September 4, 2008
Escape, exile, rebirth: Iranian Jewish diaspora alive and well in Los Angeles
30 years after the revolution, upheaval still haunts those who got out
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Word of Elghanian's execution quickly spread on television and radio and by word of mouth. Immediately afterward, a huge wave of Iran's Jews decided to sell their assets at whatever bargain prices they could get and flee the country. They clearly understood then the brutality of the regime and feared that they, too, might face the same fate. Some Jews had left earlier, in late 1978 and early 1979, but a huge wave left after Elghanian's execution, and even more fled as other Jews were executed by the regime.
Since that emotional time, many Iranian Jews living in the United States have preferred to remain mostly silent about their experiences during the revolution because of several factors. They include fear of retaliation against relatives who chose to remain in Iran, a belief that perhaps one day they might return to Iran and reclaim their lost assets and a persistent sense of great shame -- albeit unwarranted -- at having lost their fortunes and a painful unwillingness to admit that they now have less money than before.
Yet today, even as memories of those days during the revolution's upheaval remain as fresh as ever in my community, what we learned then seems increasingly relevant today, as relations between the U.S. government and Iran continue to deteriorate. These days, the topic of how to deal with Iran's current regime are a prominent issue in the U.S. presidential race, and that new relevance has caused many Iranian Jews who did not want to talk about their hardship -- who wanted to look forward, not back -- to finally begin to reveal personal details of the horrors they faced in Iran during the revolution.
Last summer, at a Sinai Temple Men's Club meeting, my cousin, Abe Berookhim, a 60-year-old Los Angeles businessman, publicly shared the story of his escape from Iran for the first time, as well as the story of the execution in July 1980 of his Uncle Ebrahim by Iran's Revolutionary Guards. My cousin recalled an emotional exchange he had had with an Iranian ayatollah, pleading for the release of his 31-year-old uncle, who had been arrested and imprisoned on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel and the United States.
"With tears streaming down my face, I told him [the judge] about my uncle's innocence, but he rejected my pleas," Berookhim said. "They did not have any answer for killing him and [after the execution] said it was a mistake -- it was a mistake that my family and I have been haunted by ever since."
Jews were not killed en masse; the harassment, arrests and executions seemed random, which was equally terrifying for the community.
Asher Aramnia, who serves as the events director at the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana, a center for Iranian Jews, said his family, too, remains haunted by painful memories of his cousin, Nosrat Goel, who was executed in 1979. Goel, then 38, was killed under the direct orders of the notorious Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali, head of Iran's then revolutionary courts, Aramnia said.
"She was imprisoned, held overnight in jail for operating her beauty salon in Tehran, which was illegal under the new Islamic laws," Aramnia said. "That very night, Khalkhali came into the prison and ordered all the prisoners be executed immediately -- her family didn't know of the execution until the next day, when they heard the news on the radio."
The violence has not ended. According to a 2004 report prepared by L.A. Iranian Jewish activist Frank Nikbakht, since 1979, at least 14 Jews have been murdered or assassinated by the regime's agents; two more Jews have died while in custody and 11 others have been officially executed. In 2000, 13 Jews from the Iranian city of Shiraz were arrested on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel and faced execution, but as a result of protests by Iranian Jewish groups, many of them here in Los Angeles, as well as activism and support from the larger Jewish community, they were imprisoned but not executed and later were released.
Most Southern California Iranian Jews believe that money was the primary motivation behind the executions of Jews by Iran's fundamentalist Islamic regime.
"The Iranian regime executed Jews just for the sole purpose of repossessing their assets, frightening some into abandoning millions of dollars in their assets and scaring off others from fighting back against the regime," Yahid told me.
The Jewish community had prospered under the reign of the shah's family. Author Habib Levy's "A Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran" (Mazda Publishers, 1999) describes how during the reign of the Pahlavi dynasty, Jews and other religious minorities experienced unprecedented tolerance, allowing them to build successful businesses. After the revolution, the new Iranian Constitution proclaimed all non-Muslims inferior to Muslims and that non-Muslims must be humiliated and confined to prevent them from gaining any advantage over Muslims, according to Nikbakht.
"One of the first signals to all non-Muslims [in Iran] that they should give up their rights and status came about when new specific Islamic laws in Tehran stated that non-Muslims should not build buildings higher than the Muslim ones," Nikbakht said. "Elghanian had built the first high-rise building in the city -- 15 floors high, and it was blasphemy."
Iran's Jews and other religious minorities saw their lives paralyzed as a result of the new discriminatory Shiite Islamic laws. Fahrokh Askari, a 60-something Iranian Jewish grandmother who now lives in Tarzana, recalled her husband's depression after the revolution.
"My husband worked as a government-employed civil engineer for many years, but after the revolution, he was fired for being Jewish and also prohibited by the government from working in the private sector," Askari said. "As a result of not being able to earn money for our family, he went into a deep depression and shortly thereafter died of cancer -- I blame all of this on the revolution."