TEHRAN, Iran – In a large room off a courtyard decorated in places with Islamic calligraphy and patterned tiles featuring intricate geometric shapes and patterns, men wearing tunics, cloaks and sandals recite morning prayers.
At the back of the room, three women sit together on a bench, hunched over ancient texts. Scarves cover their hair, as required by Iran’s religious law. Birdsong floats into the cavernous space as the incantations grow louder and more insistent.
This is a synagogue. In Iran.
In a nation that has called for Israel to be wiped off the face of the Earth, the Iranian government allows thousands of Jews to worship in peace and continue their association with the country founded more than 2,500 years ago.
“We have all the facilities we need for our rituals, and we can say our prayers very freely. We never have any problems. I can even tell you that, in many cases, we are more respected than Muslims,” said Nejat Golshirazi, 60, rabbi of the synagogue USA TODAY visited one morning last month. “You saw for yourself we don’t even have any security guards here.”
At its peak in the decades before Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, 100,000 to 150,000 Jews lived here, according to the Tehran Jewish Committee, a group that lobbies for the interests of Iranian Jews. In the months following the fall of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, Iran’s second and last monarch, many fled for Israel and the United States.
It was a dispersion precipitated in part by the execution of Habib Elghanian, who was then one of Iran’s leading Jewish businessmen and philanthropists. Elghanian also headed the Tehran Jewish Committee and had ties to the deposed shah. He was killed by firing squad after being accused by Iran’s Islamic revolutionaries of spying and fundraising for Israel.
Few Jews remain
Today, 12,000 to 15,000 Jews remain in Iran, according to the committee.
It’s a small minority in a nation of 80 million people. But consider: Iran is home to the Middle East’s largest Jewish population outside Israel.
And, according to Golshirazi and other senior members of Iran’s Jewish community, they mostly enjoy good relations with Iran’s hard-line, theocratic government despite perceptions abroad that Iran’s Islamic rulers might subject them to harsh treatment.
“The Muslim majority in Iran has accepted us,” said Homayoun Sameyah Najafabadi, 53, who holds the role once held by Elghanian, chairman of the Tehran Jewish Committee.
“We are respected and trusted for our expertise and fair dealings in business, and we never feel threatened,” he said. “Many years ago, before the royal regime of Pahlavi, by contrast, if it was raining in Iran, Jews were not allowed to go outside of their houses because it was believed that if a non-Muslim got wet and touched a Muslim it would make them dirty.”
Najafabadi said it may be difficult for Jews and others outside the country suspicious of Iran’s treatment of religious minorities or its views on Israel to accept, but after the execution of Elghanian, Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s first supreme leader, deliberately sought to improve relations between Jews and Muslims in the country for the nation’s long-term stability.
He added that Jews, who have been in Iran since about the eighth century B.C., used to be scattered all over the country but are now largely concentrated in Tehran and other big cities such as Isfahan and Shiraz. In all, he said, Iran is home to about 35 synagogues.
Najafabadi said most Jews in Iran are shopkeepers, although he said others work as doctors, engineers and in other highly skilled professions.
There are no Jews, however, in senior government positions. There’s only one Jewish representative in the country’s 290-member Parliament. His name is Siamak Moreh Sedgh.
Sedgh, 53, said one of the reasons Jews in Iran are able to live peacefully is that they consider themselves Iranians first – and Jews second.
“We’re not an entity outside of the Iranian nation. We are part of it. Our past and our future. I may pray in Hebrew, but I can only think in Persian (Farsi, Iran’s language),” said Sedgh, who is also a surgeon at a hospital in central Tehran, where USA TODAY spoke with him.
Crucially, that affinity extends to the question of Israel.
“I don’t think Israel is a Jewish state because not everyone in Israel lives according to the teachings of the Torah. This is what Jews in Iran believe,” Sedgh insisted.
He acknowledged that it was somewhat ironic that Iran, arguably the biggest foe of Israel, was also the “biggest friend of the Jewish people.”
Sounding more Iranian than Jewish, Sedgh said he disagreed with President Donald Trump’s decision this year to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv because “Trump can’t just change a capital city that according to international law and the United Nations is an occupied city.”
The final status of Jerusalem has long been disputed. Palestinians want a capital of an independent Palestinian state in East Jerusalem; Israel views the city as its true capital.
“Trump is a coward who has lost his humanity and forgotten about spirituality. He wants to destroy large parts of the world only for the benefit of a small group of capitalists,” Sedgh said.
On Tehran’s bustling streets, Jews are not very visible, partly because there are so few of them. USA TODAY did, however, spot a few men wearing kippahs as they hurried off to work in the morning. They did not appear to attract any second glances from Iranian men in business suits, others in traditional Muslim dress or women sporting hijabs and chadors.
Other minority groups in Iran include Arabs, Armenians, Baloch people (who live near Pakistan, in Iran’s southeast), Christians and Kurds. Open Doors USA, an organization that tracks persecuted Christians worldwide, estimates there could be as many as 800,000 Christians secretly living in Iran. It says Christians in Iran are routinely subject to imprisonment, harassment and physical abuse for seeking to convert Muslims. USA TODAY did not encounter any Christians in Iran.
Outside the Yousef Abad Synagogue, the entrance via the courtyard was unprotected, and it was easy to walk straight in. That’s unheard-of for Jews in Europe, where Jewish schools, institutions and places of worship receive extra security amid a spate of attacks.
“What you see there (for Iran’s Jews) is a very vibrant community,” said Lior Sternfeld, a Middle East historian at Penn State University who in November will publish a book on modern Jewish life in Iran. “A community that faces problems – but it’s Iran, so problems are a given.”
Difficulties and discrimination
Still, rights groups and experts believe Jews in Iran do face discrimination. Najafabadi, the committee chief, conceded that in some instances, Iranian Jews have had trouble getting access to the best schools with their Muslim peers.
In other cases, treatment of Jews has ended in brutal violence.
In 1998, Ruhollah Kadkhodah Zadeh, a Jewish businessman in Iran, was hanged by the authorities after being accused of helping Iranians Jews emigrate. Two years later, 10 Jews in the southern city of Shiraz were jailed after they were accused of spying for Israel.
Then there’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s former president, who drew international attention when he repeatedly denied the Holocaust in which 6 million Jews were murdered.
Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian Jew, says life has improved for Jews under Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Javedanfar left the country for Israel in 1987 as a teenager and now teaches classes on Iranian politics at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv.
Javedanfar said, for example, that Jewish children in Iran are no longer required to attend school on the Sabbath, the traditional day of rest and religious observance among Jews that falls on a Saturday but is a regular workday in Iran.
“At the same time, the regime continues to hold Holocaust cartoon contests that are pretty anti-Semitic,” he noted, referring to a provocative annual exhibition in Iran that mocks Jewish suffering while claiming to challenge Western ideas about free speech and Holocaust taboos.
He quickly pointed out: “The regime is not too concerned about its Jews as long as they don’t become involved in politics and don’t say anything positive about Israel.”
Golshirazi the rabbi, Najafabadi of the committee and Sedgh the parliamentarian all stressed they were speaking truthfully and not trying to distort their views of life in Iran for Jews out of fear of government persecution. They also said Jews in Iran often enjoy extra social freedoms that Muslims do not, such as the ability to consume alcohol in a private setting.
The few Jews in Iran are unlikely to leave.
In 2007, the Tehran Jewish Committee rejected an offer by Israel’s government to pay each family of remaining Jews in Iran up to $60,000 to help them leave the country.
“I can tell, you are thinking I am afraid,” Golshirazi said when USA TODAY pressed him on that point. “But I have been many places visiting Jewish communities. Iran is the best for us.”
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