Jews in the Iranian Sports Arena

Culturally, Iranian Jews have always been well integrated into Iranian Society, sharing common culture with the majority population. Jewish houses of strength must be seen as part of this cultural integration. But they appeared precisely at a time when the institution of Zurkhaneh went into the decline and so we cannot tell whether they could have been a harbinger of greater social integration among athletes. In legal terms, social integration became possible in the wake of the Constitutional Revolution of 1906. This revolution granted non-Muslims almost full citizenship, and prepared the ground for greater desegregation under the secularizing rule of Reza Shah. From the mid 1920’s to the mid 1970’s, the social integration of Jews (and other non-Muslims) in Iranian society constantly increased, interrupted only by the impact of Nazism in the late 1930’s and 1940’s.

During Reza Shah’s reign a number of Jewish sports clubs were founded in Iran. Although the gradual presence of Jews in Iran’s sports arenas, was interrupted with the rise of anti-Semitism, in 1941 Jewish communal life developed once again in Iran, and Jews founded or revived a number of sports clubs. Of these, the Kurosh (Cyrus) Club became the most durable and successful. Its soccer team once became vice-champion in the country.  Indeed, from 1953 to 1979 anti-Semitism was repressed in the Iranian media. The official concept of Iranian nationhood came to include Jews, and Jewish communal life flourished more than ever before in recent Iranian history. Jewish sports benefited from this atmosphere. The year 1965, in which a female Jewish track and field star became Iranian champion and was acclaimed by Jews and non-Jews alike, must be seen, with the benefit of hindsight, as the apogee of Iranian Jewry’s identification with Iran.

Houshang E. Chehabi
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