Between Foreigners and Shi‘is
by Daniel Tsadik
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007. 295 pp. $60
Reviewed by Michael Rubin
Middle East Quarterly
There is often an inverse relationship between the policy importance of a country such as Iran and the seriousness of the books published about it. Most authors give short shrift to history; few add anything new to their discussion.
Happily, Tsadik's study of the Jewish community in nineteenth-century Iran is an exception. Between Foreigners and Shi‘is incorporates Persian, Hebrew, Judeo-Persian, Arabic, and European-language documents. Tsadik is a traditional historian who has held a number of academic fellowships in the United States, Germany, and Israel. His prose is dense and detailed, yet readable. He footnotes prolifically and supports analysis with fact.
He begins with an overview of Shi‘i law with regard to Jews and other minorities on issues such as cleanliness (May Muslims eat food touched by Jews?), intermarriage, inheritance, and punishment. He then follows the Jewish community through the nineteenth century and contextualizes the community in the broader sweep of Iranian state and society. The latter half of the nineteenth century was a period of rapid and formative change, but Tsadik makes Iran's complex politics and development accessible to the non-expert.
Persecution and anti-Semitism occurred at all levels of Iranian society but was not uniform over time or place. Just because the shah advocated tolerance, for example, did not mean that local authorities took such sentiment to heart. And even if governors and district heads were lenient, the Shi‘i clergy might not be. Thus, in 1889, Jews in Isfahan faced prohibitions on wearing cloaks, going outside on wet days (when rainwater might transfer their impurity to others), touching food, speaking loudly, or purchasing any goods in the market. Jews in other areas of the country fared better.
Between periods of relative tranquility, the Jewish community in Iran suffered blood libel, forced conversion, and pogroms. Iranian Jews often turned to their European co-religionists for help. Where once Iranian Jews had no recourse but to suffer in silence, by the mid-nineteenth century, the Jewish community in Iran was in contact with its European and Canadian counterparts to petition on their behalf for relief from persecution. Persecution became a barometer, if not engine, of globalization.
Tsadik argues that Iran's treatment of minorities was a crucial facet of the country's identity. Was (and is) Iran a country for all Iranians, or for Muslim Iranians first and foremost? It is a question relevant to recent Iranian history—Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, first gained prominence for his opposition to the notion of equality under the law for all Iranians. Today, this remains a critical question for all of Iran's minorities, if not millions of Iranians who emphasize national identity over religion.
Between Foreigners and Shi‘is is an important addition to the library of those interested in Iranian or Jewish history. Hopefully, Tsadik will produce a sequel continuing his narrative through the twentieth century to the present day.
Related Topics: History, Iran, Jews and Judaism | Michael Rubin | Summer 2008 MEQ
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