A letter written by Rav Ovadia Yosef that I purchased recently tells the tale of the dramatic change in the state of Iranian Jewry before and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The letter dated Elul 1979 was addressed to the family of Habib Elghanian, hy”d (5 April 1912 – 9 May 1979), a few short months after his murder, thanking them for sponsoring the third volume of R. Ovadia’s Yechave Da’at in memory of Habib Elghanian.
Under the rule of the Shah, Iran’s Jews lived a relatively safe life, with the secularization of Iran under way. Habib built a massive business, with his plastic manufacturing company becoming the largest in the region. The Plasco building, which he built in 1962, was the tallest privately built skyscraper at its time in Iran. By the 1970s, he was a multi-millionaire, well known for his businesses in both Iran and Israel. He was also the president of the 80,000 strong Jewish community in Iran, leading the community for two decades.
Though safely outside Iran when the revolution broke out in Jan 1979, Habib returned to Iran to be with his community and lead them through the turmoil. Despite having the foresight to have his children and other members of his family move to the United States a few years prior, Habib would not abandon his community. Elghanian was arrested on March 16 after returning to Iran, and accused of spying. In May, after a 20-minute trial for his trumped-up charges, Habib was murdered by firing squad. He was the first Jewish citizen and one of the first civilians of Iran to be executed by the new Islamist regime. Initially, his body was not released by the governing murderers, but after the intervention of Chief Rabbi Yedidia Shofet, his body was eventually released and buried in a quiet ceremony for fear of reprisal.
On the “CBS Evening News,” that evening, Walter Cronkite reported: “An Iranian firing squad in Tehran today executed eight more persons, including a prominent Jewish businessman accused of having links with Israel. In Washington, the State Department renewed its strong disapproval of the summary trials and executions.”
Habib’s murder was a watershed moment for the remaining Iranian Jews and the fallacy of their safety in the new regime quickly evaporated. Within a few years 75% of the 80,000 Jews in Iran risked their lives to escape, often with nothing but the clothing they were wearing. May his memory serve as a blessing.