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Escape, exile, rebirth: Iranian Jewish diaspora alive and well in Los Angeles

30 years after the revolution, upheaval still haunts those who got out

by Karmel Melamed

September 4, 2008 | 2:40 am

Thirty years have passed since the massive and violent demonstrations against the Shah of Iran that began in September 1978, and for many, the start of that country's bloody revolution might seem a faded memory. Yet I have carried those shattering events with me all of my life: I was born on in Tehran on Sept. 11, 1978, as chaos unfolded on the streets outside.

For Americans, Sept. 11 has its own painful history, but for me, that day each year has always been, as well, a reminder of another horrific tragedy: Sept. 9 to Sept. 11, 1978, were among the first and most brutal days of a revolution in Iran that would result, among many upheavals, in the uprooting of the country's ancient and once-thriving Jewish population.

My family's story is no different from that of thousands of other Jews who fled Iran during and after the revolution, many of whom now live in Southern California, New York, Israel and elsewhere worldwide -- the Iranian Jewish diaspora.

While scholars have since debated the true cause of the revolution, it is well known that the massive public protests for "greater freedoms" and strikes crippled Iran's economy. Violence between the protesters and police erupted in Iran's capital in January 1978 and intensified later in the year.

These activities eventually resulted in the collapse of the government led by the shah, who fled Iran on Jan. 20, 1979. On Feb. 1, 1979, the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran, quickly dissolved the monarchy and shortly thereafter established a new fundamentalist Islamic state government.

The new theocratic regime eliminated practically overnight many of the freedoms and civil liberties once taken for granted by Iranians -- including the country's Jews, who under the shah's reign had experienced one of the greatest periods of peace and prosperity in their long history in the region.

A day perhaps best remembered in the United States is Nov. 4, 1979, when regime operatives took over the American Embassy in Tehran and held captive 52 Americans in a reign of terror that would last for 444 days -- the rationale for this act, in part, was retaliation against the U.S. government, which had granted the exiled shah permission to be treated for cancer in America.

The new regime's henchmen also quickly executed several prominent Jewish community leaders, accusing them of sympathizing with the fallen monarchy or "spying for Israel and America." For fear of what calamity might befall them, many Jewish families rushed to abandon their homes and businesses and fled the country -- often under cover of night. Others lost everything they owned, as millions of dollars in assets were confiscated by the new fundamentalist Islamist Iranian government.

Under the shah's rule, Iran's Jews, as well as other religious minorities in Iran, had become accustomed to being treated with respect, albeit as separate, distinct cultures. Now they were second-class citizens, and the atmosphere of hostility led thousands of them to flee the country.

Looking back, the trauma of that flight has left deep wounds within my community. Many Iranian Jews continue to live in disbelief at what transpired.

"It was unbelievable, unfathomable for us Jews to believe anything would happen to us in Iran because of the incredible power of shah and his government," Ebrahim Yahid, a local Iranian Jewish activist, now in his 80s, told me in a recent interview. "Nobody in our community believed of the calamity we would face under the new regime of Khoemini."

Jewish flight from Iran began in earnest, most community members agree, in May 1979, when the new regime's revolutionary guard executed 66-year-old "Haji" Habib Elghanian, a philanthropist and the leader of Iran's Jewish community. Elghanian's younger brother, Sion, who now lives in Los Angeles, recently spoke to me about his brother's execution, the first time he has spoken publicly about it.

"Haji was in America, and 10 to 15 days before Khomeini returned to Iran, he returned to Iran," said Sion Elghanian, who is now retired and in his late 80s.

The older Elghanian had been in the United States temporarily, hoping to weather the chaos of the early days of unrest, which had brought the country to a standstill through nationwide strikes.

It was expected that Habib Elghanian might become a target, because he was the wealthiest Jew in Iran and the leader of Iran's Jews.

"Everyone, including the late Israeli Prime Minister Begin, asked him not to return to Iran, but he said, 'I was born in Iran, I love my country, I have treated all Iranians -- Muslims and Jews alike -- with compassion, and I have not done anything illegal,'" his younger brother remembered.

The Islamic regime arrested Habib Elghanian on Feb. 17, 1979, and falsely charged him with being a Zionist spy, along with other trumped-up charges of treason against the state. He was executed on May 9, 1979, after a sham trial by the revolutionary Islamic court, which lasted just over an hour and consisted merely of a proclamation of the verdict, without presenting any real evidence. While he was in prison, family members and friends were able to get some messages to him and receive his replies.

"Haji knew that they were going to kill him," Sion Elghanian said. "Before he was executed, he requested that that he be given his tallit and kippah to wear. He recited the 'Shema' ... and then they shot him by a firing squad.

"Afterward, Iran's Jews were in total shock and grief," his brother told me. "We told him [Elghanian] that we wanted to arrange to have him sprung from jail in an escape, but he told us not to go forward with it, as the move might motivate the Islamic leaders of Iran to retaliate by executing thousands of Jews living in the country."

Sion Elghanian said that he respects his brother's wishes not to be sprung from jail and feels that the family did all that they could to rescue and save him. He views his brother as a hero who sacrificed himself for the good of the community.

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