Afrassiabi Lecture 2019: Lior Sternfield on Iranian Jews in the Twentieth Centry

Submitted by Bret Windhauser on

by Hannah Myrick

The 15th Afrassiabi Distinguished Lecture Series with Guest Speaker Professor Lior Sternfeld, who discusses his latest work on Iranian Jews in the Twentieth Century

“When I tell people I work on Iranian Jews, one of the first responses is ‘Wait, there are Jews in Iran?” said Dr. Lior Sternfeld, an Assistant Professor at the Department of History at Pennsylvania State University.

Dr. Sternfeld visited the University of Washington on Thursday, March 7th, 2019 for the 15th annual Afrassiabi Distinguished Lecture Series in Persian and Iranian studies. His comprehensive outlook on the moments and trends that have shaped the Iranian Jewish identity to date are informed by historical perspectives and oral histories, all of which are at the heart of his newly published book Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran.

Dr. Sternfeld received his Ph.D. from the University of Texas in Austin. He has written several articles on Jewish Iranian identities in the Pahlavi era, and his most recent publications have discussed the Jewish community in Iran and the broader and global Jewish community’s relationship with Iran through a variety of lenses.

With 20,000-35,000 members, today’s Iranian Jewish population makes up a fraction of its 80 million. According to Dr. Sternfeld Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran by Habib Levy, written in 1961, is the only book written on the history of Iranian Jews since the Babylonian Exile up until around 1950s. He left the audience with a question that would frame his talk: “Can one book (of three volumes in the original Persian edition) discuss 2700 years of history in a nuanced and sophisticated way?”

According to Dr. Sternfeld, the Iranian Jewish community tends to generally “begin their personal and family history with the Babylonian Exile, that brought them to Iran some 2,700 years ago.” He argued that while this myth of origins continued to be challenged by recent scholarship, “the field of Iranian Jewish history lacks the depth and breadth that is needed to do justice to the rich history of these communities.”

Dr. Sternfeld showed his audience that a search on the World Catalogue for the terms “Jews, Iran, Middle East, 20th Century” locates 31 results, most of which were memories or more personal documents, like family albums, VHS tapes, and videos, with no history book included. The same search with 19th century instead of 20th-century results in 10 entries. A search for the terms “Jews, Iraq, history” results in over 1000 entries, and for “Jews, US, 20th century” has 122 results.

Sternfeld’s talk laid out a narrative rarely covered, aiming to essentially complicate the perception and identity of the Iranian Jewish community. He began by discussing the era immediately following the 1979 Iranian Revolution when many Iranian Jews immigrated to the US. The Revolution and this immigration changed the way that they communicated their own histories. “They had to position themselves not just within (or against) American society, but also within/against Ashkenazi Jewish society as well,” said Sternfeld. “Such narrative prevents us from seeing the immense diversity of the Iranian Jewish community.”

They began to borrow Ashkenazi Jewish terms to tell their stories. For example, changing the word “Mahilla” ( محلة, the Persian term meaning district) to “Ghetto,” could not be taken as an innocent transition, because it marked a strong assimilation. This was the beginning of a path to changing their narratives. The newly adopted narrative and terminology, then, appears in the captioning of some historical photos of Iranian Jewish neighborhoods in the English translation of the aforementioned book by Habib, marking a difference between the Persian and the English versions. Dr. Sternfeld seemed to be suggesting that the Iranian Jewish immigrants in the United States (and elsewhere) were struggling to find their place in their new homes, and while they had limited resources to create the narratives of their older lives, they needed to distance themselves from their older society as a way to assimilate into the new one.

Zionism was a contested topic among the Iranian Jewish population still living in Iran. “The message of political Zionism first attracted the attention of the Iranian Jews in 1917, following the Balfour Declaration, which came at the time of the first disillusion that Iranian Jews experienced with the outcome of the constitutional revolution. Suddenly, the promise of relocating to a place of their own sounded rather tempting,” said Sternfeld.

Iranian Jews began establishing Zionist organizations and forming groups to learn Hebrew. During this time Samuel Haim published “Ha-Hayyim (Life)” newspaper. The newspaper created a new national consciousness around the idea of integrating into Iranian political life so that Iranian Jews could fight for rights established within Iran itself, instead of thinking of immigration as their only choice.

Dr. Sternfeld went on to discuss other figures, events, publications, and points of contestation within the Iranian Jewish community. He highlighted the growing relationship between the state of Israel and Iran before the 1979 revolution. One example was a poster showing the lineup for the Musical Festival “Moulin Rouge” in 1969 in Tehran, featuring a famous Israeli singer as the headliner, along with a group of Iranian singers including a young Googoosh.

Furthermore, he discussed the common flights between Tehran and Tel Aviv, the growth of Jewish activists within the Jewish community, and also the growing concern for the emergence of the idea of Zionism for the Iranian state. Using specific events that took place in the country over time, Sternfeld painted a complex picture of the Iranian Jewish identity, one that has endless moments and memories associated with it (and one that in a blog post is impossible to not over-simplify).

There was (and is) a lot of ground to cover in about an hour, given the limited body of research on this topic. To answer a question about the state of Iranian Jews today, Sternfeld said: “It’s not easy to be an Iranian and it’s even less simple to be an Iranian Jew.”

In his talk, Dr. Sternfeld said the group is still recognized as a protected minority, represented in the Majlis (the national legislative body of Iran). He added that a monument was erected in 2015 as a recognition of the Jewish Fallen Soldiers in the Iran-Iraq war and Jewish students who study in non-Jewish schools got permission not to attend school on Saturdays. However, there’s still anti-semitism according to him.

Answering a question on the topic, Sternfeld added “There are codes of behavior that must be followed. There’s no way to beautify it...but we can’t think of Iranian Jews today as we tend to think of them: behind an Iron Curtain. They wake up every day and make the choice to stay in Iran.”

The general perception by the US of Iran and the Middle East was addressed towards the end of his talk. Dr. Sternfeld acknowledged the misperceptions that have shaped the way that the region in general, and Iran in particular, is portrayed, so as to break through them and reshape the narrative. Sternfeld, instead, presented his audience with a more fluid and nuanced narrative in a very approachable manner, in an attempt to correct the picture that has for long been depicted of Iran with a large brush stroke.

“The way that Americans got exposed to Iran was through the hostage crisis that was covered every night on national television, (which) created this image of this crazy country that nobody understands,” he said.

Through his research and over 300 hours of personal interviews, he reached Iranian Jews in New York, Los Angeles, Iran and elsewhere. Due to the fact that Sternfeld is Israeli, he was never able to travel to Iran himself but had people helping him with his research from all over the world.

“When you’re an becomes an advantage, because I got the personal stories that I looked for. I got the stories of their identities, memories, the nuances of how they talk about the ‘ghetto’ or ‘mehla’, how they talk about anti-semitism in Iran.” Dr.Sternfeld explained that sometimes it is easier to trust an outsider, a stranger, with your personal stories than a member of your community. He went on to say “There’s a difference between personal memory and community memory,” Adding that community memory forms from layer upon layer of stories and experiences.

Reflecting on his research and writing process he said “It was a long, tiring and gratifying process.”

Hannah Myrick is a NELC and Journalism major