This week we will be reading from Parashat Shemot. Shemot is the first Torah portion in the book of Exodus. It sets the stage for the narrative that will consume the rest of the book of Exodus namely, the enslavement and ultimately, the redemption of the Israelites from Egypt. This story we know well not just because we read about it every year, and not just because there were at least three movies (The Ten Commandments both the silent and non-silent versions, The Prince of Egypt) and one tele-movie (TBS’ Moses with Sir Ben Kingsley as Moses) made about the Exodus, but because we recall it at every Passover Seder. During every seder we take time to also reflect how none will truly be free until all are free.
In reflecting upon this, there is another exodus in our modern history that we rarely speak about, and that is the forced exodus of Jews from Muslim countries beginning around 1948 in response to the establishment of the State of Israel. According to Jimena.org, an organization created to share the stories of Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, “estimates that the number of Jews living in Arab countries and Iran totaled more than 850,000 at the time of Israel’s independence. Some scholars even think the number is closer to one million. In the North African region, 259,000 Jews fled from Morocco, 140,000 from Algeria, 100,000 from Tunisia, 75,000 from Egypt, and another 38,000 from Libya. In the Middle East, 135,000 Jews were exiled from Iraq, 55,000 from Yemen, 34,000 from Turkey, 20,000 from Lebanon and 18,000 from Syria. Iran forced out 25,000 Jews.” Needless to say, this was an immense tragedy for the Jewish people, that all too often is forgotten in modern narratives.
All that being said, there are still an estimated 9,000 to 15,000 Jews remaining in Iran. The Jews of Iran trace their lineage back to the Persian conquest of Babylon around 539 BCE. “King Cyrus the Great authored what is widely regarded as the first ever declaration of human rights. It advocates fighting oppression, defending the oppressed, and respecting human dignity and the principles of justice, liberty and free expression. It also includes an edict allowing the Jews living under his rule to return to their native lands. The Book of Ezra credits Cyrus with the Jews being able to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem and the Book of Esther provides an early first glimpse of Jewish life in Iran as it chronicles the rise of a Persian Jewish woman in 478 BC (Hebrew years 3283-3284) to the rank of Queen, enabling her to save her people from slaughter.”
The Jewish community’s relationship with Iran had its ebbs and flows which includes the interesting fact that Jews have at least one guaranteed seat in the Iranian Parliament. Also there were at least three thousand Jewish refugees who fled to Iran during WWII and were offered safe haven there throughout the war.
I am not mentioning any of this to justify or support in any way Iran’s ongoing support of terrorism and the killing of Americans and Israelis. I also do not wish to articulate that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is anything less than an existential threat to the State of Israel. Instead I write this as a way of helping us understand that it used to not be this way. The world seems now on the brink of war once again in the Middle East. If the past is any indication, there might be other ways out of this escalating conflict; one that might be both beneficial to us as the United States and one to us as the Jewish people. Only time will tell.
In the meantime, we pray for the safety especially of the American service men and women who are putting their lives on the line every day, for the safety of our brethren in the land of Israel, and that peace will one day soon reign in the region so weary of war, death, persecution, and destruction.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
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