Jewish Journal

Historical ties with Iran make leaving difficult for Jews

by Karmel Melamed

December 21, 2007 | 11:52 am

Imagine you have a large home, luxury cars, maids and butlers, real estate holdings, a multi-million dollar business and of course a substantial fortune in your bank accounts. Then imagine one day, you just simply walking away from that entire lifestyle and start your life again from nothing in a new country where you know no one and do not speak the language. This was the very sad reality thousands of Jews living in Iran faced in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s when they there forced to leave everything they owned behind. For many of us Jews living in the tranquility of the U.S. today, such harsh realities Iranian Jews had to endure is beyond all comprehension. It is even more difficult for us to understand why there are nearly 20,000 Jews still living in Iran despite that regime’s past hostility to Jews and calls for Israel’s destruction. I’d like to shed some light on the history and close ties Jews have had with Iran that may be a factor in their decisions not to leave that country.

This week my story in the L.A. Jewish Journal reflects on the lack of interest on the part of Jews still living in Iran to leave that country despite efforts by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), to lure them out with offers of $10,000 to every Jew immigrating to Israel from Iran. When I chatted with the IFCJ’s founder and president Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, he expressed his frustration at the fact that not many Jews in Iran were willing to take up the offer”

“If there is an attack by either the United States or Israel on Iran, it seems clear to me that even the Iranian Jews know it would be too late at that point for them to get out or not be persecuted. In my opinion, they are playing a very dangerous game of not committing to come out to Israel. I think there are some stereotypes [in the greater American Jewish community] that these [Iranian Jewish] people are rich; that they’ll only come to Israel to be rich—when in fact, these people come out with nothing because of the inflation. And their money is worthless when they leave Iran. But the $10,000 has been enough to tip the scales for them to make the move, because it will help them get on their feet in Israel.”

Aside from the financial hardship that may befall Jews who leave Iran nowadays, we must not forget the long and deep rooted history Jews have had for the past 2,000 with that country. The biblical books of Isaiah, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther were not only written by these prophets while they were living in ancient Persia (modern Iran) but their books chronicle the lives of Jews living in exile there. For example, in the book of Ezra, the Persian kings are credited with permitting and enabling the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple; its reconstruction was affected according to the decree of Cyrus the Great, and Darius, and Artaxerxes kings of Persia. For the next several thousands of years Jews remained in ancient Persia which included much of the modern Middle East. Despite enduring horrible religious persecution from the Muslim majority over the centuries, they made Iran their home. So it’s no surprise that after such a long history of living in a certain place, some individuals would not want to leave that place.

It took the bloody 1979 revolution in Iran where more than a dozen Jews were killed or executed for sizable portions of the community to flee. But still there were those Jews who decided not to leave their homes and businesses behind despite the risks to their lives by Iran’s unstable radical Islamic regime. I’ve recently chatted with a handful of Iranian Jewish businessmen who travel back and forth to Iran under Islamic names and passports. They operate their businesses in Iran during a portion of the year, then return back to their families here in Los Angeles or New York. Of course this is not typical of Iranian Jews and very risky, but some are willing to take the risk because of their deep emotional and financial ties with Iran. While more than 100 Jews left Iran under the IFCJ’s immigration project this year, it may take a war or more serious persecution of the Jewish community to motivate them to leave their assets behind in Iran.

The following are just a few important Jewish sites in Iran:

Serah Bat Asher

According to Hebrew tradition it was Serah, the daughter of Asher and granddaughter of the Jewish patriarch Jacob, who first informed Jacob that Joseph was alive and the ruler of Egypt. Serah, play the harp for him and sing a song with the words “Joseph is alive”. It’s believed that out of gratitude for this Jacob asked God to make her immortal and his prayer was granted. Following the legend to the time of Moses, it was Serah who informed Moses where to find the bones of Joseph, so he could carry them back to the promised land as Joseph desired.

The site below is a Jewish cemetery referred to as “Serah Bat Asher” where it is believe Serah is buried. The cemetery is located in the town of “Kukuli” between the Iranian cities of Esfahan and Shiraz. Jews have often visited the site through the centuries and prayed for redemption and help.

The Mausoleum of Esther and Mordecai

Located in the city of Hamadan, the traditional site of the tombs of Esther and Mordechai has become somewhat of a tourist attraction. The great archaeologist Ernst Hertzfeld, in his book, suspected that Esther and Mordechai were buried there, but later indicated that he believed “Shushandokht”, a Jewish woman who was the wife of Yazgerd I, an Iranian king, is buried there. Nevertheless Jews today still make pilgrimages to the sites.

The Tomb of Daniel the prophet

The tomb of the Jewish prophet Daniel is located in the Iranian city of Susa. A mosque was built around the tomb and Iranian Muslims also visit the site to pray there.

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Karmel Melamed is an internationally-published freelance journalist based in Southern California.

Since 2000, Melamed has specialized in covering the growing influential...

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