Two young men walk in a Jewish neighborhood in Shiraz. On the wall behind them, a derogatory term for Jews is written in graffiti. (Photo/Hassan Sarbakhsian via JTA)
Two young men walk in a Jewish neighborhood in Shiraz. On the wall behind them, a derogatory term for Jews is written in graffiti. (Photo/Hassan Sarbakhsian via JTA)

Upcoming USF event: Why ‘we have to pay attention’ to Jews of Iran

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With Iran continuing to hold a prominent place in global headlines, a professor of history and Jewish studies from Penn State University will be delivering a talk in San Francisco on a seldom-discussed aspect of life in Iran: its relatively sizable Jewish population.

Lior Sternfeld
Lior B. Sternfeld

Lior B. Sternfeld, a historian and scholar whose focus is the Middle East, will deliver an in-person lecture titled “Jews of Iran” on March 5 at the University of San Francisco.

Free and open to the public, the talk will “offer an interactive presentation on the Jews of contemporary Iran — the largest population of Jews in a Muslim-majority country in the world,” according to organizers in the university’s Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice.

The talk will take place as Iran continues to experience serious unrest following the September death of Mahsa Amini, who was detained by morality police for not properly wearing the mandated head covering. Tens of thousands of protesters have been detained by the Iranian regime, according to the Associated Press, as a result of an anti-government protest movement that has galvanized women, college students and Iranians of many backgrounds.

Sternfeld is the author of “Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth Century Iran” (2018) and co-author of “Jews of Iran: A Photographic Chronicle” (2022).

In an interview for this article, he called the current demonstrations “the most important political movement in Iran” since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. “I don’t know if what we’re witnessing now is a revolution, but it has the dynamic of something that changes Iran in very profound ways.”

An Israeli native, Sternfeld has not been to Iran — his Israeli passport prevents him from visiting, he explained — but he has dedicated years of scholarship to the Jewish community in Iran, which numbers 10,000 to 15,000 people.

Before the Iranian Revolution and the subsequent overthrow of the Shah in 1979, the Jews of Iran numbered approximately 100,000. The rise of the Islamic Republic prompted a wave of Jewish emigration, with tens of thousands fleeing to the United States, Israel and France.

In the U.S. today, the two largest Iranian Jewish populations are in Los Angeles and New York. Many identify as Persian Jews.

We tend to think of Iran as a country with a Jewish past. We can’t comprehend the Jewish present in Iran.

Countering the widely held view that Jews still living in Iran are oppressed or, perhaps, practicing their Jewishness covertly, Sternfeld said they are able to live openly as Jews. The community’s synagogues — there are about 40 of them, he estimates — are safe and secure. There are even Hebrew schools.

The majority of Jews live in Tehran, the capital, while about 30 percent reside in Shiraz in the south and Isfahan in central Iran.

“The misconceptions are that they live in hiding, they are behind this Iron Curtain,” Sternfeld said. “These are the dominant misconceptions.”

Part of his motivation for giving talks and putting out books, he said, is to dispel some of these misapprehensions about life for the Jewish community in the Muslim-led country.

“We tend to think of Iran as a country with a Jewish past. We can’t comprehend the Jewish present in Iran,” he said. But “there basically is a Jewish community there, and we have to pay attention to them.”

During the program, Sternfeld will speak for about 30 minutes and then have a long Q&A session. The event will be recorded and available later on the Swig program’s YouTube page.

“I’m open to every conversation, every question, every issue,” Sternfeld said. “I’m not shying away. This is important.”

The Swig Jewish Studies and Social Justice program holds about eight events each academic year, with the goal of challenging assumptions about Jewish identity, said Oren Kroll-Zeldin, the program’s assistant director.

“One of the main themes of the public events and lectures we do is the complexity of Jewish identity,” he said. “We invite people who will speak to that issue, that theme, broadly defined. This fits that perfectly.”

“Jews of Iran”

6:30 to 8 p.m. March 5 in USF’s Fromm Hall, 2497 Golden Gate Ave., S.F. myusf.usfca.edu or email [email protected].

Ryan Torok

Ryan Torok is an L.A.-based freelance reporter and former Jewish Journal staff writer.