This conflict is explored in the 2005 documentary, "Jews of Iran," directed by Ramin Farahani and shown last week at the University of Pennsylvania as part of a program sponsored by the Middle East Center.
Daniel Tsadik, Ph.D., a fellow at the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies who studies Jews in pre-modern Iran, and Orly Rahimiyan, a Ph.D. candidate in the Middle Eastern Department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel and a Fulbright scholar at Penn, led the discussion after the film.
The Jewish settlement in Iran dates back to the Babylonian exile, more than 2,700 years ago, explained Rahimiyan, and now numbers about 25,000 — a drastic drop, according to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, from the 1948 Jewish population in Iran of between 100,000 and 125,000.
The Jews of Iran have been segregated, socially and religiously. They were pushed to the fringes of society, noted Rahimiyan, kept in isolated neighborhoods and subject to a poll tax.
Yet despite these divisions and difficulties, much of the Jewish population strongly identifies with Iranian culture and heritage. "These people — some of them at least — really love Iran," said Tsadik. They speak Persian, and they identify themselves as Iranian.
Tsadik knows these strong cultural ties of Iranian Jews firsthand — from his own family. "For my father," he noted, "Iran is his country of milk and honey." He added that even those who've left still teach their children to speak the language and appreciate the culture.
"On one hand, the Jews love Iran, but certain circumstances force them out," he added. With the rise of the Islamic Republic in 1979, two-thirds of Jews fled the country. While many Iranian Jews had prospered economically through the years, the nation after the Shah — where Islamic fanaticism took over — caused fear and concern among those who stayed. The others wound up settling in American metropolitan centers like New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. They also managed to immigrate — in fits and starts — to Israel, where an active Persian community remains.
In one scene in the film, a teenage Jewish girl spoke about the hardships she has experienced in school. When she left the room to get a drink of water, her teacher warned other students not to touch her, or they would be considered impure. The girl eventually transferred to a Jewish school, but her family left the country anyway because of daily insults and disrespect.
Nevertheless, fleeing can be difficult for some Iranian Jews. Financial hardships often hinder efforts to emigrate.
"It's very hard to make a new life outside of Iran," said Rahimiyan. Poor exchange rates make beginning a new life nearly impossible for some. And currency and property restrictions can be barriers to leaving.
"If people were around, our synagogues would be full," said one man from Tehran in the film. "When the Jews left, they took everything with them," he added, including all the kosher butcher shops and bathhouses that catered to the Jewish community. Locals in the city combined three synagogues into one just to have enough people at services.
Outside of Israel, the Jews of Iran represent one of the largest surviving communities in the Mideast, though their numbers continue to dwindle, said Tsadik.
"This is a very telling story," he noted. "This is the last stage of the story, unless something happens in Iran."