Jewish Journal

American author recalls Iranian Jewish response to Shah leaving Iran

by Karmel Melamed

January 31, 2008 | 9:39 pm

I am always intrigued to read or hear what perspectives other Jewish groups have when it comes to Iranian Jews. An article this week by Jewish anthropologist and author Karen L. Pliskin in the Forward newspaper particularly caught my attention as she shares her memories of Iranian Jews in 1979 when the late Shah of Iran fled that country. Between 1978 and 1979, Pliskin was a doctoral student studying in Iran and interacting with the Jews living in the city of Shiraz. Pliskin shares the deep sorrow many Iranian Jews felt when hearing of the Shah’s departure as he and his father Reza Shah had created an atmosphere of religious tolerance and greater freedoms for Jews living in Iran. One of Pliskin’s Jewish friends, Mrs. Hakeem, was weeping upon hearing of the Shah’s exile from Iran;

“The Shah left she said, stammering. She wiped her eyes with a moist handkerchief. I was listening to the 2:00 p.m. news. They announced that the Shah departed with the Empress Farah. He piloted a 727 by himself. Mrs. Hakeem sat down and wept as if she were mourning the death of a close relative. Our lives in Iran after 2,600 years of being here as Jews are finished. She stood up, found another handkerchief and dabbed her eyes.”

At the same time Pliskin also reflects on the false sense of security some Iranian Jews felt when the new fundamentalist Islamic leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini too power in Iran;

Sami, the engineer the only Jew that afternoon to call the Shah a dictator whispered to me his optimism about the future: “An article in today’s paper quoted Khomeini. He said that when the Islamic state is formed, Iran will sever ties with Israel, but the Jews of Iran will have more freedom under Islam than they have ever had before.”

Sadly what Iranian Jews were told about the supposed “new freedoms” they would receive under the new radical Islamic regime in Iran were all lies. The new regime’s clerical leaders promptly executed Habib Elgahnian, one of the leaders of Jewish community in Iran for supposedly being a spy for Israel and a sympathizer with the Shah’s government. Elghanian’s execution prompted the first massive wave of Jews to flee Iran and leave behind millions of dollars in assets. Next Iran’s new Islamic government stripped Jews and other religious minorities of all equal rights that had shared with Iranian Muslims during the Pahlavi dynasty. In essence Jews in Iran at that time by in large lived in constant fear that their lives and livelihoods could be taken away instantly under the new radical Islamic government that could do whatever it pleased.

While I applaud Pliskin’s efforts to shed light on the difficulty Jews faced when the Shah was deposed in Iran in 1979, as a Jew who was born in Iran I strongly disagree with her calls for the U.S. government to now engage in diplomatic relations with Iran’s radical Islamic government. Unfortunately Pliskin left Iran when the Ayatollah Khomeini arrived in Iran and she did not witness the harassment and execution of Jews that occurred in Iran when he took power. Pliskin was not around to see Elghanian’s execution nor the execution of my distant cousin Ebrahim Berookhim, a 31-year-old innocent Jew who was executed by the Ayatollah’s regime just for being Jewish and hosting Israelis and Americans in his Tehran hotel! Pliskin has obviously not known of more than a dozen Jews who have been killed or executed by Iran’s current government since 1979 for various ridiculous reasons. Even though nearly 20,000 Jews still live in Iran and claim to live in “freedom”, they are considered second class citizens under Iran’s Islamic laws and are living with the constant risk of being killed at any moment under this irrational regime. I have no idea what bubble Pliskin lives in, but for the last 29 years nearly 60,000 Jews fled Iran for America, Israel and Europe because of the brutality of the current regime in Iran. No doubt the current Iranian regime is no friend to the Jews. If they’ve had such a long history of reigning terror on Jews, Christians and other religious minorities, what makes Pliskin think Iran’s current regime does not have plans to do the same with the U.S. and Europe?

Now what perplexes me is how on earth can any country let alone the U.S. can have diplomatic relations with an evil government in Iran which has not only destroyed the lives of thousands of Jews but plunged the entire Middle East into turmoil. No civilized nation on the face of this earth can negotiate nor reason with the radical Islamic clerics that run Iran because they see no future in co-existing with non-Islamic and non-Shiite Muslim people period! The current Iranian constitution is built around the principle of a global Islamic jihad where non-Muslims must convert to Islam or be destroyed. How can we in the West and U.S. even sit down with leaders of such an evil nation? How can the U.S. negotiate with a country that wants to “wipe out” Israel, another country from the face of the earth? Hitler and the Nazis were planning the same type of world domination by annihilation of many races and peoples. Iran’s current government is no different!

Now I am not advocating military action against Iran, but that regime must be economically and diplomatically isolated from the rest of the world. We in the international community need to put a greater economic squeeze on Iran, that is facing already turmoil in their domestic market already. This will lead that government to immediately collapse or stir civil unrest in the population to rise up against Iran’s clerics running the country. By engaging Iran’s current leaders we only embolden their positions in that nation and permit them to continue spreading their global terrorism to Iraq, Lebanon and in Gaza.

The departure of the late Shah was a terrible day of sadness for the majority of Jews living in Iran because he and his father had literally transformed their lives for the better. The Pahlavi dynasty had essentially removed all the previous social, economic and educational barriers that Jews and other religious minorities had encountered for centuries in Iran. Jews under the Pahlavi dynasty were finally able to pull themselves up and out of their ghettos to become one of the most prosperous and successful Jewish communities in the world. When the Shah was forced into exile, the rugs were literally yank out from underneath the Jews who had supported his reign and benefited from the atmosphere of religious tolerance he had created in Iran for them.

Interestingly enough a number of older Iranian Jews living in Los Angeles recently told me that a day of mourning and fasting was called by the late head rabbi Hacham Yedidia Shofet in Iran when the Shah left the country. Even though life in Iran was never perfect during the Pahlavi dynasty, in my own opinion Iranian Jews owe a great deal of gratitude to the Pahlavi monarchs for a lot of what Iranian Jews have today. This is because both Pahlavi kings probably did as much if not more to help Iranian Jewry than ancient Persia’s first monarch, Cyrus the Great had done for the Jews.

(left to right; Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi age 21 and his father Reza Shah Pahlavi. Both were very benevolent former monarches of Iran granting the Jews of Iran from 1925 to 1979 unprecedent freedom and social tolerances as well as the ability to educate themselves and prosper in Iran).

(What remains today of the statute of the late Shah of Iran in Tehran).

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Karmel Melamed is an internationally-published freelance journalist based in Southern California.

Since 2000, Melamed has specialized in covering the growing influential...

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