In 1986 there were an estimated 50,000 Jews in Iran, a decline from about 85,000 in 1978. The Iranian Jewish community is one of the oldest in the world, being descended from Jews who remained in the region following the Babylonian captivity, when the Achaemenid rulers of the first Iranian empire permitted Jews to return to Jerusalem. Over the centuries the Jews of Iran became physically, culturally, and linguistically indistinguishable from the non-Jewish population. The overwhelming majority of Jews speak Persian as their mother language, and a tiny minority, Kurdish. The Jews are predominantly urban and by the 1970s were concentrated in Tehran, with smaller communities in other cities, such as Shiraz, Esfahan, Hamadan, and Kashan.
Until the twentieth century the Jews were confined to their own quarters in the towns. In general the Jews were an impoverished minority, occupationally restricted to small-scale trading, moneylending, and working with precious metals. Since the 1920s, Jews have had greater opportunities for economic and social mobility. They have received assistance from a number of international Jewish organizations, including the American Joint Distribution Committee, which introduced electricity, piped water, and modern sanitation into Jewish neighborhoods. The Jews have gradually gained increased importance in the bazaars of Tehran and other cities, and after World War II some educated Jews entered the professions, particularly pharmacy, medicine, and dentistry.
The Constitution of 1979 recognized Jews as an official religious minority and accorded them the right to elect a representative to the Majlis. Like the Christians, the Jews have not been persecuted. Unlike the Christians, the Jews have been viewed with suspicion by the government, probably because of the government's intense hostility toward Israel. Iranian Jews generally have many relatives in Israel--some 45,000 Iranian Jews emigrated from Iran to Israel between 1948 and 1977--with whom they are in regular contact. Since 1979 the government has cited mail and telephone communications as evidence of "spying" in the arrest, detention, and even execution of a few prominent Jews. Although these individual cases have not affected the status of the community as a whole, they have contributed to a pervasive feeling of insecurity among Jews regarding their future in Iran and have helped to precipitate large- scale emigration. Most Jews who have left since the Revolution have settled in the United States.
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