In the early 20th century, according to Jewish aid agencies, the Iranian Jewish communities were largely disenfranchised, marginalized, and impoverished. About 80 percent of the Jewish population belonged to the lowest social and economic classes, 10 percent were part of the merging middle class, and 10 percent were counted among the countries industrial and intellectual elites. By the 1979 revolution, that situation was radically changed. 10 percent of Iran’s Jews were impoverished, 80 percent comfortably belonged to the middle classes, and 10 percent remained in the country’s elites. Moreover, by the 1979 revolution Jews played a role in all the Iranian political camps: as supporters of the monarchy or part of the revolutionary movements. This talk analyzes the history of the Jewish communities in Iran—and the pivotal role these institutions played in facilitating integration and other social developments. Examples of social developments include the politicizing of youth and participation in nation-building projects as envisaged by Mohammad Reza Shah (from the 1950s to the 1979 revolution).
Lior Sternfeld is an Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies at Penn State University. He works on Modern Iran and the Middle East with special emphasis on the Jewish communities of the region. His first book Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran was published by Stanford University Press in 2018. Sternfeld’s new research project focuses on the Iranian-Jewish diaspora communities in Israel and the US.