March 31, 2020

An American Rabbi Saved Tehran’s Jews from a 1922 Pogrom

For nearly two decades I’ve had the special honor of interviewing many individuals from my Iranian Jewish community living here in Los Angeles as a part of my work as a journalist covering the community for different media outlets. Perhaps one of my greatest joys has been sharing the stories and experiences of the older generation of Iranian Jews who faced horrific anti-Semitism in Iran during the last century. One story that many of these older individuals from Tehran told me was that of the “mullah’s donkey” (Khahrey Mollah in Farsi). It is a story about a potential disastrous pogrom that nearly cost the lives of thousands of Jews living in Tehran in 1922. This disaster was miraculously averted thanks to the efforts of the American Ambassador to Persia at the time, Joseph Saul Kornfeld, who was also a rabbi! While the story was well known for decades among the Jews of Iran, in the last 40 years since the Iranian Jewish community’s arrival in America, the story has slowly been forgotten by the community because the majority of the older generation who experienced the incident or remember their family recalling it have since passed away. The story of the “mullah’s donkey” is very appealing to me not only because it is about one Jew trying to help save other Jews from imminent danger, but it is yet another example of how indebted we are as Iranian Jews to our American Jewish brethren for always supporting us in our time of need. I personally feel a responsibility to share the “mullah’s donkey” story for the younger generation of Jews today for the purpose of educating them about the great anti-Semitism the Jews of Iran faced in the last century.

The story of the “mullah’s donkey” was so appealing to me, I wanted to dig deeper by doing my own research to find out if it was just Iranian Jewish community folklore or truly a real and dangerous pogrom that was averted. I turned to the book “Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran” by Iranian Jewish historian,  Dr. Habib Levy which verified the accuracy of the story and offered surprising details of the incident involving the “mullah’s donkey” that took place on September 4, 1922. On that day, a servant of a Tehran mullah was riding his donkey past the Jewish school in the Jewish ghetto, when the school’s custodian stopped the donkey to prevent a group of children from colliding with the animal as they were exiting the school. The servant returned home to his master, the Islamic cleric or mullah “Agha Shayh Abd al-Nabi” and informed him of the incident that occurred with his donkey being held up for a group of Jewish children. The Islamic cleric was furious because his donkey was held up by some “filthy Jews” and he demanded retribution for such an insult! After the mullah called for a general strike in the city, within hours all of the stores in Tehran were shut down and local thugs and hoodlums armed with sticks and clubs randomly beat up Jews they came across in streets and alleyways. The following day thousands of armed rioters surrounded Tehran’s Jewish ghetto seeking vengeance. The Jews of Tehran had nowhere to turn to for help but to their co-religionist, the American Ambassador Kornfeld and he did indeed intercede on their behalf. Habib Levy states in his book that “on Friday morning, with the smell of death and blood in the air, the American Ambassador, a devout Jew, asked for help from the minister of war, Reza Khan Pahlavi, reminding him of the international consequences of this incident”. Following the meeting between Kornfeld and Reza Khan, the minister of war at the time, dispatched the cavalry to the Jewish ghetto to break up the riot and again calm was restored with no Jews being slaughtered by the angry Muslim rioters. The imminent crisis had been averted and lives of thousands of Tehran’s Jews had been saved because of Kornfeld’s intervention on their behalf. Subsequently in 1925, Reza Khan took power in Iran and proclaimed himself the new king or Shah. Both he and his son Mohmmad Reza Pahlavi were indeed benevolent to the Jews of Iran, offering them protection from physical attacks and harassment. The Pahlavi kings also enabled the country’s Jews to leave their ghettos, obtain higher education in Iran and overseas as well as to live in relative peace and prosperity until the 1979 revolution when the Ayatollah Khomeini deposed the Shah.

One is left wondering how on earth thousands of Muslim residents of Tehran at the time could have been whipped up into an angry frenzy to the point where they were seeking to slaughter the Jews of the city over an insult to the mullah’s donkey? Interestingly, in his book, Levy, who was a Jewish officer in the Iranian military at the time indicates he witnessed the rioters in Tehran’s behavior and asked one of them the reason for their rage against the Jews. The rioter told Levy that the “Jews had killed two of the mullah’s children” and they wanted vengeance for those killings! It is no doubt sad that simple minded people at that time were so easily manipulated by an Iranian cleric to do harm to the Jews of Tehran based on his lies about them and because of his sole desire to punish them.

For his part, Kornfeld completed his four years of duty as the American Ambassador and prior to returning to the U.S., he was honored by Tehran’s Jewish community with two silver tablets of the ten commandments as a gift to show their appreciation to him for saving their lives. Aside from the incident with the mullah’s donkey, Kornfeld had help prevent other attacks on Iran’s Jews as well. On a side note, Kornfeld was indeed an ordained rabbi who worked in synagogues in Arkansas, Ohio and Montreal. He had originally emigrated to the U.S. from Austria when was a child. In 1921, after having helped the political campaign of Warren G. Harding, the rabbi was appointed by President Harding as Ambassador to Persia.

As Iranian Jews living in America today, we are no doubt grateful for our American Jewish brethren helping his resettle in the U.S. after fleeing Iran following the 1979 revolution. However those of us with roots in Tehran (myself included) are also eternally grateful for the kindness of Kornfeld in 1922 for saving our ancestors lives. At that time when no Jewish state existed on the planet that could possibly protect world Jewry, the only thing Jews in Iran, Europe, or America could do was rely on one another for help and protection in times of tremendous difficulty. Even today when a State of Israel does exist, we Jews must stay vigilant to threat of anti-Semitism that is growing in America, Europe and worldwide.

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