Almost on a weekly basis I am approached by folks in the Jewish community and non-Jewish community who asked me the same question; “why are you Iranian Jews living in the U.S. so successful?” I’ve been asking myself that same question for the past eight years as a journalist who has been covering the community and looking at them from afar. With the 30th anniversary of the start of the Iranian revolution approaching next year, sociologists and anthropologists should take a close look at the overall impact the migration of Jews from Iran to America has had on this community.
In my opinion, the massive wave of immigration of Iranian Jews to Southern California and New York in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s was perhaps one of the most unique and incredible social experiments of the 20th century. Here was a tight knit Jewish community who was just beginning to pull itself out of poverty, had not had much exposure to the rest of the world while living in a developing third world country—which was quite abruptly transplanted into one of the most dynamic, technologically advanced and free countries in the world. Dariush Fakheri, the founder of the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana, California, has frequently compared the Iranian Jewish immigration to the U.S. to “suddenly placing a lobster in a boil pot of water”. With the circumstances surrounding our exile from Iran and the necessity to quickly getting adjusted to life in America, it is simply remarkable that the Iranian Jewish community in the U.S. has not only been able to survive but has flourished. Now totally 30,000 in Southern California alone, we have countless doctors, lawyers, engineers, businessmen and even folks working in the film industry in Hollywood from our community! An even more amazing aspect of this social experiment concerning Iranian Jewry, has been the fact that our community has achieved this substantial success within a fairly short amount of time since our arrive in the U.S.
For me, perhaps one of the greatest aspects of the Iranian Jewish immigration to the U.S. has been the new found freedoms our community has been granted in America. While the late Shah of Iran and his father Reza Shah had provided an environment of significant social and religious tolerance for Jews living in Iran, the Jewish community in many ways still faced discrimination, was barred from certain professions such government posts and were often treated as second class citizens. From what I’ve been told as a journalist, Jews in Iran typically did not voice their political opinions or get involved in politics for fear of what potential danger may fall upon them at the hands of certain Muslim political elements. We no longer have to hear some Muslims refer to us with the derogatory term of “bad joohood” which translates to “bad Jew” in English and is the equivalent of the “N” word for Iranian Jews. In America we can now openly support Israel and hold fundraisers for Israeli causes without fear of the potential backlash from anyone, whereas this was not possible in Iran. I must emphasize that not all Muslims in Iran are currently or in the past have been intolerant and disrespectful to Jews. We as Iranian American Jews still maintain close friendships with other Iranians of the Muslim, Christian, Zoroastrian and Bahai faith in the U.S. So for our community to be able to stand proudly and have the freedoms to pursue politics, religion, and business is a significant dream come true.
The next time you hear or read about the successes of a person in the Iranian Jewish community, you should keep in mind that that person’s parent or grandparent once struggled to survive in Iran and maintain his or her Jewish identity. Who would have throught that the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of Jews that were mistreated and living in poverty in ghettos in Iran could flourish when given the opportunities? America is truly a great country!