May 4, 2000
Breaking the Silence:
Frank Nikbakht and the Iranian Jews
Frank Nikbakht dates his decision to speak out about the realities of Jewish life in Iran to 1998. "The mainstream Jewish thinking both in Iran and in the American Jewish Iranian community in the U.S. was this," he recalls: "If you openly protest one killing of a Jew, then they will kill two. So then I asked, 'What if they execute five, or 50?' "
Nikbakht, one of the leaders of the tiny L.A.-based Committee for Religious Minority Rights in Iran, became aware that there had been a noticeable increase in the amount of anti-Semitism coming from the Iranian press beginning around 1993. By 1995, Jews were accused of bringing AIDS into Iran and causing economic chaos. The ground-work was being laid for greater persecutions. That same year, Fayzollah Mekhubabt, a 78-year-old cantor in a Teheran synagogue, was taken to prison. His eyes were gouged out before he was executed. Mekhubabt was buried in a Muslim cemetery. His family was forced to disinter his remains in order to bury him in a Jewish cemetery.
In 1998, Nikbakht says, an article appeared in the Iran press that indicated the last Jew to be killed had been involved in corruption and espionage. "Every crime in the book he had committed. And the article urged government officials to probe more deeply into the Jewish community because this would not be their last conspiracy. It urged the government to look into all of the cultural, political and economic problems in the country from this perspective. In other words, they suggested blaming the Jews for everything."
Nikbakht, it needs to be said, is someone who believes that an individual can make a difference. He and his colleague Pooya Dayanim, an attorney and a leader of the Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations, discerned a new and dangerous pattern of thought, part of a plan to scapegoat the Jews and connect a Jewish conspiracy to the new reformist and democratic movement in Iran.
But when Nikbakht started writing about it, his articles were rejected by American-Iranian Jewish publications. "First of all," he says, "since no one had written articles about these kind of things," no one knew of their reality.
And they didn't want to know. "They had been in Iran a few years back, when Iran was not persecuting Jews systematically. At that time they were picking out one Jew here, one Jew there. It wasn't a pattern. And they did not care about the repressive laws in Iran, because Iranian Jews had always, naturally, and I don't blame them, had a ghetto mentality. Their thinking was, 'We are a minority, just stay quiet, we have to be treated as second-class citizens. So what if they don't employ us in the government sector or in the army or in high posts? We have our trading businesses, and we can become doctors or engineers.'"
Eventually Nikbakht's article was finally accepted by a major magazine, Chazmandas, at the moment that harassment of the Shirazi Jews -- who would constitute the "Iran 13" -- began. When it appeared, with its impressive documentation, the impact was enormous. Many American senators and congressman have included his article in the State Department human rights reports about Iran. "If you don't present proof," he maintains, "how can you convince anyone of the pattern of anti-Semitism?"
That article had another effect. It pierced a silence in the Iranian Jewish community about the escalating anti-Semitism in Iran. The silence masked deep anguish and conflict among the American-Iranian Jews about how to deal with the crisis affecting the security of the 30,000 Jews remaining in Iran. Some were terrified that speaking out would make matters worse. Others believed that passivity would only further the long history of repression in Iran as well as the pattern of Jewish submission that seemed to be a throwback to the Holocaust and the psychology of the Judenrat. It represented more of the same -- insularity, intense fear of retribution, lack of familiarity with American freedoms of expression -- all locked into the old mentality of suffering being endured by relatives in Iran.
That Nikbakht was the article's author helped considerably. He may be a rebel, but he is a much respected one, even among those in the community who disagree with him. They cede him integrity and respect. Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles, told The Journal, "Frank Nikbakht is a good man with good intentions. I do not agree with his wisdom on a lot of issues. But these are mere tactical differences among friends who share the same goals."
The arrests of the "Iran 13" began in February 1999 and continued into March. Yet for almost two months, Nikbakht contends, the Iranian Jewish leadership did not disclose them to anyone, including the Jewish community in Los Angeles. "Their reasoning was that if the Jewish community found out, they would demand that they do something. And they didn't want to, because they feared it would make things worse."
When Nikbakht learned of the arrests, however, he called two Iranian Jewish leaders in the L.A. community. Both said they knew of them, but urged him not to say a word about it to a single person. "So we and our committee started our own actions right then."
They contacted Rep. Brad Sherman, who immediately prepared a resolution for the International Relations Committee of the House.
Subsequently, at least half of the larger Jewish organizations in Los Angeles and all the national groups, from the Anti-Defamation League to the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress, threw in their support. "Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations was amazing -- the time he put in, the attentive-ness. There was a time he didn't sleep for 70 hours", said Nikbakht. "And, finally, the draft resolution was passed by the House International Relations Committee of the House and by the Senate, thanks to [N.Y.] Sen. [Charles] Schumer. The State Department [also] took very strong positions on the 'Iran 13' and imposed sanctions on Iran."
Given all that Nikbakht and his committee have accom-plished, it is not surprising that he fears for the Jewish community of Iran. He believes Iran is on the verge of a violent military coup by the fundamen-talists. According to Nikbakht, the Jews are being used as pawns in the struggle of the fundamen-talist hard-liners against the reformists (with whom President Khatami is apparently aligned). "The reform movement is deeply rooted," Nikbakht notes. "It brought about the last two years of unprecedented freedoms in Iran. People want to defy the government just to defy it. When Iran wins a football game, millions of people dance in the streets, which is against the law. Women take off their veils for a few minutes at least. It's heaven for young people. And they are certainly not fundamentalists. Most of them love everything American."
Seated in his small office, Nikbakht is a soft-spoken, handsome man of 48, with thinning pepper-and-salt hair. (For security reasons, he refuses to let his picture be taken.) He speaks with precision and clarity about the cause that engulfs his life day and night. He escaped on horseback from Iran in 1982 when the revolution (which took place in February 1979) began to consolidate its iron hand. Jews, especially the young, were being executed at will; station roadblocks at two-mile intervals would randomly select Jews for arrest or death.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Nikbakht is a bachelor. Loneli-ness seems to fill the room as midnight nears. He is a smoker, and I feel sadness that such a courageous, good man would risk his life for such a habit. And again, somehow I ascribe it to loneliness. I wonder aloud if such commitment can be found among those with heavy family responsibilities. Characteristic-ally, Nikbakht is quick to point out that George Haroonian, his colleague, has a wife and three children and works just as hard as he. "In fact, he recently spent a night in the hospital from exhaustion," Nikbakht reports.
In any case, there is no doubt that Nikbakht speaks of Iranian Jewry with the love one feels for an extended family.
Asked what spurred his defiant protectiveness toward his people, he recalls: "I was always influenced by the fact of the Holocaust. I was mostly influenced by the books of Andre Schwarz-Bart and Primo Levi, and by Israel-related matters like the Exodus ship, when Jews tried to find sanctuary and were turned away. My view was always the same: you're a victim, fine, everybody's a victim. But what are you going to do about it? We don't expect another Holocaust, but small things can happen all the time. Prepare your frame of mind, don't go like sheep. If you accept that it's okay for you to be a victim -- well, why shouldn't your enemy oblige? This is the situation in Iran. Act positively and fight your enemy in any way that you can. I mean sometimes it's an article, sometimes it's political activity. But break the pattern of victimization.
"What we are doing is defending the dignity of the Jewish people. We have to come on so strong that the next five Jews they want to pick up, they will think twice. And they will know that these Jews have protectors. I'm very familiar with the psychology of the Islamic Republic. As long as their adversary is weak, they will kick him and smash him. When their adversary is strong, they are like sheep. Now they know that these 30,000 Jews in Iran have the support of the biggest superpower in history, the U.S. They have the support of the Israeli government.
"And finally for the first time in Iranian Jewish history in our memory, we have convinced most of the Iranian Jews that they have a natural right to defend themselves, in Iran and in the U.S. Even the Jews in Shiraz, where the trial is taking place: for the first time, last week, during the trial, there were 100 Jews outside the courtroom, family members, crying out for their loved ones. It was not a demonstration, but they were there. It would have been unheard of before. No one would have dared to go near that place."
For Frank Nikbakht, that gathering of 100 Jews in Shiraz, expressing their concern in that madhouse of fear and real danger, is incontrovertible evidence that the pattern of victimization and frightened silence in Iran is being broken at last.
Two Los Angeles organizations embody conflicting theories of how to safeguard the welfare of Iranian Jews. This debate is deeply charged with emotion and with resonant historical roots. The Iranian American Jewish Federation is the more conservative group that seeks to avoid protest and to work from within. It takes its stance from the behavior of the Jewish community in Iran, which has tried to deny the gravity of the Jews' situation as a way of not fanning the flames and exacerbating it. The Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations, with which Frank Nikbakht is associated, is an activist group that seeks to speak out and mobilize public support for combating anti-Semitism within Iran.
Nikbakht wrote in his article: "This anti-Jewish incitement not only threatens the physical existence of the remaining Iranian Jews, but threatens the safety and lives of Jews all over the world, in view of the past history of government-sponsored terrorism by the Iranian regime." This prophetic article, written two months before news broke of the arrest of the "Iran 13," would turn out to be the catalyst for a remarkable sea change in the mentality of the American-Jewish Iranian community in dealing with the ominous trend of events in Iran.
Nikbakht characterizes the shift as breaking the long silence of victimization and resignation that has marked large segments of the community, a legacy not only of the precarious state of Iranian Jewry, but stretching back to the Holocaust. "The case of the 'Iran 13,'" he says, "is the first time that the families are speaking out and protesting. Why? Because we publicized the case internationally, and because for the first time in twenty years, the Jews in Iran have protectors."
In his groundbreaking article, Nikbakht's most powerful weapon was the reproduction of a large number of official documents from the Iranian press: a mass of neo-Nazi ravings, from the "Protocols of Zion" to anti-Semitic cartoons and interviews with the head of the neo-Nazi group, American Vanguard. Some of the original documents such as the "Protocols" were even amplified and improved upon, with poisonous new fantasies about Jewish evil added to the mix. Even the excerpts from the Koran were expanded with anti-Jewish passages. Although he did not yet know of the arrests in Iran, he warned in his article: "These words can translate into deeds if there is no international pressure." He recalls that one of the articles he quoted wrote of 2,000 Israelis gathering in the proximity of an Islamic saint's grave "drinking wine and doing anti-Islamic things. In other articles they wrote that the Jews were going to take over the whole earth, then the stars and the planets. Jews were waiting for Jesus to come back so they could kill him."-- David Evanier