Posted by Karmel Melamed
During this past weekend I was disturbed to come across a shameful opinion article written by New York Times columnist Roger Cohen who was regurgitating the usual lies Jews living in Iran are forced to give Western journalists who visit them because of the Jews fear of what will happen to them if they do not say what Iran’s Islamic regime’s leadership dictate to them. Cohen, who obviously is unaware of the duress under which the Jews of Iran live, recently travelled to Iran and tries to paint a positive yet inaccurate picture of their lives in his piece. I wrote the below letter to the New York Times in response to his ridiculous claims regarding Iran’s Jews, but unfortunately the Times lacked the courage to publish my response. However, through this blog the rest of the world can read my take on Cohen’s false claims:
February 23, 2009
As a journalist who has been exclusively covering Iranian Jewry in U.S. and in Iran for the last 10 years I was utterly shocked at the misrepresentation of the Jews of Iran after reading Roger Cohen’s piece “What Iran’s Jews Say” published in your paper on February 22nd. Unfortunately Mr. Cohen, has fallen for the long running façade the Iranian regime has put out in the Western media with regards to their treatment of religious minorities living in Iran. As an Iranian Jewish journalist who has more first hand knowledge about Iranian Jewry and had a family member executed by the Iranian regime in 1980, I feel compelled to set the record straight.
In his piece, Mr. Cohen tries to paint a rosy picture for the lives of some 20,000 Jews living in Iran after 30 years following the Iranian revolution. He claims Jews live in peace and freedom while members of Iran’s regime are benevolent toward the country’s Jews. Yet as a journalist who speaks the Persian language fluently and regularly chats with Jews and non-Jewish Iranians who have fled the country, I can tell you Mr. Cohen’s claims are nothing more than fantasies. The truth of the matter is that since 1979, Iran’s government has used the presence of Jews living in that country as a major propaganda tool to supposedly show themselves in a positive light to the West. Sadly, Mr. Cohen’s most naive ideas and assertions about Iran’s Jews are based on his foolish beliefs in the supposed “facts” or the “positive” statements made by the Jewish community and Jewish leaders in Iran about their lives in the country. Mr. Cohen cites a quote from Maurice Motamed, the former Jewish member of Iran’s Parliament to show that Iran’s Jew have “fair representation” in Iran’s government. Yet what Mr. Cohen and the mainstream Western media do not realize are that comments made by any Jewish leaders in Iran to the Western media lack any credibility since these leaders have been hand picked by the Iranian Intelligence Ministry to parrot what the regime tells them to say. Whenever any journalist goes to Iran to talk to the Jews, they are handed over to specific Jews or Jewish leaders who are living under duress and have been given a “script” to memorize from— just as was the case with the Jews featured in the Nazi film at Theresienstadt during World War II. Let’s not be naive, Iran’s Jews are not free to stay whatever they truely feel about their regime because they know the dire consequences that await them if they do speak out. What is even more outrageous about Iran’s propaganda machine is that the regime does not grant visas to journalists it deems unsympathetic to their government. So the Iranian officials have pretty much had free reign in spewing their one-sided message regarding Iranian Jews that is in no way objective. Mr. Cohen seems to fit that category very well from what he’s written in his opinion piece. In essence how can any statements regarding Iran’s Jews coming from those so closely aligned with Iran’s regime be trusted? They clearly cannot.
Moreover, what Jews in Iran say about their living conditions cannot be given any credence because the Iranian regime’s thugs keep a tight grip on the Jewish community in Iran who live in constant fear for their lives. If the Jews step out of line in Iran their lives are at immediate risk. Such was the case in 2000 when 13 Jews from the city of Shiraz were randomly arrested on trumped up charges of being supposed spies for Israel and the U.S. The penalty for treason or most other crimes by any person especially a non-Muslim in Iran is death. The intense pressure from the U.S. and Europe on Iran during the case of the Shiraz 13 ultimately forced the regime not to execute the Jews. Now if Mr. Cohen is reluctant to believe me, I suggest he speak to the scores of new Iranian Jewish immigrants who have recently resettled in Los Angeles and ask them about life in Iran. Or perhaps he should chat with the hundreds of Iranian Jewish families who fled Iran and are still waiting in Austria for their visas to the U.S. and ask them how life was really like for them in Iran. I seriously doubt Mr. Cohen or anyone else would find a single person who would praise the conditions of living for Jews in Iran. While Jews or other minorities reside in Iran, every single day they have fear of what calamities may befall them, so they praise the regime and therefore their statements are also tainted and inaccurate.
In addition, Mr. Cohen fails to take into account that before the 1979 revolution, some 80,000 Jews lived in Iran as compared to the 20,000 who have remained there today. The mass exodus of Jews in the late 1970’s and 1980s would be enough proof to anyone that Iran must obviously not be a welcoming place for Jews if 60,000 of them have fled the country. Mr. Cohen likewise fails to take into account the millions of dollars in assets and property that Iranian’s current government confiscated from Jews during and after the 1979 revolution. Is that Cohen’s idea of supposed tranquility and fair treatment of the Jews by the current regime? If the Jews and religious minorities live in such supposed “freedom” in Iran, then why does the Iranian Constitution clearly indicate that all non-Muslims have inferior status to Muslims? Why do Iran’s laws require that all non-Muslims be humiliated and confined to prevent them from gaining any advantages over Muslims? According to a 2004 report prepared by Frank Nikbakht, director of the Committee for Religious Minorities in Iran—based in Los Angeles, since 1979 at least 14 Jews were murdered or assassinated by the regime’s agents, at least two Jews died in custody and 11 Jews have been officially executed by the regime. The status of Jews and other religious minorities are as second class citizens today in Iran according to the radical Shiite laws set forth by Iran’s clerics. Contrary to Mr. Cohen’s assertions, there is nothing “tranquil” about their lives. Sadly, the Jews that have remained in Iran today unfortunately believe they can outlast the regime and they can endure their second class status despite the lack of true freedom in Iran.
As a journalist who has close ties to the Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles and New York, I am reminded by countless Iranian American Jewish leaders to “watch what I might be writing about the Iranian government” because of their fear that what I may report on may ultimately have negative repercussions on the Jews still living in Iran. So why on earth are Iranian American Jews so concerned about my articles and the safety of their brethren in Iran if everything is supposedly so fine and dandy for Jews in Iran? What’s real sad about Mr. Cohen and other apologists of Iran’s regime is that they have no other way to bolster the Iranian government than to point to the supposed “fine” condition of Jews in the country. The fact of the matter is that Iran’s economy is in shambles, there are gasoline and food shortages, skyrocketing inflation, and doubt-digit unemployment. The rogue regime is pursuing nuclear weapons and threatening its neighbors with annihilation. How else could anyone justify keeping any government in power with such disastrous conditions? As usual they can use the Jews as the perfect distraction and Mr. Cohen has done a fine job of helping them to do that.
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February 24, 2009 | 12:00 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Nearly 150 local young and older Iranian Jews as well as a handful of other Jews packed the Nessah Synagogue’s main sanctuary hall in Beverly Hills on February 5, 2009 for a unique lecture event on the largely unstudied 2,700 year history of Iran’s Jews. The gathering was the first of its kind in English language and organized by the L.A.-based Iranian Jewish Cultural Organization of California to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of Professor Amnon Netzer. “Tonight, we are doing what Professor Netzer loved the most— sharing the long and rich history of Iranian Jews with the community and with the young generation living here in Los Angeles who may not be aware of their heritage,” said George Haroonian, one of the event’s organizers. Nezter who died last year of cancer, was a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem as well as one of the world’s foremost experts on Iranian Jews, Judeo-Persian language and literature and Iranian studies.
The event featured lectures about the secrets behind Jewish survival in Iran for more than two millennium and was given by two of Nezter’s long time protégés, UCLA professor of Iranian Jewish studies Dr. Nahid Pirnazar and Dr. Daniel Tsadik, assistant professor of Sephardic studies at Yeshiva University in New York. The gathering was also unique as it was one of the few in recent years where local Iranian Jews have openly discussed the forced conversions, public humiliations, persecutions and murders their ancestors experienced for 27 centuries at the hands of Iran’s clerics, kings and other Muslim authorities. “I was very pleased with the turn-out of this event, it’s always great to see members of the community taking an interest in their history and origins,” said Tsadik. Young Iranian Jews in their teens and 20’s said the event was eye-opening because they were unfamiliar with the hardships their ancestors had face for hundreds of years in Iran. Haroonian said his group plans to organized additional similar Iranian Jewish historical lecture series in the coming months. The evening’s event was also sponsored by Nessah’s Young Professional group and the L.A.-based 30 Years After organization.
My podcast last year regarding Nezter’s passing can be found here
February 13, 2009 | 1:00 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Despite the downturn in the economy here in the U.S. and in Israel, successful Southern California Iranian Jewish entrepreneur Sam Nazarian has expressed interest in opening one of his popular high end SLS hotels in Tel Aviv during a recent interview with the Jerusalem Post newspaper in Israel. He told the Post; “I don’t see a project before 2011, but there could be a deal before. We are interested in an existing property or a joint venture. Traveling to Israel, people are often disappointed with the service. The composition of our brand is similar to the Hilton Hotel chain, adding European hospitality and high-end level of service and design.”
Nazarian who is 33, is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of SBE a company that owns and operates a number of popular high end hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, and other real estate ventures. I am not at all surprised that he has expressed a desire to invest in Israel because during his last interview with our blog’s podcast he stated his strong support for Israel. Over the past several years he has also opened his nightclubs here in L.A. for fundraisers on behalf of the “Friends of the I.D.F.” and to benefit Israeli victims of terror during the 2006 Hezbollah war. Likewise Nazarian comes from a Zionist Iranian Jewish family that has been well known for being very philanthropic to Israel related causes and universities in Israel for many years. On an interesting side note, his uncle Parviz Nazarian has been quite active in recent years in promoting his CECI organization which is based in Israel and was established five years ago with the objective of promoting more stable and effective governments in Israel through education as well as advocacy of the Israeli public.
Nevertheless, I applaud Sam Nazarian’s desire to invest in Israel because that country needs new capital and he sets a great example for others like himself to support Israel when it comes to business investments. It’s no secret that many real estate developers as well as other successful Iranian Jews often follow Nazarian’s lead when it comes to their business ventures. No doubt, Iranian American Jews have achieved tremendous success here in the U.S. and now it’s time for them to give back—both to Israel and America, which are new homes to the community. Kudos to Sam for being among the first in his generation of Iranian American Jews in aiding Israel through business and through philanthropy!
Read more about Sam Nazarian’s background and rise to success in our previous blog posting here.
You can listen to our November 2008 podcast program’s exclusive interview with Sam Nazarian here.
Sam Nazarian speaking at Hebrew Union symposium on Iranian American Jews at Sinai Temple on Nov. 17th, photo by Jon Vidar
February 11, 2009 | 1:13 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Last night Paul Koretz, the Los Angeles City Council candidate for the Fifth district spoke at a fundraiser in Westwood, a local stronghold for various Iranian groups in the city. Last week our podcast program chatted with Koretz about his outreaching to Iranian voters. Koretz, who is also Jewish and a former member of the California Assembly, has been embraced by local Iranian Jews, Iranian Muslims and other Iranians in the area. He is one of the few candidates in the race who has focused on winning support among various Iranian American groups in the district. Interestingly, L.A.‘s Fifth district is home to the largest number of Iranians in the city and Koretz has been heavily campaigning among them.
Listen to our podcast interview with Koretz about his interactions with local Iranians during this race here
Koretz campaign officials said he not only plans on speaking to several Iranian synagogues in the area but will also be speaking at a West L.A. mosque in order to reach other Iranian voters in the district. In addition, Koretz has been quick to welcome and outreach to Iranians in the Fifth district whereas the out-going Fifth District Council member, Jack Weiss, neglected local Iranians in the city according to many Iranians in the city. Other local Iranian Jewish leaders are lending political support to Koretz based on his prior City Council support of improvement projects to Temple Beth El, the synagogue of the Iranian American Jewish Federation in West Hollywood.
My recent article about Koretz and the other local Iranian Jewish candidates for Beverly Hills City Council can be found here.
February 9, 2009 | 4:08 am
Posted by Karmel Melamed
This week my piece in the L.A. Jewish Journal focuses on the two Iranian Jewish candidates for the Beverly Hills City Council, a race this year that has not generated as much excitement and buzz as the previous February 2007 race. Our podcast program had a chance to chat with the two candidates, Fran Cohen and Michael Hakim about their strategies in winning one of the three open spots on the Council. We also chatted briefly with Jimmy Delshad, the only Iranian Jew on the Beverly Hills City Council and previous city mayor on his impressions of the current candidates.
Listen to our podcast program here
My article about the 2007 election in Beverly Hills can be found here.