June 30, 2005
Persian Jews Dive Into Politics
When Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa took office on July 1, he could have handed out thank-yous to groups all over the city for his Election Day drubbing of incumbent Mayor James Hahn.
Jews, in all their local permutations, were a big part of Villaraigosa's victory: Orthodox Jews, Valley Jews, Westside liberal Jews -- and also the politically emerging community of Iranian Jews.
"The Iranian Jewish community is very much a part of this city," said David Nahai, a Century City attorney. "What happens to Los Angeles happens to us and so we have a deeply vested interest in the outcome of this race."
Only recently have many prominent Iranian Jews in Southern California become more involved in political races -- after realizing the impact elected officials have on their business interests, which for many include substantial real estate holdings.
"There have been a great number of scandals under Hahn's administration," he said. "We don't want that in our city, especially because, as Iranian Jews, we've seen what corruption can do to a country. And Antonio has made us feel like our community would have a true place at the table with his administration."
At the very least, Iranian Jews have made a case for their seat at the table. On April 17, about 80 of them joined Villaraigosa at the Beverly Hills home of Leon Farahnik, an Iranian Jewish businessman, for a campaign fundraiser that collected close to $40,000.
Iranian Jewish support for Villaraigosa extended beyond campaign contributions. Nahai said he personally debated Hahn Chief of Staff Tim McOsker on April 26 at a Santa Monica event attended by both Jewish and non-Jewish Iranians.
Nahai, who also serves as a commissioner on the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, is no campaign novice. Last year he served as a co-chair of Jews and Friends for Kerry. In that capacity he appeared on local Persian-language radio stations and spoke at various Iranian synagogues.
Both Hahn and Villaraigosa understood the potential importance of the Iranian Jewish vote. In the weeks leading up to the May election, both spoke at Saturday morning services at Sephardic Temple Tiferth Israel and Sinai Temple, both of which count large numbers of Iranian Jews among their congregants.
Political activism is a fairly new phenomenon for Persian Jewish immigrants who, for more than 2,000 years in Iran, were generally denied voting rights and the right to partake in political activities.
"It took a while for us [Iranian Jews] to take care of our immediate needs in the U.S.," said Sam Kermanian, secretary general for the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles. "This is a community that came here as refugees and had to put its foundations in place -- so getting involved in politics only became a priority after all these other issues were taken care of."
Kermanian, who served as a vice chair for the Bush/Cheney 2004 campaign in California, said his main challenge was "to make sure that a community that traditionally did not have a culture of voting, actually comes out and casts its vote."
Kermanian estimates that approximately 80 percent of California's 30,000 to 35,000 Iranian Jews are U.S. citizens and about 70 percent are of voting age.
These new Americans want to have their views heard by local, state and federal government policymakers, said Beverly Hills Councilman Jimmy Delshad, who in 2003 became the first Iranian Jew elected to public office in the United States.
"One of the reasons I ran was to get Iranians involved and now I think one of my dreams is coming true," Delshad said. "I see quite a few Iranian Jews are getting involved" in lobbying for Israel through the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and traveling to Washington."
In Beverly Hills this past March, for the first time in American history, Iranian Jews were able to cast ballots containing Persian language directions, with the help of poll volunteers who also spoke Persian.
Iranian Jewish businessman Michael Hakim was unsuccessful in his City Council bid. Other Iranian Jews are expected to compete in upcoming elections for the governing board of the Beverly Hills Unified School District, Delshad said.
"I've always said that greater political participation was bound to happen and I think we're seeing that evolution and development happen right now in our community," Nahai said.