Women shout during a protest against the Iranian regime, in Los Angeles, on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022, following the death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of the Islamic republic’s notorious “morality police.” Chanting crowds have rallied in Berlin, Washington DC and Los Angeles in solidarity with protesters facing a violent government crackdown in Iran.
January 12th, 2023
For this week’s newsletter, Sophie Levy, Editor of the online Mizrahi arts and culture platform ZAMAN Collective, spoke with historian Lior Sternfeld about the ongoing protests in Iran and the material stakes for Iranian Jewish communities both in Iran and in diaspora. The protests are now entering their 17th consecutive week, marking the longest sustained period of political unrest under the Islamic Republic.
This past September, the killing of Mahsa Zhina Amini at the hands of Iran’s morality police triggered an ongoing wave of political unrest across the country. What began as a rebuke of the country’s strict hijab laws has expanded into a widespread movement calling for an end to the Islamic regime. These mass protests have been notable for many reasons, not least of which for the passionate, visible involvement of the country’s ethnic and religious minorities, who continue to demonstrate despite restrictions on communal life. Iranian Kurds in the northwest (Amini herself was Kurdish) and Baloch in the southeast have been particularly active in the uprising and have encountered especially harsh retaliation from the regime as a result, facing stiffer sentencing in court and explosive violence at the hands of paramilitaries like the Basij.
One group that has flown under the radar in Western coverage of the protests is Iran’s Jewish community. In the years surrounding the 1979 revolution, when the secular, US–aligned Pahlavi monarchy collapsed and the current Islamic regime took hold under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, thousands of Iranian Jews left for the US, Israel, France, and elsewhere, sometimes under the threat of political violence. Since then, the community’s size and strength in Iran has decreased dramatically, with its population falling from 100,000 before the revolution to roughly 15,000 today.
Speaking freely about the uprising to foreign outlets is dangerous and credible updates about the status of Jews in Tehran and other urban centers have been scarce, even for those in diaspora who are in contact with friends and family still living in Iran. For its part, the Iranian diaspora has thrown itself into impassioned solidarity actions across the world. As I’ve attended demonstrations in New York and Los Angeles, the two American epicenters of the Iranian diaspora, I’ve encountered Jewish Iranians young and old calling for an end to the Islamic Republic and trying to find solace in a broader Iranian collectivity. The involvement of younger Iranian Jews, in particular—their emotional identification with Iran as a place of origin and their vocal concern with its political future—strikes me as unprecedented, especially as compared to their reactions to the on-and-off unrest that has marked the country over the last 15 years.
This week, I spoke with Lior Sternfeld, Professor of History and Jewish Studies at Penn State University and the author of Between Iran and Zion, about how Jewish Iranians fit into an international swell of dissent against the regime. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Sophie Levy: As things stand, what is the current state of protests in Iran? How are these protests different relative to other political crises since the Islamic Revolution?
Lior Sternfeld: For many reasons, this wave of protests has been very different from other mass demonstrations under the Islamic Republic, especially considering how long they have lasted. Historically, mass action against the regime has been very socioeconomically stratified and geographically isolated. In 2009 [during the protests that contested then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection], the protestors were largely middle class and urban; while in 2017 and 2019 [during the protests against economic hardship], the people in the streets were very poor. This time around, the protests are not confined to a certain segment of Iranian society. Even in provinces and cities that are considered strongholds of the regime, people have come out into the streets.
Simply in terms of timespan, this is new territory for both the Iranian people under the Islamic Republic and the regime itself. And while the movement is not expanding, it’s not contracting either. As we saw in 2009 or in 2017, the regime has typically “allowed” about two weeks of disruption for protestors to air their grievances, to maintain the facade of a dialogue between the regime and the people, before cracking down on the demonstrations. Officials tried to do that this time— flirting with easing the hijab requirement and dismantling the morality police without taking meaningful steps toward either concession—but it did not work.
Over the last month or so, the regime also began executing protestors at higher rates, which is a strategy it has used in the past to deflate political unrest. However, unlike other demonstrations against the Islamic Republic, where a mix of reforms and state reprisals eased the demonstrations, these systematic executions have only served to nourish the social movement behind the protests. The regime will execute protestors and then 40 days later, an action dedicated to the martyrs will erupt. And then from the memorial action, another round of executions, another round of martyrs, another round of actions. The same self-generative cycle came to pass during the national protests of 1977 and 1979, which as we know now, became a revolution.
SL: What does the Jewish community in Iran look like today, compared to before the revolution? What does civic or political engagement look like for Jews in Iran nowadays?
LS: Like the rest of Iranian society, the Jewish community is negotiating an unprecedented moment. During mass demonstrations against Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s monarchy, which precipitated the Islamic Regime’s ascent in 1979, Jews were very visible, and especially in Tehran, they were very engaged in political struggle. A younger generation of Jewish Iranians who were involved in leftist politics, the Association for Jewish Iranian Intellectuals, came to prominence and believed that the revolution promised great things for all Iranians, including Jews. The Jewish community at large elected a revolutionary leadership before the fervor had even hit its peak!
Since the revolution, the Jewish community has stopped operating as an overt political force. There have been individual members of the community who have participated in protests in the last 44 years, but the community itself has not come out under a single banner. Ultimately, they do not want to attract political attention to themselves as a group. In this round of demonstrations, we know of at least five Jews who were arrested for participation out of many thousands of arrests, but they protested as—and were arrested as—Iranian citizens, not as Jews.
SL: Any individual Iranian citizen knows they face retaliation from the regime if they are arrested during a protest. How have Jewish institutions responded to the uprising and to this danger of retaliation?
LS: Before this period of unrest, there hadn’t really been a reason for the Jewish community to distance itself from the regime on domestic political issues. There have been moments of tension between the regime and the Jewish community, like when Ahmadinejad denied the Holocaust, but the community was able to voice its concerns because they did not challenge the Islamic Republic in principle. Similarly, ahead of the 2009 election, the Jewish representative in the Majlis, the Iranian parliament, aligned himself with the reformist camp, taking advantage of what was an institutionally-approved channel for expressing displeasure or disagreement with the regime.
The current political unrest subverts the regime completely. Now, you’re either with the Islamic Republic or you’re against it. And as a result, we no longer have a reformist camp that serves as the “reasonable” voice in the government, which leaves Jews without the political home they have carved out for themselves. In many ways, this resembles the political conditions of 1979: You’re either for the Shah or against the Shah.
The Jewish community is trying to position themselves within this new reality, and the leadership just does not know how to operate or what to do. At the outset of the protests, a social media account affiliated with the community was posting content in support of the “Women, Life, Freedom” movement. I was genuinely shocked. I didn’t reshare their content because I felt that someone might have to pay for it with their life. Then, after going quiet for a period of time, the person running the account flipped to the other side. They were suddenly posting an official press release from the community leadership in support of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader—it wasn’t even a call for public order, just an expression of personal support. It was bizarre, but the account owner is in a situation that I think many people in leadership positions are in: They are trying to assess as they go.
SL: Let’s talk about the diaspora response. Would you say there’s anything that distinguishes the diasporic Jewish voice from broader Iranian diasporic concerns? Are there issues that Jews specifically bring up or care about?
LS: I don’t think that the Jewish Iranian community response is generally very different from the non-Jewish Iranian community. In Jewish communities in particular, some put a premium on a possible restoration of relations with Israel. Many Jews express a feeling of longing, of wishing they could return to Iran. If anything, this distinguishes the Iranian Jewish situation from other Jewish diasporas, more than from non-Jewish Iranians. There is no parallel phenomenon with Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union, for example, who came to the US around the same time period. I think if the political conditions in Iran changed today, many Iranians would consider going back, so the diaspora’s involvement and their investment in this political change is tremendous and extremely emotional.
SL: How would you say Iranians in the diaspora in general are responding right now? And what does their response reveal about how the diasporic community in Los Angeles or New York conceives of Iran’s political fate going forward?
LS: One of the foundational stories of the Iranian diaspora is that the revolution stole our country. Everyone became exiled or sought refuge because of the revolution, and now we are waiting for the correction. I don’t know if the group that pushes this narrative is more visible just because they fly their flags higher, and I don’t want to amplify voices that do not deserve to be amplified. But I think it’s important to talk about how, in some of the diasporic solidarity demonstrations, speakers have called for the restoration of the Pahlavi monarchy. With regards to Iran’s political fate, this is where some people in the diaspora construct a false political binary: They think, you can either have the Shah [the return of the Pahlavi monarchy] or you can have the Islamic Republic. If you’re against the Islamic Republic, you should be pro-Shah, and if you’re not pro-Shah, what’s wrong with you?
It’s important to stand with the protesters in Iran, and it’s important to show that there is opposition to the Islamic Republic. But some prominent diasporic voices have presented the Shah’s rule in completely nostalgic terms. They claim that the Shah did not know the extent of the brutality under his regime, and if he had known, everything would have been different. That is simply not the case. I want to remind people who venerate the Shah that Evin prison, which has become a symbol of the Islamic Republic’s cruelty, was built during the Pahlavi period and the torture methods used in Evin today were invented during the Pahlavi period. The Vezarat-e Ettela’at [the primary intelligence agency of the Islamic Republic] today is only an evolution of the SAVAK [secret police under the Shah].
We don’t know what the trajectory of this current movement could be. As far as the Islamic Revolution, we were only able to say it was a revolution on January 15th, 1979, when the Shah left the country. Only in retrospect are we able to trace how exactly that revolution came to be. I think it is extremely important for those watching the protests from the diaspora to abandon the idea of monarchy restoration and listen to what the protestors are saying. Most of them are chanting: “We don’t want the Shah. We don’t want the Supreme Leader. We don’t want bad. We don’t want worse.”