Behind the Headlines Iranian Jews Coming to San Francisco
Menu JTA Search

Behind the Headlines Iranian Jews Coming to San Francisco

Download PDF for this date

Jews fleeing religious persecution in Iran have resettled in the San Francisco area in the last few months, and more are expected to join them soon. Because of the new influx, Jewish Family and Children’s Services (JF and CS) in San Francisco recently hired a Farsi-speaking caseworker, Karen Pliskin, to help resettle the Iranians.

Within the last several months, 15 Iranian Jews have resettled here, and 35 more are expected to arrive soon. This marks the largest exodus to the Bay Area from Iran since the wave of Jews leaving after the popular Islamic revolution overthrew Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlevi in early 1979, according to Gayle Zahler, supervisor of emigre services at the JF and CS.

At that time, about 800 Iranian Jews–about 200 families–settled in the Bay Area. Iranian Jews in the area now total about 1,500. The Jews who will be arriving in the next several months will be coming from processing points in Vienna and Rome, explains Zahler. About 60 to 70 Iranian Jews headed for North America arrive every week in Vienna, she says.

Most of the recent refugees have been unable to take money from Iran, asserts Pliskin, noting that their situation belies the popular misconception in the Jewish community that Iranian Jews have fled with all their wealth.


Pliskin works with relatives to find refugees a home and a job. Financial aid from the agency can range from very little–if the family can afford to support newly arrived members–to $1,000 a month for a family of three, she explains.

Many of the refugees speak English, although some newly arrived Iranian Jews do not, Pliskin says, adding that few have transferrable skills even though they have founded and successfully developed their own businesses in Iran. "These are the people who really tried to stay on in Iran," says Pliskin about the new wave of refugees. "Maybe they felt there was hope that the economy would become better. But the conditions have become worse for all minorities."

She adds: "One of the major problems is that the Iranian Jews feel that there hasn’t been much outreach by the American Jews–not much of an attempt to get to know them and their culture–not as much as with the Russian Jews."

About 500 Jews are believed to be jailed in Iran, many because they are accused of being Zionists. The lone Jewish representative in Parliament, Manoucher Kahni Nikruz, was arrested last month on what has been characterized by the Western press as trumped up charges of sexual abuse. The arrest is believed to be in reaction to the American media’s publicizing Israel’s role in organizing secret deliveries of American arms to Iran as part of a White House plan to secure the freedom of American hostages being held by pro-Iranian terrorists in Lebanon.

Although Israeli officials report that some 40,000 to 50,000 Jews remain in Iran, refugees place the remnant at 15,000 to 20,000, many of them elderly people afraid of uprooting themselves–despite daily harassment and threats. According to emigres, no terror campaign now is under way against Jews in Iran. What is taking place, however, is the continuation of a slow and systematic policy of discrimination against all religious minorities, says Pliskin.


The policy has anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist overtones, she reports. Jewish children attending mixed schools are forced to chant "Death to Israel" and other anti-Zionist slogans before they can enter school each day. Some, Pliskin says, have been pressed to convert. Jews also find it increasingly difficult to get necessary licenses for commercial activities, Pliskin adds.

Jewish families, she says, have become anxious about spiriting their children out of Iran because of what refugees describe as attempts to indoctrinate them in school. A four-year-old statute makes it illegal for children under the age of 12 to leave Iran.

Iranian Jews coming to the Bay Area report that many of the Jews want to escape being drafted into the army for the war against Iraq. Those who leave do so with a heavy heart, explains Pliskin, noting that Jews have living in Iran since 700 BCE.


Prejudice against the Jews began before the State of Israel was born, with the Jam Abbasi laws which considered Jews and other non-Moslems to be polluted. Those laws were repealed during the reign of the Shah’s father, who supported religious minorities. When Israel became a State, the Shah maintained diplomatic contact with Israel; many Iranians left for Israel, but others came back to Iran from their self-imposed exile.

The exodus of Iranian Jews began in the tumultuous weeks before Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from exile to lead the revolution against the Shah. At the time, El Al airplanes were permitted to fly into Teheran and return to Israel with thousands of Jews, many of them wealthy businessmen.

In his first speeches, Khomeini promised that Iran’s 75,000 Jews would be respected and protected. But after the seizure of the American Embassy in 1979, grassroots revolutionary organizations began harassing Jews in Teheran and other cities.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund