July 27, 2010
Remembering Ebi: Why we fled Iran
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Shaheen, her husband, Masood, and other friends and family were at Ebi’s burial in Tehran’s Jewish cemetery. Several weeks later, Shaheen said she was able to bribe the prison officials by paying them a substantial amount of money to release her elderly father, who had been moved to the prison hospital due to his poor health. When he was released, Eshagh repeatedly asked for Ebi but was not told of his beloved son’s execution. Instead, Eshagh was hidden inside another family member’s home, then smugglers were paid to carry him on a camel across the border out of Iran and into Turkey. Shaheen said that, at the same time, she and her husband were fortunate enough to flee Iran on a flight to Germany. Only after the three were reunited in Germany were they able to mourn Ebi in peace. It was there that she finally broke the news of Ebi’s execution to her father.
My mother, Roset Melamed, recalled for me the immediate aftereffects that Ebi’s execution had on my own father, who had been Ebi’s close childhood friend.
“When your father returned, after he had seen Ebi’s body and had been to the funeral, he was no longer the same happy and carefree man as before,” she told me. “It was as if something inside of him died. He did not want to listen to music anymore; he did not want to play with you, his young son, who was so sweet and starting to talk. He just stared at you for long periods of time, and it seemed as if life did not matter anymore to him.”
Another of Ebi’s older sisters, Negar Berookhim, told me that the entire Iranian Jewish community living in Los Angeles at the time was shocked and infuriated when they learned of Ebi’s execution. She said that nearly 1,000 members of the community flooded Sinai Temple in West Los Angeles for a memorial seven days after his killing.
Even though the Iranian government never officially announced its reasons for executing Ebi, his friends, family and other Iranian Jews living in Southern California have their own theories. Some believe he was executed to strike fear into the hearts of Jews in Iran, to force them to abandon their substantial assets so the government could confiscate them. Others believe the execution may have been an act of revenge by the Iranian clerics and Palestinian terrorists in Iran following Israel’s declaration of Jerusalem as its undivided and eternal capital not long before this time. A few individuals close to the Berookhim family also believe that some of their hotel’s former disgruntled employees who had become officials in the new regime may have conspired to have Ebi killed out of jealousy or in order to confiscate his family’s wealth.
My parents told me that Ebi’s execution was the final breaking point in their decision to flee Iran and leave behind all our assets; we left in September 1980. As it turned out, we were among the last to flee Iran via plane; Tehran’s international airport was shut down just three days after our flight because of the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War. We traveled first to Germany, where my father had relatives living in Hamburg, but we had not had time to obtain entry visas amid the chaos of our departure from Iran. Once again, we were immensely fortunate — the immigration agent granted my family visas at our arrival after my father spoke fluently to him in German and explained our predicament.
From Germany, we had a brief stay in Israel, and then, two months after leaving our Iranian home, we finally immigrated to Los Angeles, where my parents restarted their lives from zero.
Even so, my parents recently admitted to me that they probably would have remained in Iran to this day, to care for my elderly grandparents, had Ebi not been executed. And the ripples from his death went even further. Ebi’s execution caused another massive wave of Jews in Tehran and elsewhere in Iran to sell what assets they could at bargain prices and flee the country.
Ebi was officially only the third Jew to be executed by the Islamic government in Iran. Two other more prominent Jews were executed before him on similar false charges of espionage for Israel and the United States. The first was Habib Elghanian, the leader of Iran’s Jewish community, who was executed in May 1979. The second was the well-known Jewish businessman Albert Danielpour, who was executed in June 1980 in the city of Hamadan.
According to a 2004 report prepared by Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian Jewish activist who heads the Los Angeles-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, the Jewish community in Iran continues to live in constant fear for its security amid threats from Islamic terrorist factions. Since 1979, at least 14 Jews have been murdered or assassinated by the regime’s agents, at least two Jews have died while in custody, and 11 Jews have been officially executed by the regime. In 1999, Feizollah Mekhoubad, a 78-year-old cantor of the popular Yousefabad synagogue in Tehran, was the last Jew officially to be executed by the regime, according to the report.
In 2000, with the assistance of various American Jewish groups, the Iranian Jewish community in the United States, but particularly in Los Angeles, was able to publicize the case of 13 Iranian Jews from the city of Shiraz who had been imprisoned in 1999 on fabricated charges of spying for Israel. Ultimately, the international exposure put pressure on the Iranian regime, and the “Shiraz 13” eventually were released.
Despite the painful memories surrounding the execution of Ebi, our family members, like my relative Abraham Berookhim — Ebi’s nephew — said they do not harbor ill will toward Iranian Muslims in general.
“I don’t want people to think that all Muslims are bad, because it’s not true — some of my friends and even my business partner are Muslims and they’re great people,” Abraham told me. “We oppose the regime of Iran and their radical leadership.”
But the lasting effects of Ebi’s execution are still felt by my parents and the rest of our family. The emotional scars from 30 years ago have not fully healed for any of them. For the first time since Ebi’s execution, my father openly admitted that many nights he is still haunted by nightmares of the tragedy. “Even though I have nightmares of what happened to Ebi, I wanted to talk about how Ebi was killed,” my father said, “because I want others to know what an injustice happened to an innocent man.” And despite experiencing tremendous hardships and persecution at the hands of the radical Islamic regime in Iran, the Iranian Jewish community in Southern California continues to be active in seeking to help its 20,000 Jewish brethren who remain there.
And the American Iranian Jews won’t be silenced: In September 2006, a lawsuit was filed against former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami in a U.S. federal court by the families of 12 Iranian Jews arrested by the Iranian secret police while attempting to flee from southwestern Iran into Pakistan between 1994 and 1997; the 12 were never heard from again. The suit alleges Khatami authorized the arrest and indefinite imprisonment of those 12 Iranian Jews. While the regime never defended its case in court, the suit kept alive the story of the 12 missing Jews in the public eye and kept the spotlight on the Iranian regime’s human rights abuses.
After hearing their family’s stories of struggling and escaping from Iran, likewise many young professionals in the Iranian Jewish community, including the organization 30 Years After, continue to work hard to have their voices heard. It is stories like my cousin Ebi’s that refuse to die and that have brought a new generation of Iranian Jews to embrace political involvement in their homeland, the United States, when it comes to issues of Iran.
For more in-depth interviews related to this story, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews/.
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