Thirty years ago this week, philanthropist Habib Elghanian became the first Jew executed by Iran’s radical Islamic regime after he was falsely charged and convicted of spying for Israel.
His death by firing squad on May 9, 1979, sent shockwaves through Iran’s tight-knit Jewish community, which once lived in relative peace under the Shah. It prompted scores of Iran’s nearly 80,000 Jews to immediately sell off or abandon their assets and flee the country.
At least 13 Jews have been executed in Iran since Elghanian.
This week, as local Iranian Jews commemorate Elghanian’s death, The Journal spoke with family members, close friends and community activists who knew him affectionately as Haji Habib, a 66-year-old industrialist and community leader.
“My father wanted to return to Iran despite the turbulence there, even though we all implored him to stay in the U.S. He wanted to continue helping the Jewish community that had still remained in Iran and he also wanted to attend to his businesses there.
“After he was arrested I remember going to Washington, D.C., with my uncle seeking help from politicians on behalf of my father. We met with Sen. Ted Kennedy and he expressed his support for us but said he was unable to really help us.
“His own employees and people in the business community who were not Jewish even came out in protest after the government in Iran arrested him. Our family still remembers him and so does the community after so many years because of the tremendous impact he had on our lives.”
—Karmel Elghanian, Habib Elghanian’s son
“He was in America, and 10 to 15 days before Khomeini returned to Iran, he returned to Iran. Everyone asked him not to go, but he said ‘I was born in Iran and I love my country. I have treated Muslims and Jews alike, everyone knows me, and I have not done anything that was illegal.’ Despite what people told him, Haji said, ‘Iran is my homeland, I love it and what is most important to me is that the Jews in Iran’s eyes are upon me. I, therefore, must be protective of them and if I leave they will be in danger.’
“Haji knew, in the end, that they were going to execute him. Through friends and family members we relayed messages to him while he was imprisoned and even offered to find a way to have him sprung from jail. He flatly refused these suggestions and said the lives of the Jews of Iran would be at risk if he had escaped from prison. He sacrificed his life for the good of [the] country’s Jews.
“Before he was executed, he asked that he be given his tallit and kippah to wear and then be executed. He recited the ‘Shema Israel’ prayer and then they executed him.
“The Iranian government repossessed every single penny we as members of the Elghanian family owned and passed laws that even the smallest belongings of the Elghanian family were to be seized by the regime. With force and great difficulty they got his body and buried him in the Jewish cemetery. When they buried him there were not more than two or four people, and there were not enough people to even say Kaddish for him because everyone was so frightened to come to the burial.
—Sion Elghanian, Habib Elghanian’s brother
“Haji Habib was a symbol for our community, not because of his wealth but because he had true leadership qualities. I was the youngest member of the Jewish Central Committee at that time, and he welcomed me to sit and listen in on their meetings. He was a very decisive man, he loved Iran a lot, but Israel was also important to him.
“When they executed him, the Iranian government destroyed the only symbol of the Jewish community in Iran. When someone destroys your symbol, they have essentially destroyed you as a people. I kept asking myself, why did they kill him? He was imprisoned for many months and we wanted to find a way to get him out. But at the time of the revolution there was no central power in the government and we were unable to help him. And that very night after he was executed, members of our community were fortunate to get his body and bury him in the Jewish cemetery but without placing any grave marker.
“For two or three days the entire community was in utter shock. At that time the Jewish community was not allowed by the new regime to hold a memorial service for him or mourn for him—we could only say Kaddish for him. A few days later I was conducting a memorial service for an older woman who passed away, and when I uttered Haji Habib’s name to recite a prayer for him I broke down and wept out loud at that service. I told that mourning family I was not weeping for the older woman but for Haji Habib. His death for us as Jews in Iran was like someone literally pulling the rug from underneath us. With his killing it sent a clear message to Jews that we no longer had security in Iran and no future in Iran.”
—Rabbi David Shofet, Nessah Synagogue, Beverly Hills
“My friendship with the late Habib Elghanian began in 1951. He was one of the 15 main members of the Iranian Chamber of Commerce, and the entire business community trusted and liked him. He was larger than life but also modest. Over time I realized that he was not solely interested in helping his own Jewish brethren, but rather wanted to help all Iranians in general. I often went into his office and found that 40 out of the 50 waiting to see him for charitable help were Muslims—some were even Islamic clerics.
“What did he do that deserved his execution? What was his crime? He truly loved Iran, he was a selfless servant to the nation of Iran, and from 1950 till 1979 he was one of the few people that helped improve Iran’s economic situation from the bottom of his heart. He was a true asset to the nation of Iran. He was one of the few Iranians who had credit with international banks and he utilized this credit for the benefit of Iran. There are thousands and thousands of Iranians who will never forget the tremendous nonprofit work Mr. Elghanian did.
—Nasser Oliae, retired Iranian Muslim businessman
Two months after Elghanian’s execution, I was arrested by the Iranian government because my name was the same as another man who was an enemy of the state, and because I had voted against the establishment of the Islamic regime in a national referendum election. I was imprisoned for a total of 11 days and during that time the guards interrogated me every day. When they removed me from my cell to the interrogation room, I noticed all the walls were adorned with anti-Semitic, anti-Israel propaganda posters and posters which were proudly announcing the execution of Elghanian. They considered his execution as one of their revolution’s greatest victories. With the execution of Elghanian they wanted to show three things. First, they wanted to send a message that they were anti-Jewish, anti-Israel and to unite people under their banner. They also wanted to show that they were not just killing former government officials who were Muslim but rather they had the power to kill the symbol of the Jews in Iran. Lastly, since Elghanian was the first to bring Western technology to Iran, they wanted to send a message to those in the West [that] the nation of Iran was now opposed to West.
—Bijan Khalili, Iranian Jewish publisher
My husband, Moussa, was a member of the Jewish Central Committee in Iran and he had worked with Habib Elghanian closely on behalf of Jewish community issues. My husband and I had promptly left everything we owned in Iran and come out with only a suitcase each at the start of the revolution. We were asleep in London one night when we received a phone call from friends in Iran who informed us that the Iranian regime had killed Mr. Elghanian. At that very moment my husband and I broke down and wept. I remember my husband telling me that night that we could never return to Iran after Elghanian’s execution. It was a very, very difficult time for us.
—Mrs. Azizeh Kermanian, Elghanian family friend
I was in America with my family at the time they killed Haji. When I heard they had killed Haji I was really surprised and shocked because we all thought that Haji would eventually be released. Everybody was in total shock in our family. People don’t know this, but Haji was killed on the day of the anniversary of his wife’s death. She had passed away exactly a year earlier. He was a truly a great man with a generous heart who wanted the best for everybody he interacted with. He went out of his way to personally help people with financial problems, medical problems and any other problems they had without any hesitation. He was truly one in a million.
—Sharon Cohanim, Habib Elghanian’s niece
“At the time of the revolution in Iran, I was a doctor and the head of the Jewish community hospital in Teheran and also headed the Teheran University hospital. Since I had opened the Jewish community hospital to everyone who was injured in the early days of the revolution, including the student protestors, I had formed friendships with many of the folks who came to power in the government after the revolution. After this incident occurred, I had a meeting with Haji Habib Elghanian who told me that the Jewish community needed to have a second group of leaders to help the community members during those difficult times in case something happened to the current leaders. He asked me along with a few others to head that group because of my close relationships with non-Jewish individuals that had taken power in Iran’s new government.
“At that time I implored Haji to leave Iran because I felt it was unsafe for him to stay, but he replied, ‘As long as a single Jew lives in Iran, I will remain here.’ After he was arrested, I went to see one of the regime’s influential leaders, Ayatollah Taleghani, who was also upset at Haji’s arrest, because he said Haji had done a lot for the people of Iran. Ayatollah Taleghani wrote me a letter calling for the release of Haji and asked me to pass it along to the head of the Revolutionary Court. I took the letter to the court and I was told to take the letter to the warden of the prison where Haji was being held. Unfortunately there was tremendous chaos at the prison and I was unable to get the letter to the right person. I was told to give the letter to a third party, who was not Jewish, who would give it to the warden. Unfortunately, that person never delivered the letter.
“Afterward, I met with many leaders of the new Iranian government, the former revolutionaries, to try to help Haji. They all assured me many times that Haji would not be executed. Unfortunately there were others who controlled the courts and prisons who conspired against Haji and as a result he was executed along with other people they deemed enemies of the state. After Haji was killed there was tremendous fear among the country’s Jews that their lives were now in danger. Subsequently myself and other Jewish community letters—including the late Hacham Yedidia, one of our prominent rabbis—all went to the city of Qom to meet with the Ayatollah Khomeini on behalf of the Jews of Iran. At that meeting Ayatollah Khomeini made a decree that the country’s Jews were not to be harmed since they were the descendants of Moses, a holy man. The one thing that has haunted me all of these years with regards to Haji Habib is that I was unable to help save his life and this issue brings me to tears often because I know if it was me who was in trouble, he would have no doubt been able to save my life.”
—Dr. Kamran Broukhim, Chairman of the Los Angeles-based Iranian American Jewish Federation