As the violent protests against the outcome of Iran’s June 12 election escalated in their former homeland last week, countless local Iranian Jews have been among the thousands of Southern California Iranian Americans attending rallies at the Federal Building in Westwood. But even as scores of Jews have joined Iranians of various faiths in solidarity at the demonstrations, the Iranian Jewish community’s leadership has refrained from commenting publicly on the chaos unfolding in the streets of Iran’s cities.
Longtime leaders of the Iranian Jews here fear a possible retaliation from the current Iranian regime against the nearly 20,000 Jews still living in Iran. “Since the 1979 revolution, Jews have been used as leverage by the regime for a variety of reasons,” Elliot Benjamin, a local Iranian Jewish activist and attorney, said in an interview last weekend. “Therefore, as has been the case in the past, Iranian Jews in the United States are concerned that comments on the current crisis may be wrongly attributed to the community in Iran, taken out of context, used against them and create a backlash against the Jews — possibly with the intent to divert attention from the events of the past few days, with severe consequences.”
Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian Jewish activist and director of the L.A.-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, said Jews in Iran have sent messages about such fears to their family members living in Southern California.
“The Jews inside Iran are now extremely scared and cautious, because historically minorities were at risk and became scapegoats when there was chaos and upheaval in the society,” Nikbakht said. “Iran’s Jews are understandably very fearful, as most ordinary folks in Iran are, considering the dangers facing their children and young ones in particular.”
Sara G., an Iranian Jewish homemaker in West Los Angeles who asked that her name be withheld for fear of potential backlash against her family in Iran, said she was relieved when she finally received a phone call from her parents.
“My parents still live in Iran, and speaking with them a few days ago, they said the Jewish community is terrified, and Jews in the country have mostly remained at home to avoid getting caught up in the violence on the streets,” she said. “I’ve been worried sick myself and unable to sleep this past week over what will happen to my family there.”
Although leaders in the local Iranian Jewish community declined to speak publicly with The Journal, they verified that as of June 21 they had not received any reports of anti-Semitic incidents in Iran, nor had there been official statements against the country’s religious minorities, other than some indirect warnings in some Iranian publications.
Asher Aramnia, events director at the Iranian Jewish Eretz Cultural Center in Tarzana, said the decision by local Iranian Jewish leaders to remain silent about the current political unrest in Iran is not new. Community members have used this method in order to survive for nearly 2,700 years in Iran, he said, recalling a popular saying Jews have told to children since as long ago as the turn of the 20th century in Iran.
“During the 1906 political crisis surrounding the Iranian Constitutional Revolution, the Jews were well-known for trying to remain neutral by saying ‘as has been dictated to us by the country’s Muslims, we also do not want a constitutional government,’” Aramnia said.
On June 20 and 21, a reported 4,000 local Iranian Americans of various faiths, including Jews, gathered in front of the Federal Building in Westwood in protest against the Iranian government’s recent violent crackdown on demonstrators seeking democracy in Iran.
The Los Angeles protesters included those opposed to any form of the current regime in Iran, along with supporters of the reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. With bullhorns in hand, Mousavi supporters wore green bandanas and chanted “Death to the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei!” and “We are united together with our brethren in Iran for freedom!”
Since June 13, the demonstrations at the Federal Building have been on-going in the evenings and on the weekends, attracting attention from local, national and international news media outlets.
And as the crisis over the elections has heated up in Iran, that country’s pursuit of nuclear weapons has taken a back seat in the public eye. Yet on June 18, the local Iranian Jewish group 30 Years After hosted an event at the Museum of Tolerance to discuss the continuing danger of Iran’s nuclear program. The gathering featured speakers from the New York-based group United Against Nuclear Iran, including former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, who criticized the Obama administration for not speaking out in full support of the demonstrators in Iran.
“I think it was correct for President Obama not to take sides before the election occurred, even though [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad has been extremely hostile to us,” Woolsey said. “But after the elections, that have been so clearly stolen, and the violence brought against the demonstrators by the regime, I think it is a very bad idea for us not to be supportive of the demonstrators.” Not doing so gives license to the clerics to crack down on the demonstrators, he argued.
Younger leaders of the Iranian Jewish community are not holding back like their elders; many said they are supportive of the Iranian students seeking democracy for their country.
“Among young Persian Jews in Los Angeles, the ‘issue’ of Iran has transformed from a policy question about a nuclear program, Holocaust denial and a threat to Israel, to a visceral fight for human rights, freedom and democracy,” said Sam Yebri, president of 30 Years After, an L.A.-based advocacy group for young Iranian American Jews. “Seeing young protesters who share so much in common with us marching, and now getting beaten and murdered in Tehran, has inspired young Persian Jews in Los Angeles with a pride in the people of Iran, which for too long had been dormant.”
Representatives at the Iranian Mission to the United Nations did not return calls for comment.
For more about the Iranian elections and to listen to a podcast interview with former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog Iranian American Jews: jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews/