Review of Iranian Jews' financial situation
Jewish community in Iran is biggest in Middle East outside Israel, with some 20,000 people. Although Jews enjoy average standard of living compared to rest of population, like other religious minorities they suffer from discrimination. Nevertheless, they don’t want to leave
This is one of the most ancient communities, with a history that goes some 3,000 years back. The Jewish community in Iran is concentrated in three cities – Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz.
Like other minorities in Iran, the Jewish also suffer from discrimination, which is particularly noticeable in the economic area. The Iranian regime does not allow foreign elements free access to the Jewish community, making its economic situation difficult to analyze based on proven figures.
However, according to most of the information accumulated in the past few years, it appears that the majority of the Jewish community enjoys an average standard of living compared to the rest of the Iranian population.
The recent years have seen a drop in the average Iranian citizen's standard of living, despite the considerable increase in the revenues from oil. The high inflation the Iranian economy is suffering from has not skipped the Jewish community members.
Governmental clerical work – off limits
A significant number of the Jewish community members in Iran are independent, operating small businesses in the trade and retail fields. This is, among other things, a result of the fact that the Ayatollahs regime prevents the Jews from obtaining senior posts in government ministries, in commissioned ranks (Jews are drafted by the army just like the rest of Iran's citizens), in the legal system and in the education system.
Some of the Jews are employed by governmental bodies or state-owned companies, but their chances of being promoted to senior management posts are very small.
In general, the Jews' level of integration in the Muslim population, including in the economic field, is lower today than before the revolution.
In addition, despite public declarations on religious equality and a religious decree on the matter issued by Imam Khomeini, the Iranian law stresses the supremacy of Islam in different economy-related fields.
In inheritance laws, for instance, if a member of a Jewish family converts to Islam he is entitled to the entire heritage if the rest of his siblings remain Jewish.
Another example in this context refers to murder cases and compensating the victim's family. In such cases Iran acts in accordance with Islamic law and the principle of "money for the blood." In other words, the victim's family can leave the murderer free of punishment in exchange for compensation from him or his family. In today's Iran, the compensation given to a Jewish family in such a case totals 10% of the compensation given to the family of a Muslim victim.
Raising funds on internet
The Jewish community in Iran has adapted to the electronic era, and a special website helps the community raise funds to fulfill its needs. Donors from abroad, led by wealthy Iranian Jews who emigrated after the revolution, infuse millions of dollars every year to the community for charity purposes.
The donations funds help operate Iran's 30 synagogues and the Jewish hospital in Tehran. Incidentally, this hospital is considered a particularly good medical center in the Iranian capital and nearly 95% of its patients today are Muslims. Part of the medical staff is Jewish, and its entire budget is based on donations.
Recently, the hospital's offices even received a direct donation from the office of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. However, as opposed to the hospital, Iran refrains from providing financial aid to the Islamic republic's Hebrew schools.
Ahmadinejad's Jewish roots
Several weeks ago, the Iranian president was slammed for allegedly hiding his Jewish roots. Mahdi Khazali, the son of one of the most prominent Muslim clerics in Iran, published a special article on the republic's Jewish community on his blog. In the article, he wrote that the Iranian president was a descendant of the Jewish Saborjian family from the village of Aradan.
Khazali said that the president's harsh attacks on the Jews, Zionism and Israel were aimed at covering his origin. He stated that the president's Jewish family changed its name to Ahmadinejad in order to hide its Jewishness and help its sons pave their way in the Iranian society.
The correct fact in this story is that Ahmadinejad did change his surname, and according to his relatives this was done for "religious and financial reasons."
Even if they claim is wrong, it appears to point to the current situation in the Iranian society, in which Jews are limited in terms of their economic chances due to their religion.
Financial incentives unhelpful to emigration
Iranian Jews' emigration levels in the past few years are tiny. This may be the result of their fear of the authorities' attitude towards those left behind, or the fact that the Jewish community in the country is growing old and prefers what it has in Tehran over the unknown in Israel.
In any event, the financial incentives initiated by the State of Israel and offered to Iranian Jews by organizations abroad in order to emigrate have been publicly rejected by the community heads.
At the time, the community leaders issued a harsh statement expressing their discontent with the thought that "their nationality can be negotiated".
This statement may have been dictated by the Iranian regime, but statistical figures show that between the end of 2005 and the end of 2006 only 200 Jews agreed to emigrate from Iran in return for those same generous incentives.
Those who emigrated stated that their main reason for leaving Iran was the poor economic situation they suffered from rather than the political situation.
The good ol' Shah days
The Jewish community in Iran did not experience economic distress during the Shah's days. Before the Khomeini revolution Jews were considered the leading businessmen in Iran, and were part of the business elite. Jews held key positions in the oil and banking industry and in the legal system.
The Iranian Jews' financial and social situation improved under the Pahlavi dynasty's reforms from the 1920s. The Jews were not restricted in their freedom of occupation choice, and the protection fee they were forced to pay was canceled.
In addition, the ghettos in which the Jews lived before the Shah rose to power began to disappear. In Shiraz, the historic center of Jewish life in Iran, only 25% of the Jews continued to live in the Jewish neighborhood (ghetto) as of 1977.
The Jews rushed to integrate in the Iranian society and channel the opportunity given to them to the economic field as well. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Jews established themselves as Iran's leading carpet merchants.
Due to the increased demand for Persian rugs in Europe, the Jewish merchants went on regular trips to the leading capitals in the European continent and expanded their commercial ties there. As opposed to the European authorities, the Pahlavi regime protected the Jews in the 1930s and 1940s.
In the 1950s Tehran thrived, and the immigration of Jews to the Islamic republic grew stronger. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Persian rug exports industry was controlled by Jewish-owned companies. The market had seven or eight companies with an export volume of $75-80 million, and two times more companies whose volume of sales abroad was estimated at $25-45 million a year.
In 1960 the Shad established full diplomatic ties with Israel. The commerce between the two countries was quickly expanded, and delegations of Israeli businesspeople visited Iran often. Israeli companies even won bids for Iranian projects, but this ended all at once in 1979.
Immediately after the revolution, the Jewish community was terrorized. The most famous incident was related to one of the community's wealthiest members and a local philanthropist, who was hanged immediately after the revolution after being accused of "having ties with the traitors and the nation's enemies".
Dozens of the Jewish community members were executed later on suspicion of "economic corruption". Simultaneously, the private property of many Jewish businessmen was confiscated, prompting the wealthy people among them to emigrate.
Doron Peskin is head of research at Info-Prod Research (Middle East) Ltd.