Lior B. Sternfeld, Between Iran And Zion, Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran (Stanford University Press, November 2018)

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Lior B. Sternfeld (LS): As a historian of Iran, it has bothered me greatly that historiography of this country makes no effort to reflect the complex social composition of Iranian society. Diversity has shaped Iranian society for centuries, and understanding it is crucial to the understanding of this society today. Iran is a country of minorities. There are almost thirty minorities (religious, ethnic, lingual) and only about half of the population is Persian Shi’ite. If you read any of the “big histories” of Iran, you do not get this sense. This historiographical mold can be attributed in part to the nation-building projects of the twentieth century, and also to the dominant trends of Iranian nationalism, to which many of the minorities responded and wanted to interact with.

The case of the Jewish minority presents multiple historiographical and methodological challenges. Historiography of Iranian Jews has been heavily influence by Iranian national historiography, on the one hand, and very secluded views and methodologies of Jewish studies and Zionism, on the other. The result of this has been a very shallow understanding of the Jewish experience in Iran in the twentieth century. Daniel Tsadik’s book on the nineteenth century had recently come out, revising the entire way scholars should look at the Jewish communities. I read this book in a very transformative period of graduate school and decided to write a paper, a paper which became my first article of this project on Jewish participation in the 1979 revolution.

I found out that the Jews were involved in the revolution in several ways. The Jewish hospital played a key role, and there were other fascinating aspects that, until that stage, remained very silent. The response to my article convinced me that I should write the histories of Iranian Jews in the twentieth century, in all their plurality. I wanted to try and analyze the profound social, political, and cultural transformation of these communities in a very turbulent century.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

LS: This book addresses the responses of Iranian Jews to mainly three political/cultural/intellectual streams that shaped Iran in the twentieth century: Iranian Nationalism, Communism, and—in the Jewish case—two phases of Zionism, pre-1948 and post-1948. Iranian Jews articulated many responses to each of these streams. The responses came from different communities, rooted in different contexts, and manifested themselves in myriad ways. For example, we see that Jews felt deep gratitude in a way to the Pahlavi monarchy, which—as they perceived—had liberated them by removing the barriers that blocked them from integrating and assimilating. At the same time, the communist Tudeh Party was the strongest and fiercest opposition to fascism and anti-Semitism in Iran and outside; it talked about social justice, and the vision of an egalitarian society— something that resonated with the Jewish communities, who remained mostly in the lower classes at that time. It was thus the only political party that accepted Jews (and other religious minorities) as members, and so gained many of their support.

This book attempts to show that, just like Iranian society which is far less homogenous than it is usually portrayed, Jewish society is also very diverse. While I am looking at the ethnically Persian Jews as the majority, we also have Kurdish Jews, Iraqi Jews (that can even be categorized as two or three different groups) Ashkenazi Jews (also made of two groups—German professionals that came to Iran in the 1930s, and the other Polish refugees), and many Israeli Jews. All of them helped create these nuanced and multi-hyphenated identities that characterized Iranian Jews—and in a way, still do.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

LS: I was trained as a social historian of Iran, and I was very much interested in writing social history of the national movement of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Reflecting back on it, I am not sure that I knew at the beginning that one of the missing pieces of this story is the aspect of minorities—but I was excited to study this new angle.

My training also brought me into the major debates of the rejuvenating subfield of Jewish studies in the Middle East. Without the works of Joel Beinin, Orit Bashkin, Sarah Abrevaya Stein, Aomar Boum, Joshua Schrier, Michelle Campos, and others (most of them published also with Stanford University Press), this field would have looked tremendously different.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

LS: I hope that readers interested in Jewish life in the Middle East in modern times and in Jewish-Muslim relations, aside from the Israel-Palestine conflict, would pick up this book. I am also hoping that Iranian Jews in Israel, and other Iranian Jewish diasporas, would find this account enriching. I hope that Iranians in Iran and abroad would find this analysis of their national story useful, allowing additional voices to be heard and illuminating parts of their histories that—for social, cultural, and political reasons—have been unearthed until now. This is something that I have already seen beginning to happen on my book tour. Folks of Iranian-Jewish heritage, first or second generation immigrants from Iran, tell me how they relate to the stories I tell; each adds another story that could have entered the book. There is always the Tudehi uncle, the “liberal student” cousin, the many interactions with Zionist organizations, and the perceptions of Iran as a homeland, etc.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

LS: I am now working on two projects. The first one is an attempt to find the origins of “Third-Worldism” in the Middle East. The story of the third world usually gives prominence (or even ideological monopoly) to the decolonized nations of Southeast Asia. I am not necessarily disagreeing with that analysis, but I think that the Middle East played a greater role than the anecdotal piece it received in the grand historiography. In this project I examine intellectual-popular discourse of the 1930s and 1940s, including that regarding Zionism (which many Middle Eastern intellectuals considered to be a post-colonial movement), through the establishment of the “Third Force” party in Iran in 1948-9, and Prime Minister Mosaddeq, who actively tried to form a Middle Eastern bloc to counter the influence of Britain, France, the United States, and also the Soviet Union on the other side.

My second project focuses on Iranian-Jewish diaspora communities, especially in the United States and Israel. I want to see how the immigration experience shaped their memories of the “old country,” cultural preservations, relations with non-Jewish immigrants from the same places, etc.

J: You tell a story of centuries-long journey for integration and you underscore the immense cultural attachment and Iranian national identity and pride. Yet the overwhelming majority of the Iranian Jewish community left Iran after the revolution. So, did this project fail? If they felt so attached and part of the society, why did they leave?

LS: I tell a story of a journey. And it is a journey—not a linear steady development—and if there is one thing I want the reader to take from this book is that understanding Iranian-Jewish history is not black and white; it is not a story of persecution and redemption, but rather it is a story that always existed in the middle. It is the story of the hyphen between identities and ideologies.

There were two waves of Jewish emigration out of Iran. The first was in 1948 to 1951, when about a quarter of the Jewish population of Iran left, mostly for the newly-established Israel. The Jews who left in the first wave were—broadly speaking—the poorest and the neediest of the Jewish communities. For them, immigration to Israel could offer some kind of redemption—be it religious, national, financial, or cultural. As I show in the book, even this was very complicated, as some returned to Iran at some point in the future.

The second wave was profoundly different in sociological terms. By the 1970s, the vast majority of the Iranian Jews were part of the upper middle classes and the elites. Most of those who left in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution left as part of their “class” exodus, and not necessarily because they were Jews. We also see that they left for the same places that the non-Jewish Iranians of the same socio-economic class moved to (and much fewer to Israel). This is not to say that, as Jews they did not face increasing dangers and discrimination, but the fact that we see today a community in Iran that is still substantial (unlike any other Middle Eastern country) suggests that we cannot read their history in the same terms that we read Jewish histories of other societies.


Excerpt from the book

Iranian Jewish Zionist: An Identity Mélange

During this period of extensive migration to Israel, even as Iran served as a base for that considerable effort, Zionist and non-Iranian Jewish officials were hardly concerned with the complexity of Jewish Iranian identity. Could Iranian Jews be proud, patriotic Iranians while practicing Jewish traditions? Could they be sympathetic to Zionism and to Israel at differing levels? What about Iranian Jews identifying first and foremost as Tudehi but, in accordance with Tudeh’s official party line, strongly supporting the establishment of Israel? For all Iranians, and Iranian Jews in particular, identity categories were not mutually exclusive (in contrast to what had been expected by Israel and modern Zionism). While many viewed the establishment of Israel favorably, and rejoiced over their homeland’s good relationship with Israel (at least in the beginning), they had no intention to exchange Iran for Israel. The percentage of Iranian Jews choosing the Zionist option was relatively low, and those who did immigrate envisioned that they would see an elevation in their status by doing so.

The slowdown of immigrants prompted Zionist organizations to investigate and analyze this unexpected turn of events. Ultimately they arrived at the identity issue. In 1953 Habib Levy wrote a comprehensive report on Zionist activism in Iran and submitted it to Israel’s president, Itzhak Ben-Zvi, whom he knew from the latter’s visits to Iran. President Ben-Zvi forwarded Levy’s report to the chairman of the board of the Jewish Agency, Berl Locker. Surprisingly, Levy’s tone in this report sharply contrasts with the spirit of his historical writing. In his books (both his memoir and his three-volume history of the Jews of Iran), he praises Iranian Jews’ commitment to Judaism and Zionist ideals. Conversely, his report submitted to Israel’s president seems rather gloomy:

When news arrived of the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jews rejoiced… 30% of Persia’s Jewish communities prepared for their Aliyah—in camps without any sanitation, exposed to the death angel on one side and on the other side, greedy officials of the Jewish Agency that in odd ways and on weird pretexts robbed them of their few belongings. Despite life in Iran being comfortable, they [Iranian Jews] went to Israel and were going to forget the bitterness of the Galuth [exile]. After two thousand and four hundred years of exile, and after 24 hundred years of suffering and tears, they were drunk from excitement and did not pay attention to obstacles, betrayals, and deeds of pocket-picking… Unfortunately today the excitement has dissipated and their fiery nationalistic and religious feelings that were a source of endless power and energy have faded.

Beyond the serious accusations targeting Jewish Agency officials and Israel (accusations upheld by corroborating evidence), Levy lamented the loss of this rare opportunity to keep Zionist fires kindled in the hearts of Iranian Jews. The rest of the report also bears examination. In analyzing the reasons that Iranian Jews were turning away from or losing interest in Zionist ideology, Levy cites the following: “lack of physical, national, religious, and spiritual guidance or training.” In other reports, and as a matter of policy, the Jewish Agency tended to blame insufficient knowledge of Hebrew and the practice of Reform Judaism (as opposed to its Orthodox counterpart) for loosening the bond between Iranian Jews and Zionism/Israel. With that in mind, it is interesting to turn once again to Abramovitch, the JDC observer, whose 1952 report contradicts this assessment. In fact, he describes a heightened emphasis on Hebrew language acquisition and Judaism education among Iranian Jewish youths:

We can point to a whole series of achievements. My recent tour of the provincial towns has been an unexpected pleasure. The younger children, those of the primary schools, not only understood our questions but also answered them correctly. Years of guidance and regular examinations have convinced teachers that our instructions should be carried out, that curriculum we’ve suggested should be taught, and that idiotic superstitious stories abandoned. Children read correctly; they translate correctly; there is proper order to their biblical stories, as well as sequence in their history and religious knowledge. Mr. Cuenca, A.I.U. director, and we can point to a whole series of achievements. My recent tour of the provincial towns has been an unexpected pleasure. The younger children, those of the primary schools, not only understood our questions but also answered them correctly. Years of guidance and regular examinations have convinced teachers that our instructions should be carried out, that curriculum we’ve suggested should be taught, and that idiotic superstitious stories abandoned. Children read correctly; they translate correctly; there is proper order to their biblical stories, as well as sequence in their history and religious knowledge. Mr. Cuenca, A.I.U. director, and Mr. Szyf, who accompanied me on this last trip, were as pleasantly surprised as I was at the answers.

How should we reconcile Levy’s and Abramovitch’s contradicting reports? One way to square the two is to conclude that there was, in fact, no credible connection between Hebrew fluency and a deep understanding of Judaism’s teachings and traditions. Later in his report, Levy offers other fascinating though equally far-fetched criticisms that do not necessarily correlate with his other writings. First, he states that Iranian Jews suffer from the absence of a centralized organization. This unfortunate fragmentation, reflected in the proliferation of small community organizations, meant that Iran’s Jewish community lacked a unified front. Without a strong, central organization, Levy opines, requisite political and social influence will never be achieved. Additionally, the majority of wealthy Iranian Jews had distanced themselves from Jewish nationalism. Finally, and perhaps most critically, he laments, “The young Jewish students overwhelmingly [will] tend to support the Tudeh Party, when there is a void of worthy Jewish organizations.”

Levy fails to entertain the possibility that Iranian Jews purposely avoided creating a strong central organization—which would have distanced their community even further from the larger nationalist sphere. Is it not possible that the Jewish community desired to assimilate, to fit seamlessly into the Iranian social fabric, to count themselves as respected and respectable citizens, and thereby enjoy the same rights and experiences as their non-Jewish Iranian peers? Levy also overlooks key reasons why Jewish students overwhelmingly tended to support Tudeh. As demonstrated in Chapter 2, during the early years from 1941 through 1953, Tudeh offered young Jews a stronger connection to their generation and to Iranian society. Since Tudeh was the largest and single most important political organization in Iran, it is little wonder that young Jews found Tudeh so attractive.47

Another section of Levy’s report is devoted to the hardships that Jews faced upon arriving in Israel. Interestingly, Levy mentions racism and discrimination toward Mizrahi and Persian Jews, regardless of their social status, education, or training. Levy points out that these émigrés could not speak Yiddish, a strike against them. Also, their places of origin made them especially vulnerable to discriminatory practices. Levy proffers the following example: Iranian Jews wanting to enroll their children in an elite boarding school near Haifa were told that the school was at full capacity. Nevertheless, in the ensuing days and weeks their Ashkenazi neighbors enrolled sons and daughters with no problem.48 This type of news made its way to Iran, undeniably hurting Israel’s already questionable reputation around immigration. During those early years, not only did many Iranians return to Iran but, as discussed in Chapter 1, Iraqi Jews also migrated from Israel to Iran. These Iraqis, after finding life impossible to adjust to in Israel, and legally prevented from returning to their Iraqi homeland, settled on their second-best option. Iran at least provided a somewhat familiar cultural climate, and furthermore, a significant Jewish Iraqi community had already established itself. Therefore, Iran became a preferred destination for many Iraqi immigrants, to the dismay of Israel and Zionist organizations.