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Operating instructions

by Gina Nahai

April 30, 2014 | 10:05 am

Every once in a while, someone I know will come up to me and announce that I’ve done it again, written something awful and insulting about the Iranian community in Los Angeles, and, in so doing, embarrassed us all in front of the non-Iranian community in L.A. 

“You’re lucky you’ve been invited to this dinner,” a friend will say, “everyone is mad at you for your last Jewish Journal article.” 

Or, just last month: “I had a dinner party last night and all everyone talked about was how insulting your article was to all Iranians, regardless of age, profession or worldview.” 

On this occasion, the objectionable article was about me. I had written in these pages that I’ve recently realized I have no life, no hobbies, no fun and nor do most people I know. We’re all too “busy” working to have hobbies — we’re goal-oriented, ambitious immigrant types who have embraced our inner Quaker. 

Most of the time, the friends who suggest I follow Edward Snowden to Russian exile will confess they haven’t read the article in question. Nor, they will admit, have most of the other critics. But they’ve heard about it, which is all that’s necessary in the age of cable news and social media to form a considered opinion. 

What they’ve heard is that I’ve written “something” that “makes us look bad.” Sometimes the “something” is believed to be accurate, sometimes not. Either way, it doesn’t belong in a public forum because, the argument goes, it casts the Iranian-Jewish community in a negative light. 

I’ve heard this “makes us look bad” assertion so many times and in so many contexts, I became inured to it long ago. I heard it in Iran, among Jews who were forever afraid of the judgment of Muslims, and within the Jewish community, where we judged each other too harshly. I heard it again in the United States, among Iranians of every faith who, despite their deep allegiance and many contributions to this country, are often viewed in the same light as your average shoe-bombing, hostage-taking mullah-in-civilian-clothes. And I’ve heard it from Iranian Jews who — this is the part that should be most shocking to us all — fear the condemnation of their Ashkenazi neighbors. 

I’m often told I tend to write things about our community that many among us think or even whisper in private but are “afraid” to say out loud and in public. I worry about this just as much as I do about offending people unfairly. It goes without saying that I’m no expert in the social and historical principles upon which the Iranian-Jewish community stands. Mine is just one person’s reality, as addled by personal experience and distorted by internal biases as any. But I don’t think the real issue in this debate is the correctness of one portrayal or another. I think it’s much bigger, more important to explore, than any one person’s version of the truth. 

Yes, it’s true that the moment a thought or opinion, however spurious, gets into print or is expressed before a camera, it gains a certain weight, an aura of legitimacy, that it may or may not deserve. The stakes are even higher in the case of a minority group already judged (and sometimes reviled) by the larger community and that finds itself forever on the defensive for what are mostly cultural differences. We Jews know this as well as any minority group. We know how easy it is for an entire minority group to be condemned for the sins of a few bad apples, about the implicit rule against criticizing our own, or airing our differences, or even drawing attention to ourselves. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, we know from experience it’s going to be used against us by someone, at some time, even if the source of the information is one of our own. Especially if the source is one of our own.

We know all this, and yet, ladies and gentlemen, some of us continue to reprove one another — Orthodox versus Reform, Ashkenazi versus Sephardic, American versus Iranian — if not with the same harshness, then with equal intolerance. At a time when the world is as safe a place for Jews as it has ever been, in a city that is as accepting of outsiders as any, some of us are still vulnerable to unjust indictment. We still fear the consequences of “looking bad,” admitting that we have flaws, drawing attention to ourselves and our inadequacies. Only now, the judgment we fear is that of other Jews. 

This, I dare say, is the much more important issue.  

We all know that even as minorities suffer from discrimination, they often discriminate against others; that even within the minority group, some pull rank over the rest. But I’d like to think that most of us have evolved to a place where we recognize and guard against what appears to be a human flaw: to fear and dislike and try to discredit the “other.” I take seriously the writer’s responsibility to tell the truth as he sees it — that is, with honesty, clarity and as much objectivity as possible. To write only what he would be able to defend if need be — to write as if each word mattered. But what if, in trying one’s best to fulfill that responsibility, one runs the risk of doing real or imagined harm to the standing and reputation of one’s own people? What if that real or imagined harm is most likely to come from within? 

The freedom to live a true and responsible life is the greatest gift America has given its citizens. It’s why, despite all the suffering it has caused, many of us Iranian Jews feel that being forced out of Iran was the best thing that could have happened to us. But here’s the irony: We don’t have to fear the judgment of our Muslim neighbors anymore; it’s looking bad to other Jews that we’re apprehensive about. 

Every once in a while, my husband will ask, apropos this column and only half-jokingly, “Whom are you planning to offend this month?” Most of the time I’ll say, in all sincerity, that I feel I should add operating instructions to everything I write: Remember, we’re all Jews.

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