Iranian Jews in Israel: Between Persian Cultural Identity and Israeli Nationalism

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By: Alessandra Cecolin

Publisher: I.B. Tauris

London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2016, 320pp. $99.00, ISBN: 978-1-78453-311-3

Volume: 4 Issue: 10

October 2016

Review by:

Michal L. Allon, PhD

Tel Aviv University

Tel Aviv, Israel

Alessandra Cecolin’s book, Iranian Jews in Israel: Between Persian Cultural Identity and Israeli Nationalism, is a socio-political analysis of two waves of emigration of Iranian Jews, and the challenges of their integration in Israeli society.

The first wave of Jewish immigrants left Iran and came to Israel in the late 1940s and the early 1950s, shortly after the establishment of the state. The second wave was a reaction to the Islamic revolution of 1979, when Iran severed its diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. Cecolin’s study helps us understand the significance of these emigrations in shaping the identities of Iranian immigrants in Israel, as it underscores the significance of the time and circumstance of each of these emigration waves in fashioning identities as Jewish or as Iranian.

In the first chapter, “Zionism and the birth of Israel”, Cecolin gives a thorough review of the Zionist movement, from its inception in the nineteenth century until the declaration of independence of the State of Israel in 1948. Chapter Two is devoted to the history of Jews in Iran, their education and their social status. Chapter Three tells the story of the rise of political Zionism in Iran, and the difficulty it encountered penetrating Iranian Jewry. This was due to the isolation of Iranian Jews from the rest of the Jewish world, and the conservative nature of the community, which clashed with the predominantly secular and socialist Zionist movement and its representatives in Iran. Chapter Four describes the international influences that triggered the two waves of emigration. In the fifth chapter Cecolin discusses domestic factors, and explains what motivated the two waves of Jewish emigration from Iran, and in Chapter Six she describes the process of emigration and the integration of Iranian Jews into Israeli society.

Cecolin writes that the first wave of immigration of Iranian Jews to Israel was characterized by their relative low socioeconomic status and their traditional values. These immigrants were not Zionists, and like other non-Ashkenazi groups, they were marginalized in the young evolving Israeli society with its predominant “melting pot” ideology. However, this particular group experienced difficulties over and above those encountered by other non-Ashkenazi immigrations. Having arrived not fluent in neither Hebrew and Arabic nor any European language put them at a disadvantage compared to other non-Ashkenazi groups. The Iranian Jewry consisted of scattered groups of people without leadership.  Their lack of ideological motivation and their traditional characteristics, were ill fitted with the ideals of Zionism and social-democracy. In order to assimilate into Israeli society, they had to forgo much of their cultural heritage and traditions.  The second wave of emigration from Iran was differently motivated, and this time Iranian heritage figured heavily in the process of integration. The immigrants came to a different Israel, amenable to the revival of many Iranian customs, festivities and food traditions.

The book is clearly the fruit of painstaking research into the history of Iranian Jewry and it demonstrates the author’s thorough familiarity with the subject matter.

A relatively small fraction of the book is devoted to the main topic of the book, as is suggested by its title. The bulk of the book is devoted to the history of Iranian Jewry, including ancient history and biblical accounts, the relevance of which to the main thesis of the book is not always evident. Albeit short, this chapter features vivid anecdotes and a thorough analysis of the challenges and the difficulties that Iranian Jews encountered when they arrived in Israel. Not least of these was the social structure endemic to Iranian Jewry and the absence of community leadership.

Reading Cecolin’s account of the education of Iranian Jews throughout history, I was left with some unanswered questions: What was the degree of overall literacy in the community? In particular, what was the percentage of female literacy, a significant factor in the social mobility of subsequent generations? Another interesting issue that receives only a sketchy and marginal treatment in the book is the situation of Jewish women in Iran, and after immigration — in Israel.

Another minor shortcoming is the way sources are presented. The thorough research invested in the book notwithstanding, the bibliography is far from reader-friendly and references are often difficult to track. An example of this is the author’s way of citing a quotation by referencing only the catalogue number of the source in an archive. The reader has no way of knowing what the source is or who said or wrote what is reported.

However, these drawbacks do not diminish the substance of the book. Issues of nationality versus cultural and religious identity are increasingly pertinent, and Cecolin’s book is a welcome addition to the literature on immigration in general, and Jewish immigration in particular.

The book concludes with a glossary of social and political terms, mostly in Hebrew and some in Farsi, an index, and a rich bibliography. The sources include personal interviews, a myriad of archival documents, and secondary sources such as scholarly books and articles as well as newspaper articles.

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