews in Shiraz were robbed of all their possessions, twelve were killed and another 50 wounded. ‘I do not know any more miserable helpless and pitiful individual on G-d’s earth than the Jahudi in those countries,’ the orientalist and voyager, Arminius Vambery wrote in 1905 following his return from Persia: ‘The poor Jew is despised, belabored and tortured … he is the poorest of the poor.'”

Further, Kuntzel notes that the inhumanity as described derives particularly from Shiite philosophy. It is a function of “ritual purity” and has no counterpart in Sunni Islam. It is similar to the Hindu attitude towards Pariahs or “untouchables”. According to it, whoever is not Muslim is najas or “impure”.[2] All contact with an unbeliever is considered a form of poisoning.

WHAT IS SELDOM APPRECIATED IS THAT IRANIAN HATRED of Jews predated the birth of Islam. Professor Shaul Shaked is cited [3] as stating that during the Sassanid era celebration of the Sabbath was outlawed and synagogues were burned. The Sassanid monarch, “Feroz the Wicked” (Reshi’a) had the majority of the Jews of Isfahan killed. The Sassanid dynasty (224-651 CE) represented the last line of Persian kings prior to the Arab conquest.

During the Early Islamic period (634-1255 CE), the Jews became dhimmis (tolerated second-class citizens), as did the Christians and Zoroastrians. They paid the jizya, tax; they couldn’t bear witness against a Muslim in court; they couldn’t bear arms or ride horses. But they could practice their religion.

The Mongols conquered Persia in 1257 and ruled to 1318. Early on, the Mongols abolished dhimmi status. However, the Muslim clergy instigated the Muslims to brutally persecute the Jews. Persecutions became institutionalized when one of the Mongol kings, Ghazan Khan, converted to Islam in 1295.

Later, during the Safavid [1502-1736] and Qajar [1781-1925] periods, the Jews suffered at the hands of the respective monarchs, experiencing much hardship. This was further escalated by the conversion of Iran’s Muslims to the Shia sect of Islam during the Safavid period. The Jews, like other non-Shia minorities in Persia, lived as dhimmi. They were forced to wear colored hats and non-matching shoes. Muslim imams stirred hatred towards the Jews amongst their congregants, which often resulted in physical attacks. Restrictive ordinances against the Jews resulted in severely limiting property rights and professions in which Jews could work.

The advent of the Safavid kings (1501), who made Shiite Islam Iran’s official religion, created a dramatic new turn. Massacres and forced conversions were now the lot of Persian Jews, whose population declined sharply to less than 100,000 people. The Safavids established a rigid religious hierarchy with unlimited power and influence in every sphere of life. Jewish chronicles from this period are full of accounts of massacres, forced conversion into Islam and mistreatment. All relations between Iranian Jews and others outside the country were severed. Christians and Zoroastrians were subjected to the same harsh treatments and Sunnis suffered most. Segregation became a reality again for all minorities and Jewish ghettos were reinforced. Jews were forced to wear both a yellow badge and a headgear, and their oaths were not accepted in courts of justice. Any Jew who converted to Islam would be recognized as the sole inheritor of the family estate, to the exclusion of all Jewish relatives.

The Qajar dynasty (1794-1925) continued the repressive and intolerant policies of the Safavids and the Jewish community in Iran saw little change until the nineteenth century. In 1839, the Qajar king, Muhammad Shah, ordered the entire Jewish community in the city of Mashad to convert to Islam. Europeans powers intervened for the first time and the decree was reversed.[4]

TO RETURN TO THE 16TH CENTURY, as Andrew G. Bostom writes, [5]

“Iran’s Safavid rulers formally established Shiite Islam as the state religion while permitting a clerical hierarchy nearly unlimited control and influence over all aspects of public life. [This] continued for almost four centuries [although interrupted between 1722-1795, during a period of (Sunni) Afghan invasion and internecine struggle through the later Qajar period [1795-1925], as characterized by the Persianophilic scholar, E.G. Browne:

“The Mujitahids and Mulla are a great force in Persia, concerning themselves with every department of human activity, from the minutest detail of personal purification to the largest issues of politics.”

Bostom writes of the changes brought about the Shi’ite clerics:

“Mohammad Baqer Majlisi was perhaps the most influential cleric of the Safavid Shi’ite theocracy in Persia. Indeed, for a decade at the end of the 17th century Majlisi functioned as the de facto ruler of Persia […] Majlisi describes the standard humiliating requisites for non-Muslims living under the Sharia, first and foremost, the blood ransom jizya, a poll tax based on Koran 9:29. He then enumerates six other restrictions relating to worship, housing, dress, transportation and weapons,(specifically i.e. to render the dhimmis defenseless) before outlining the unique Shiite impurity or “najis” regulations. Anthology Professor, Lawrence Loeb who studied and lived within the Jewish community of Southern Iran in the early 1970’s observed ‘Fear of pollution by Jews led to great excesses and peculiar behavior by Muslims.’

“Far worse, the dehumanizing character of these popularized ‘impurity’ regulations fomented recurring Muslim anti-Jewish violence — including pogroms and forced conversions throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, which rendered areas of Persia ‘Judenrein’ — as opposed to merely ‘unpleasant odd behaviors’ of Muslims towards Jews.”

The historian Walter Fischel has provided extensive studies which indicates the extent of the suffering and humiliation imposed on the Jews by Islamic leaders of Persia, contrary to common belief. As Bostom puts it:

“… severe hardships [were] imposed on the Jews because of their image as sorcerers and practitioners of black magic, which, according to the pre-eminent historian of Persian Jewry, Walter Fischel, was ‘as deeply imbedded in the minds of the [Muslim] masses as it had been in medieval Europe'”[emphasis added]

Following punitive measures which resulted in the forcible conversion of the Jews of Isfahan to Islam toward the end of Abas 1’s rule, the “law of apostasy” imposed further hardship to those who had been allowed to return to Judaism by Shah Safi after seven years of Marrano life. This law which prevailed until the late 19th century is described as follows by Bostom:

“According to this law, any Jew or Christian becoming a Muslim could claim the property of his relatives, however distant. This decree making the transfer of goods and property a reward for those who became apostates from their former religion, became a great threat to the very survival of the Jews.”

Bostom notes:

“The severe persecutions introduced by Safi’s successor, Shah Abas 11 [1642-1666], nearly extinguished the Persian Jewish community outright, as Fischel explains:

“Determined to purify the Persian soil from the ‘uncleanliness’ caused by the presence of non-believers (Jews and Christians in Isfahan), a group of fanatical Shi’ites obtained a decree from young Shah Abas11 in 1656 which gave the Grand Vizier, Itimad ad-Daula, full power to force the Jews to become Muslims. In consequence a wave of persecution swept over Isfahan and other Jewish communities, a tragedy which can only be compared with the persecution of the Jews in Spain in the 15th century [more appositely, the 13th century Almohad persecutions].”

For a fuller treatise on the subject period, there exists the important eyewitness Jewish chronicles, the Kitab i Anusi. Here, we learn of Jews having been forced to abandon their religion. Bostom cites Fischel, who described how the Jews:

” were drawn … on Friday evening into the hills around the city and after torture, 350 Jews are said to have been forced to [convert] to Islam. Their synagogues were closed and the Jews were led to the Mosque, where they had to proclaim publicly the Muslim confession of faith, after which a Mullah … instructed the newly-converted Muslims in the Koran and Islamic tradition and practice.”

The conversion process included breaking with one’s Jewish past, allowing daughters to marry Muslims and the registration of new Muslim names. Some were forced to eat a portion of camel meat boiled in milk. Some of these converted Jews became ‘Marranos’, Anusim, remaining Jews secretly.

Fischel points to contemporary Christian sources confirming the historical details of the Judeo-Persian chronicle. In 1949, he wrote an analysis of the 1839 Meshed pogrom of forced conversions.

Addressing contemporary times, Bostom draws attention to the rise of Jewish nationalism, i.e., Zionism and how it “posed a predictable, if completely unacceptable challenge to the Islamic order-jihad-imposed chronic dhimmitude for Jews of apocalyptic magnitude.” To make the point he quotes the historian, Bat Ye’eor:[6]

“… because divine will dooms Jews to wandering and misery, the Jewish state appears to Muslims as an unbearable affront and a sin against Allah. Therefore, it must be destroyed by Jihad.”

BOSTOM[5] PROVIDES A USEFUL COLLATION of the many laws imposed on the Jews as a set of Tables in the Appendix to his article.

Table 1: Behaviour Code

Table 2: 1588-1629 administered until 1925: Jews have no merit in arguments with Muslims, Jews forbidden to build synagogues in Muslim cities, etc.

Table 3: 1818-1864: Oppression suffered by Persion Jews during mid 19th century.

Table 4: Conditions Imposed upon Jews of Hamadan, 1892.

“How Jew friendly Persia became Anti-Semitic Iran” featured by Moment Magazine in their November/ December 2006 edition with a contribution by Rachel Safier, while being an interesting piece, has a title which does not fully reflect the historical record of Persia. As stated in this article in reference to the Safavids, imposing their hard-line brand of Shia Islam ushered in “the worst era of Persian-Jewish relations” according to political scientist Eliz Sanasarian of the University of Southern California, author of Religious Minorities in Iran.

The Safavids forcibly converted Iran’s Sunni Muslims to Shia Islam and introduced the concept of ‘ritual pollution’, which further separated minorities from their neighbors. The predominant form of denigration towards the Jews prevailed. These acts included:

[a] being barred from leaving their homes during rainy periods.

[b] a Jew had to sit on a special rug and could not be offered tea, food or a water pipe when entering a Muslim home; and to sit on a special rug.

These measures were applied to satisfy such decrees as “fear the water would transmit their impurities” and “any object touched by a Jew could no longer be used by a Muslim”. Safavid rule ended in 1736, but this did not eliminate “the Muslim perception of Jews as impure” creatures.

For the next two centuries, the pattern of human abuse resembled that “reminiscent of the blood libels and pogroms carried out in Europe.”

Further on, we learn that during the Qajar Dynasty rule in one incident in the northeastern town of Mashad in 1839, “an ailing Jewish woman was told to use dogs’ blood to cure a certain malady. A rumor quickly spread that she had tried the cure on a Shia holiday, deliberately insulting the sect, Jews were attacked and 3 dozen killed while the remainder were given the choice of conversion to Islam or death.”

Bloody outbreaks of this nature persisted until the 20th century, when a new breed of shah came to power. This shah, Reza Pahlavi, for the first time in 1400 years. provided the country, a compassionate rule of the Jews. They were able to enjoy his welcoming approach during his visit to Isfahan and in particular, his banning of mass conversions and discouragement of the idea that non-Muslims were unclean.

Under the influence of Nazi Germany, Persia was renamed Iran in 1935. With the invasion of Iran by Britain and the Soviet Union in 1941, Shah Reza Pahlavi was forced to abdicate in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who viewed himself as Cyrus the Great, a friend of the Jews.[7]

The Islamic Revolution of 1979, referred to as the “Khomeni Revolution” represented the overthrow of a dictatorial monarchy by a theocracy-based Islamic Republic. The revolution was in part a conservative backlash against the westernization and secularization efforts of the western backed Shah. It was made possible because of the opposition to the Shah’s regime’s use of secret police, the Savak, to control the country and as a popular reaction to brutal, oppressive, corrupt and extravagance measures. Upon reflection, it is doubtful that those being brutalized in prison were ‘innocents abroad’.

In fact, the revolution was in reality a return to oppressive Shi’ite theocratic rule reminiscent of governance back to 1502. However, a Jewish community approach to Ayatollah Khomeini consisting of two rabbis and four prominent young individuals in the city of Qom was surprisingly productive. Khomeini in a long monolog concluded by comparing Christianity, Islam and Judaism saying that “they are the only religion that are truly descended from heaven.” He further noted, “that in the Qu’ran, Moses’s name is mentioned more times than the name of any Prophet.” In conclusion, he stated “We recognize our Jews as separate from those godless, bloodsucking Zionists.” The immediate history which follows is reflective of his words:

1999 Passover eve: 13 Jews from Shiraz and Isfahan arrested and accused of spying for Israel and the US.

2000 September: Iranian Appeals Court upheld a decision to imprison 10 of the 13 Jews accused for spying for Israel. They were found guilty of cooperating with Israel and were given prison terms ranging from 2 to 9 years, while the other 3 were found innocent in the 1st trial.

2001 March: 1 of the imprisoned Jews was released.

2002 January: 2nd imprisoned Jew released.

2002 October: Remaining 8 Jews were set free. The last 5 were released on furlough for an indefinite period, leaving them vulnerable to future arrest. 3 others were reportedly pardoned by the Ayatollah.

In 2014, the Jewish population of Iran was 10,000. At that time, 13 Jews had been executed, most for either religious reasons or connection to Israel.[8]

Does this mean that the country’s saving grace is that there is no longer anti-Semitism there? Let us consider a few events.

Today, we are fully aware of Iran’s involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish charities office in Argentine killing 85 people and injuring 300. Apparently, the rational for this inhumane crime was on the surface political. One is expected to believe that it concerned Argentine’s reluctance to continue its nuclear co-operation with Iran. That is until the blame was levied at Israel, the quintessential Jewish scapegoat.

Iran has consistently advocated support of belief in holocaust denial. Distinguishing between Zionists and Jews is yet another ploy to camouflage blatant anti-Semitism. “Previously, denial of the Holocaust was the leitmotif of Iran’s foreign policy. Today, it is still an undisputed part of Iran’s state ideology, but is no longer the centerpiece of its public diplomacy.”

The hidden anti-Semitism of the current Iranian leadership differs little from the commonplace Holocaust deniers in acknowledging that “Jews were killed while insisting that the number of Jewish victims was relatively small and that a systematic effort to wipe them out did not take place.”[9]

As for commonplace terrorism against Jews, Iran sponsored Hezbollah had a consistent presence throughout the years examples of which are tabulated below following an introductory statement

Feb.16, 1985: Hezbollah publicizes its manifesto. It notes that the group’s struggle will continue until Israel is destroyed and rejects any cease-fire or peace treaty with Israel. The document also attacks the US and France.

Dec.31, 1986: Under the alias Organization of the Oppressed on Earth, Hezbollah announces it had kidnapped and murdered 3 Lebanese Jews. The Organization previously had taken responsibility for killing 4 other Jews since 1984.

March 17, 1992: With the help of Iranian intelligence, Hezbollah bombs the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 and injuring over 200.

July 18, 1994: Hezbollah bombs the community center in Buenos Aires – again with direct Iranian assistance – killing 86 and injuring over 200.

Nov.28, 1995: Hezbollah bombards towns in northern Israel with volleys of Katyusha rockets in one of the group’s numerous attacks on Israeli civikians.

March 30, 1996: Hezbollah fires 28 Katyusha rockets into northern Israeli towns. Aweek later the group fires 16 rockets, injuring 36 Israelis. Israel responds with a major offensive, known as the “Grapes of Wrath” operation to halt Hezbollah rocket fire.

Aug.19, 1997: Hezbollah opens fire on northern Israel with dozens of rockets in one of the group’s numerous attacks on Israeli civilians.

Dec. 28, 1998: Hezbollah opens fire on northern Israel with dozens of rockets in one of the group’s numerous attacks on Israeli civilians.

May 17, 1999: Hezbollah opens fire on northern Israel with dozens of rockets in one of the group’s numerous attacks on Israeli civilians.

June 24, 1999: Hezbollah opens fire on northern Israel, killing 2.

Oct. 7, 2000: Hezbollah attacks an Israeli military post and raids Israel, kidnapping 3 Israeli soldiers. The soldiers are subsequently considered dead. In mid-October, Hezbollah leader Nasrallah announces the group has also kidnapped an Israeli businessman. In 2004, Israel frees over 400 Arab prisoners [terrorists] in exchange for the business man and the bodies of the 3 soldiers.

April 9, 2002: Hezbollah launches Katyushas into a northern Israeli town. The assault comes amidst almost daily Hezbollah attacks against Israeli troops in Shebba farms.

Aug. 10, 2003: Hezbollah shells kill 16 year old Israeli boy, wounds others.

July 12, 2006: Hezbollaha attack Israel with Katyushas, crosses the border and kidnaps 2 Israeli soldiers. 3 Israeli soldiers are killed in the initial attack. 5 more soldiers are kiled as Israel launches operation to rescue the kidnapped soldiers and push Hezbollaha from its border. During the ensuing war, Hezbollah continuously launches rockets at civilian targets across northern Israel.

In an extraordinary interview on August 27, 2015,[10] Matthius Kuntzel author of ‘Germany and Iran’, made the definite statement:

“… it is not enough to just observe that Iran is capable of building nuclear weapons. Instead, we have to ask ourselves why the US 20 year-long effort to stop the Iranian nuclear program failed”.

He explains further that the 100 year old friendship between Germany and Iran provides the key for comprehension. He concludes further that Obama adopted the German position on dialog which suited his dislike for any military option.

In conclusion, it is simply impossible to entertain Israel returning the Golan Heights or having any confidence in the recently concluded ‘historic’ nuclear deal with Iran.


[1] Matthias Kuntzel, “The Roots of Iranian Anti-Semitism and its Current Consequences,” Lecture at Harvard U., 3/11/2014,

[2] Mattias Kuntzel, “Judeophobia and the Denial of the Holocaust in Iran”, 2007,

[3] Lawrence A. Franklin, “Iran’s Views of Jews and the US”, 2/17/2015,

[4] Project Aladin,”Holocaust: A Call to Conscience”, 2009,

[5] Andrew G. Bostom, “Shi’ite Iran’s Genocidal Jew Hatred,” 7/20/2008,

[6] Bat Ye’or citation: Andrew G. Bostom (editor), “The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism: From Sacred Texts to Solemn History,” May 30, 2008,

[7] Moment Magazine, “How Jew Friendly Persia became Anti-Semitic Iran,” Nov/Dec 2006,

[8] Jewish Virtual Library, “Jews in Islamic Countries: Iran,”

[9] Matthias Kuntzel, “The Roots of Iranian Anti-Semitism and its Current Consequences,” Lecture at Harvard U., 3/11/2014,

[10] Karmel Melamed, “Kuntzel on Roots and Development of Iranian Regime’s Anti-Semitism,” Aug. 26, 2015,

About the Author
Alex Rose was born in South Africa in 1935 and lived there until departing for the US in 1977 where he spent 26 years. He is an engineering consultant. For 18 years he was employed by Westinghouse until age 60 whereupon he became self-employed. He was also formerly on the Executive of Americans for a Safe Israel and a founding member of CAMERA, New York (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America and today one of the largest media monitoring organizations concerned with accuracy and balanced reporting on Israel). In 2003 he and his wife made Aliyah to Israel and presently reside in Ashkelon.