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Activism Unites A Community

As Iranian Jewish immigrants await the fate of 13 Jews, two diverse groups struggle to find a common goal

by Tom Tugend

June 24, 1999 | 8:00 pm

The 600 men and women attending Shabbat services at the Eretz Cultural Center stood for a minute's silence as a man on the bema slowly read the names of the 13 Jews arrested as "Zionist spies" by Iran and facing possible death sentences.

It was a quiet moment for the congregation of Iranian Jewish immigrants, who have been on an emotional roller coaster for the last three months, fearing and hoping for the fate of relatives and friends imprisoned in the city of Shiraz.

Rep. Brad Sherman, who has spearheaded a congressional resolution calling for national and international pressure on Iran to release the prisoners, reflected the anxiety.

"A great atrocity may occur," warned the Sherman Oaks Democrat. "The government of Iran must be shown that it will pay a severe price for every day that the hostages are held."

The American Jewish community, at its most unified and effective when confronting a crisis, has rallied in support of the prisoners, whose ages range from 16 to 49.

After months of behind-the-scenes maneuvering, while the status of the prisoners remained in doubt, practically every major national Jewish organization raised its voice and mobilized its contacts two weeks ago, after Tehran formally announced the espionage charges.

As the result of such pressures and petitions, the U.S. State Department, key European nations, and the Vatican have interceded for the 13 Jews, held on what are universally considered trumped-up charges.

Most observers believe that the prisoners are pawns in a power struggle between Iran's fundamentalist hard-liners and the more moderate views of President Mohammad Khatami.

While the dire fate facing the prisoners has unified the American Jewish community, it has also revealed fissures in the 30,000-strong Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles, the largest such concentration in the United States.

The split is basically between two groups, the more establishment Iranian American Jewish Federation, and the newer Council of Iranian Jewish Organizations.

During the three months from the arrests in March to the spy charges in June, the Federation, in common with American Jewish organizations, pursued a policy of quiet diplomacy as the most effective way to influence Tehran.

The Council, which includes organizations that split off from the Federation, advocated high visibility pressure tactics from the beginning. It was largely the Council members, organized as the Committee for Religious Minority Rights in Iran, who flooded Sherman's office with calls and letters urging congressional action.

Although both sides now agree on an aggressive public approach, since announcement of the espionage charges, the antagonism between them is of longer standing.

The Federation consists of 16 organizations, said Sam Kermanian, its secretary-general, while the Council is made up of seven organizations. Each side claims to represent the larger part of the Iranian Jewish community.

While Kermanian sought to minimize the friction between the groups, and deplored any "public fighting," Council leaders were more outspoken.

Council spokesperson Pooya Dayanim and George Haroonian both described the Federation group as "elitist," and representing mainly the wealthy Iranian enclaves in Beverly Hills and Trousdale Estates.

"Our divergence with the Federation goes deeper than the matter of the 13 prisoners, but the case highlights the failure of a philosophy of keeping silent," said Dayanim, a 27-year-old lawyer.

Haroonian saw the campaign to free the prisoners as a turning point in the community's attitude. "From now on, you'll see more activism and involvement," he said.

Support for the Council's activist stance was expressed by Si Frumkin of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews.

"We went through the same struggles with the American Jewish establishment when we wanted to protest the Soviet Union's oppression of its Jews," he said.

The UCSJ has launched a 100,000-name petition drive on behalf of the Iranian prisoners, and through its offices in St. Petersburg and Moscow, has lobbied the Russian government to intercede with Tehran.

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