Between Iran and Zion
Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran
Published by: Stanford University Press
208 pages, 152.00 x 229.00 x 0.00 mm
- ISBN: 9781503613638
- Published: March 2020
Iran is home to the largest Jewish population in the Middle East, outside of Israel. At its peak in the twentieth century, the population numbered around 100,000; today about 25,000 Jews live in Iran. Between Iran and Zion offers the first history of this vibrant community over the course of the last century, from the 1905 Constitutional Revolution through the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Over this period, Iranian Jews grew from a peripheral community into a prominent one that has made clear impacts on daily life in Iran.
Drawing on interviews, newspapers, family stories, autobiographies, and previously untapped archives, Lior B. Sternfeld analyzes how Iranian Jews contributed to Iranian nation-building projects, first under the Pahlavi monarchs and then in the post-revolutionary Islamic Republic. He considers the shifting reactions to Zionism over time, in particular to religious Zionism in the early 1900s and political Zionism after the creation of the state of Israel. And he investigates the various groups that constituted the Iranian Jewish community, notably the Jewish communists who became prominent activists in the left-wing circles in the 1950s and the revolutionary Jewish organization that participated in the 1979 Revolution. The result is a rich account of the vital role of Jews in the social and political fabric of twentieth-century Iran.
The introduction sets the background for the situation of the Jews in Iran at the turn of the twentieth century. This initial chapter provides a brief history of Jews in Iran and in the Middle East and touches on the creation of transnational networks that became increasingly important in the twentieth century. It seeks to introduce and contextualize for the reader Iran's Jewish community and the manner in which it has been addressed in past works. It provides an overview of the political, social, and cultural changes the community experienced, including the implementation of a constitution, urbanization, and a different perception of the "nation" in terms of postimperial identity and structure.
Chapter 1 explores ways that the Jewish community became more diverse following World War II. It examines the sociological and demographic transformations that the Jewish population experienced during the war. This chapter argues that the 1941 invasion of Iran by Allied forces and the subsequent collapse of the rigid state structure facilitated social mobility and redefinition. At the same time, a wave of Iraqi Jews arrived in Iran and added another layer of identity to the growing Jewish population. This chapter also debunks the traditional portrayal of Iran as passive in the war historiography, where it is usually examined in an insufficiently complex or nuanced way, and analyzes the ways in which the war and its aftermath shaped Iran. Contrary to the traditional historiography's stagnant or, rather, declining analysis of Iranian Jewry, the Jewish population in Iran witnessed a golden age in terms of becoming Iranian citizens.
Chapter 2 examines the politicization of Jews in Iran during World War II and through the early 1950s. Traditional historiography distances Jews from politics in Iran. When mentioned at all, Jewish political activity usually references support of the Shah, especially in relation to his close alliance with Israel. However, this chapter argues that political activism became a means for Iranian Jews to impact their future role and sociopolitical position in Iran. Many Jews were adamant supporters and members of the Tudeh, the Iranian Communist Party, and later engaged in many other political initiatives (such as student movements and intellectual associations). The Tudeh was the most vocal opponent of fascism in the 1940s and arguably the most popular political force in Iran. The Tudeh's enduring defense of the Jewish community, combined with its message of equality, attracted many young Jews from the Iranian middle and lower middle classes.
This chapter examines the roots and effects of Zionism in Iran. It analyzes Zionism first as an indigenous movement that emerged in Iran as a response to the needs of Iranian Jews (with relation to the global movement of Zionism) and transformed itself as the needs of Iranian Jews changed in the course of the century. After 1948 and the establishment of Israel, Zionism could no longer be taken as a local movement alone. The contact with Israel and Israeli emissaries and the impact of state-sponsored Zionist activities ignited a new set of emotions and means of identification with or antagonism to Zionism, and a range of reactions in between. This chapter examines the way Israel dealt with the case of Iranian Jews, which was atypical compared with other Middle Eastern communities. In addition, this chapter examines the responses to Zionism among the non-Jewish intellectual elites in Iran.
The ultimate success of the nation-building project, led by the Shah, was evident in the decade leading up to the revolution—when the Jewish community in Iran finally achieved its release from traditional loyalties and viewed itself, first and foremost, as Iranian. This chapter explores the first manifestations of Jewish revolutionary discourse and actions and discusses postrevolutionary Iran and a new nation-building paradigm that Jews faced following the Islamic revolution. This chapter follows the Jewish response to the rapidly unfolding events: from the Shah's overthrow through the redefinition of the Iranian national identity, from the Iran-Iraq War to the post-Khomeini period. In the post-Khomeini era, Iranian Jews had to navigate between their religious ancestral homeland (Israel) and their national and political homeland (Iran). They had to deftly maneuver between the misinterpretations and deceptions that characterized the harsh rhetoric between Israel and Iran.
This concluding chapter shows that the trajectory of the Jews of Iran from the early twentieth century led them ultimately to integration into each of the nation-building projects of that era.
"Between Iran and Zion is an exciting reconstruction of modern Jewish life in Iran. Lior Sternfeld unearths mesmerizing and previously untold stories to ask important questions about Jewish identities and offer hope for a better future to the peoples of the region, Jews and Muslims alike." ~Orit Bashkin, University of Chicago
"Sternfeld's strength lies in his ability to successfully situate Iran's Jews within the broader context of Iranian history...Between Iran and Zion is highly recommended not only for readers interested in an original and nuanced examination of Iranian Jewish life between the early 1940s and the early 1980s, but also for those seeking an understanding of the greater Iranian society during this time. It is an excellent demonstration that minority communities cannot be studied in a vacuum." ~Daniella Farah, H-Nationalism
"Between Iran and Zion offers a compelling history of Iranian Jews in the twentieth century. Lior Sternfeld proves himself an honest and judicious storyteller with this sobering account of a people caught between their historic homeland and a symbolic call for 'return.'" ~Hamid Dabashi, Columbia University
"To the best of my knowledge,Between Iran and Zionis the first utterly successful attempt to liberate the historiography of twentieth-century Iranian Jews from its conceptual and institutional straitjackets. Hence, it provides exciting, novel and thought-provoking insights and findings regarding the modern history of Jews in Iran." ~Haggai Ram, The Tel Aviv Review of Books
"Lior Sternfeld has given us a highly nuanced and perceptive study of not only the Jewish community in Iran but also the Jewish community's integral relationship with the larger Iranian nation. The book is especially insightful on the position of the Jewish community in the 1979 Islamic Revolution." ~Ervand Abrahamian, City University of New York