June 12, 2008
Iranian Jews grapple with tragic death and violence in the community
Web extra: YouTube tribute video for dead teen
Bianca Khalili's friends posted this tribute on YouTube
On May 26, 17-year-old Beverly Hills High School student Bianca Khalili fell to her death from the 15th floor of an apartment building in Century City.
The girl's passing -- homicide has been ruled out by the police -- has left members of the local Iranian Jewish community shocked and speculating on the unusual circumstances of the girl's death.
Despite many inquiries, no one from the tight-knit community would comment publicly on the tragic incident, but, privately, local Iranian Jews have been abuzz with rumors and perplexed by how to properly resolve a new and growing problem of violence within their ranks.
Lt. Ray Lombardo, commanding officer of the West Los Angeles Detective Divison, said there is still an ongoing investigation into Khalili's death.
"Unfortunately this was a very tragic incident, but there is no evidence to substantiate that there was any foul play," Lombardo said. "We do have reason to believe it may have been an accidental fall, or possibly a suicide," he added.
David Suissa writes about Bianca's death in this week's Live in the Hood
West Los Angeles detectives said there was one witness to the incident, who has been interviewed but is not a suspect in the case. While police investigators did not disclose the name of the witness, an internal Beverly Hills High School (BHHS) memo, circulated via e-mail and obtained by The Journal, has identified the girl as Dora Afrahim, who is also Iranian Jewish and a student at BHHS.
Khalili's death is just one of the recent incidents of community distress that have left many local Iranian Jews speculating among themselves, unsure of how to address circumstances of violence they are encountering.
In February, Alfred Hakim, an Iranian Jewish resident of Beverly Hills, was shot at his family home on the 400 block of N. Palm Drive in Beverly Hills, allegedly by his brother, Adel. That shooting has prompted local Iranian Jews to struggle with the notion that violence can happen in their normally peaceful community.
"The Jewish Iranians have been brought up to help and protect each other," Jimmy Delshad, Iranian Jewish Beverly Hills City councilman and former mayor, said after the shooting. "This incident is not at all a typical situation in Beverly Hills, and especially not in the Persian community -- my heart goes out to the family, and I pray for the speedy physical and mental recovery of all the family members."
On March 27, 47-year-old Adel Hakim was arraigned at a Superior Court in Beverly Hills, where he plead not guilty to a felony charge of first-degree attempted murder of his 49-year-old brother Alfred Hakim, according to Sandi Gibbons, a spokesperson for the L.A. County District Attorney's office.
Sgt. Lincoln Hoshino of the Beverly Hills Police Department said that within two hours of the shooting incident, Adel was identified as the suspect and arrested by California Highway Patrol following a traffic accident he was involved in at an undisclosed location in the San Fernando Valley. No date has been set for Adel Hakim's trial, and his attorneys did not return calls for comments.
He is currently being held at Los Angeles County jail in downtown L.A. in lieu of $1 million bail, while the victim remains in critical condition at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Gibbons said. Neither Beverly Hills police nor Gibbons would name a motive for the shooting, but said Adel Hakim's next appearance in court will be a preliminary hearing currently scheduled for June 19.
If convicted, he would face a maximum sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole, according to the California state Penal Code.
The Iranian Jewish community has been preoccupied by these incidents, but a community-wide taboo against openly discussing violence, for fear of public embarrassment, has kept the community and their leaders from talking openly. The community's legal experts called this mentality among Iranian Jews unproductive, and said it has resulted in minor incidences of violence continuing in the community and now developing into more serious cases.
"Generally, the very deep-rooted cultural ethos of hiding all problems and pretending that everyone's life is perfect is what ends up fueling the unchecked anger that leads to the situations where someone ends up getting physically hurt," said Nazila Shokrian-Barlava, an L.A. County Deputy Alternate Public Defender. "Our community does not have the tools to deal with percolating situations before they reach that violent level."
Despite the proscription against publicly discussing the shooting, Rabbi Hillel Benchimol, who is not Iranian but works within the community, recently gave a sermon about violence in the community to a group of young Iranian Jews at the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills. Benchimol said he was not familiar with the Hakim incident, but believes the community problem with violence may be rooted in more serious disputes involving finances that have remained unresolved over the years among some local Iranian Jewish families.
"There's a lot of divisiveness and resentment over money issues among some Iranian Jews, because the community since it left Iran in 1979 has always been looking to restore its glory and financial prowess," Benchimol said. "So many of them are relentless in their pursuit of the American dream. I think this incident is a personification of that extreme mentality, and it's a malady that should be rooted out of the community."
Shokrian-Barlava said that while she knows of only 10 incidents in the last 30 years involving guns where either the perpetrator or the victim have been Iranian Jews, domestic violence among Iranian Jewish families has been a more substantial problem that has not yet been addressed by local Iranian Jewish leaders.
"What I hear, usually from the victims, is that there was no support for them when they wanted help, and they were discouraged from speaking to anyone outside of the family," she said. "If they seek support from our community leaders they are told to just try harder to avoid any violence -- the language does not exist, the will to solve these problems does not exist, and there is no real and productive support system for anyone to go to for help."
Dara Abaei, an Iranian Jewish activist and head of the L.A.-based Jewish Unity Network, said violence between Iranian Jewish parents and children and between spouses was a growing dilemma up until 15 years ago. Following their arrival in the United States nearly 30 years ago , local Iranian Jews were initially unfamiliar with American laws concerning domestic violence, since such physical abuse was tolerated in Iran, he said. "The culture in Iran in general has always been OK with these forms of physical violence in their society," Abaei said. "If you ask any Iranian today over the age of 35, they will tell you that their teachers or principals would slap them in the face, hit them with a ruler or kick them for doing something wrong, and there wasn't anything you could do about it."
The most serious incident of domestic violence in the Iranian Jewish community occurred roughly 10 years ago in Los Angeles, when a physical altercation between an Iranian Jewish couple resulted in one death, Abaei said.
Abaei said that while incidents of domestic violence among Iranian Jewish families have been on the decline in recent years due to arrests being made and some education given to children at school, he would like to see more proactive steps taken by community organizations to address the issue.
"What I want to see is the rabbis of the community sign a statement that this type of behavior is not acceptable under the laws of Judaism, and circulate it in the community," Abaei said. "We need to have more educational seminars to encourage everyone, that if you get into any physical altercations, call the police because there is zero tolerance for any physical abuse."
Various Los Angeles area Iranian rabbis and community leaders contacted did not return calls for comment on this story.
Listen to Karmel Melamed's podcast on violence in the Iranian Jewish community by visiting: http://jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.