In 1986 there were an estimated 50,000 Jews in Iran, a decline
from about 85,000 in 1978. The Iranian Jewish community is one
of the oldest in the world, being descended from Jews who remained
in the region following the Babylonian captivity, when the Achaemenid
rulers of the first Iranian empire permitted Jews to return to
Jerusalem. Over the centuries the Jews of Iran became physically,
culturally, and linguistically indistinguishable from the non-Jewish
population. The overwhelming majority of Jews speak Persian as
their mother language, and a tiny minority, Kurdish. The Jews
are predominantly urban and by the 1970s were concentrated in
Tehran, with smaller communities in other cities, such as Shiraz,
Esfahan, Hamadan, and Kashan.
Until the twentieth century the Jews were confined to their own
quarters in the towns. In general the Jews were an impoverished
minority, occupationally restricted to small-scale trading, moneylending,
and working with precious metals. Since the 1920s, Jews have had
greater opportunities for economic and social mobility. They have
received assistance from a number of international Jewish organizations,
including the American Joint Distribution Committee, which introduced
electricity, piped water, and modern sanitation into Jewish neighborhoods.
The Jews have gradually gained increased importance in the bazaars
of Tehran and other cities, and after World War II some educated
Jews entered the professions, particularly pharmacy, medicine,
The Constitution of 1979 recognized Jews as an official religious
minority and accorded them the right to elect a representative
to the Majlis. Like the Christians, the Jews have not been persecuted.
Unlike the Christians, the Jews have been viewed with suspicion
by the government, probably because of the government's intense
hostility toward Israel. Iranian Jews generally have many relatives
in Israel--some 45,000 Iranian Jews emigrated from Iran to Israel
between 1948 and 1977--with whom they are in regular contact.
Since 1979 the government has cited mail and telephone communications
as evidence of "spying" in the arrest, detention, and even execution
of a few prominent Jews. Although these individual cases have
not affected the status of the community as a whole, they have
contributed to a pervasive feeling of insecurity among Jews regarding
their future in Iran and have helped to precipitate large- scale
emigration. Most Jews who have left since the Revolution have
settled in the United States.
Data as of December 1987