Elias Bejjani/Video & Text: The Historical Relations between Jews and Persians: Enmity or Alliance?


The Historical Relations between Jews and Persians: Enmity or Alliance?
Elias Bejjani, June 9, 2024

Click Here to read and listen to the Arabic version of this piece/اضغط هنا لقراء المقالة ومشاهدة الفيديو بالعربية

This question is often raised: Is there really a historical enmity between Israel and Iran, as well as between Jews and Persians, or is there a history of love, alliance, and goodwill?

Looking back at history, it becomes clear that the term “enmity” was never used to describe the relationship between the two sides at any time. This notion of enmity began to be promoted by the mullahs with a “jihadist” background after they took power in Iran in 1979 following the ousting of the Shah. Before the rule of the mullahs, history shows that Jewish-Persian relations were not hostile, but were complex and rich, involving periods of cooperation and alliance, as well as times of conflict. This history spans several centuries, intertwining interests and cultures at various stages. Below is a brief summary of these relations:

Babylonian and Ancient Persian Periods
Relations between Jews and Persians prominently begin during the Babylonian and ancient Persian periods. In 586 BCE, Babylon, led by Nebuchadnezzar II, destroyed the Kingdom of Judah and exiled many Jews to Babylon. In this context, the Persian King Cyrus the Great (550-530 BCE) is seen as a savior for the Jews. After conquering Babylon in 539 BCE, he issued a decree allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple. This act earned Cyrus great respect in Jewish tradition, and he is referred to as “the Lord’s anointed” in the Bible (Isaiah 45:1).

Achaemenid Era
During the Achaemenid period, Jewish communities in the Persian Empire enjoyed a significant degree of religious freedom and autonomy. The Jewish community in Babylon flourished, with notable figures like Nehemiah and Ezra playing vital roles in the reconstruction of Jerusalem.

Parthian and Sassanian Eras
With the fall of the Achaemenid Empire and the rise of the Parthian Empire (247 BCE – 224 CE), good relations between Jews and Persians continued. The Parthians, who were in conflict with the Romans, found allies in the Jews against a common enemy. This situation persisted during the Sassanian period (224-651 CE), where Jewish communities enjoyed considerable autonomy, and Jewish culture developed through ongoing interactions with Persian culture.

Relations During the Islamic Conquest
With the Islamic conquest of the Persian Empire in the 7th century CE, dynamics changed significantly. Persian control declined and was replaced by Islamic rule. Nevertheless, Jewish communities in Iran continued to exist, experiencing periods of tolerance and persecution over the centuries.

Safavid and Qajar Eras
During the Safavid (1501-1736) and Qajar (1789-1925) eras, there were periods of tension and alliance. The Shiite Safavid government strictly enforced Sharia laws, leading to some pressures on Jewish communities. However, in later periods, especially during the Qajar rule, Jews in Iran saw a relative improvement in their conditions.

Modern Era
In the modern era, especially under Shah Reza Pahlavi and his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Jewish community in Iran enjoyed increased rights and significant improvements in their economic and social conditions. However, after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the situation changed dramatically, with the new government led by Ayatollah Khomeini adopting more conservative policies towards religious minorities, including Jews.

Iranian-Israeli Relations Under Khomeini
Despite the major shift in Iranian policy after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran and Israel experienced secret alliances and mutual aid during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). During this period, Israel supplied Iran with advanced weapons, including aircraft parts and anti-tank missiles. This clandestine relationship was exposed in the “Iran-Contra” affair, revealing that the United States and Israel had cooperated to supply Iran with arms in exchange for the release of American hostages held in Lebanon. This move was part of a broader strategy to balance the power of Iraq under Saddam Hussein, who posed a common threat to both Israel and the West.

Current Relations Between Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran
Relations between Israel and Iran are among the most complex and tense in the Middle East. These tensions have deepened significantly in light of the ongoing Gaza war, with Iran providing substantial support to Hamas. This support includes supplying weapons, training, and funding, which strengthens Hamas in its confrontation with Israel. Israel, on its part, views Iran as the greatest threat to its national security due to its nuclear program, regional ambitions, and support for anti-Israel militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Israel accuses Iran of attempting to destabilize the region by increasing its influence in countries such as Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq. In the current context, tensions have heightened with the escalation of the conflict in Gaza. Israel feels directly threatened by the rockets launched by Hamas towards its cities, which Israel believes are aided by Iranian smuggling and manufacturing efforts. Conversely, Iran sees its support for Hamas as a means to enhance its regional influence and to resist what it perceives as Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people. These tensions exacerbate the current situation, making the quest for peace increasingly challenging.

Through this long and complex history, it is evident that relations between Jews and Persians have been a mixture of cooperation and conflict. There have been periods of strong alliances and cultural cooperation, as well as times of tension and enmity. This intricate history reflects the complex nature of human relations, where interests, religions, and politics intertwine in various ways. Modern relations between Israel and Iran under Khomeini add a new dimension to this dynamic, showing that political interests can sometimes overcome declared religious hostilities, albeit temporarily, in the face of common threats.

Click Here to read the detailed history of the relationship between the Iranians and Jews in and outside Iran/Wikipedia-The Free Encyclopedia

The author, Elias Bejjani, is a Lebanese expatriate activist
Author’s Email: Phoenicia@hotmail.com
Author’s Website: http://www.eliasbejjaninews.com

Elias Bejjani
Canadian-Lebanese Human Rights activist, journalist and political commentator
Email phoenicia@hotmail.com & media.lccc@gmail.com
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Picture/ Persian King Cyrus