The Washington Post and hundreds of other media outlets have reported that up to perhaps 1,000 Iranians had been killed and thousands others brutally mistreated in recent weeks as Iran’s regime put down protests in that country. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps put the blame for their massacres on the “Great Satan,” the US, and the “Zionists” of Israel. While it’s plainly obvious that not a single American or Israeli finger pulled any of the triggers machine-gunning unarmed civilians in Iranian cities demonstrating against fuel prices and other grievances, the hackneyed propaganda trope does in fact flirt with a fact on the far side of the truth spectrum with regard to Jewish influence on Persian/Iranian culture and affairs throughout the centuries.
The Jewish people have been an influence on the cultures of the Fertile Crescent, from Egypt to Iran, for millennia. It may be from the mists of the patriarchal age that the Abrahamic tradition claims the ancient city-state of Ur in Sumer as the birthplace of the progenitor of the Hebrews. There is, however, no question whatsoever regarding the recorded chronicles concerning the kingdom of Judah on the other side of the crescent in the Levant. It was here where the armies of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar invaded at the end of the 7th century BC, taking into captivity a large portion of the Jewish population to Babylon circa 590 BC.
That servitude, however, was destined to be brief. The iconic Persian conqueror and liberator, Cyrus the Great, extended his sway across the entirety of the Near East, releasing the Jews in Mesopotamia from their bondage in 539 BC and permitting them to return to their homeland. Many did—but many didn’t.
For the next thousand years the Jews who opted to remain within the successive empires – Achaemenid, Parthian, Sasanian – established a unique niche in Persian dynasties, the predecessor states of the nation of Iran. Two exclusive factors favored shahanshahs looking kindly upon their Jewish subjects, even to the extent of granting them special dispensations. For one, Jews in Persia comported themselves like none of the other incredibly diverse peoples and cultures under the suzerainty of the “kings of kings.” Jews refrained from being subsumed within the greatest ancient melting pot on Earth at the time, maintaining their mores, laws, religion, hierarchy, diet codes and identity. This was a convenience for Persian rulers who only had to effect their orders with Jewish leaders to be assured that their dictates would be strictly obeyed by all Jewry within their realm.
Second, there was the scholastic reputation for ancient wisdom that had been associated with Jewish learning. Few rulers have ever searched too diligently for reasons to look askance on their most intelligent and apt subjects, and satraps and shahs are no exception. The Pumpedita and Sura academies, founded in 225 AD and lying one hundred miles apart on the banks of the Euphrates River, were the two leading centers of scholarship in the world for the next eight hundred years, the Oxford and Cambridge of their day. Both were largely populated by Jews.
Present-day Iran is the result of this storied and incomparable thousands year long chronicle, a nation that produces great engineers, physicians, and mathematicians, with renowned institutions of higher learning, a center for science, industry, commerce and culture. The population is educated, sophisticated, industrious and accorded a leadership status within the Muslim world. Iran is an ageless and fiercely independent state, a creation of its own collective blood, sweat, and tears, including those of its Jewish citizenry throughout the centuries.
To reject, therefore, what Jewish inhabitants have contributed throughout the millennia to the modern state of Iran would be to diminish that nation and impose a flagrant revision of its history. Iran’s Jewish community is even now the largest in the Middle East outside of Israel—some 15,000, many of whom are businesspeople and skilled professionals. According to an article published in USA Today in 2018, they still “feel safe and respected.”
Such then is the inexplicable enigma of Iranians being led to turn their backs on the ancient, intellectual and noble character of their country and instead submit to a one-dimensional national policy based on an unreasoned confluence of anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism. No matter though how often “Death to Israel!” and “Death to America!” is shouted in the streets of Teheran, sloganeering campaigns are neither an advantage to Iran nor a real threat to either the Jewish state or the USA. Tarnishing the dignity of a great state is the only thing accomplished by a people chanting murderous catchphrases in public squares.
Jingoism has scarcely ever benefited any society and yet that path has been ordained as somehow in the interest of otherwise sane and sober Iranians over these last years. This should and can be put right and all that’s required is for Iran to discard fanaticism and to choose instead peace, friendship and prosperity over conflict, enmity and sanctions. An ageless Persian proverb speaks appropriately of just how reversals of these sorts of missteps can always be accomplished:
“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the second best time is now.”