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Jewish Journal

Looking back on the Iranian revolution after 30 years

by Karmel Melamed

September 7, 2008 | 2:28 am

Following the publication of my cover story this week in the L.A. Jewish Journal regarding the Iranian Jewish experience during that country’s revolution, readers of the paper and this blog have asked me why I decided to go forward with the piece at this point in time. My objectives in writing the article were both personal and historic—this piece has perhaps been one of the very few emotionally driven pieces of my career in journalism.

Having been born at the start of a chaotic revolution is not something very many people let alone journalist possess and my family’s remarkable experience of escape during that time has been a tale I’ve carried with me for the past 30 years. As I’ve arrived at this juncture in my life, after three decades of living in a Jewish family and community, I felt it was time to shed light on their past plight and all that they have suffered at the hands of Iran’s totalitarian Islamic regime. Many of my own relatives and the older generation of Iranian Jews living in Southern California do not want to look back at what transpired in late 1978 and 1979. Their memories of having to forfeit their livelihoods or having relatives executed in Iran are often too painful to recall. “It was another world and another life my dear young man,” said one Iranian Jewish man in his 80’s to me recently. “Let the past go, let it die away”. Unfortunately a good number of Southern California’s Iranian Jews cannot let go of the revolution, they cannot forget the injustice they endured at the hands of Iran’s Islamic regime—and everyday they look back on their lives and are still baffled at how everything was suddenly turned upside down for them. The revolution in Iran was in many ways a horrible catastrophe for Iranian Jewry, not only because of the millions in dollars in assets that they left behind or had taken away, but because of the fact that this very ancient (2,500 year old) Jewish community was suddenly and violently uprooted. Thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish lives were overturned because of this heinous revolution 30 years ago in the name of a radical Islamic theocracy. Overnight, the Jews and other religious minorities that had lived under relative tranquility/tolerance in Iran before, were turned into second class citizen because of their mere religion after the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took power. The scares of the revolution have still not healed in the Iranian Jewish community living outside of Iran who justly feel robbed. The community has been carrying these painful memories and their experiences no doubt effect their behavior in Los Angeles, New York and Tel Aviv. Thus I felt it was incumbent upon me as a journalist from the community to finally share their stories with the rest of the world. The Iranian Jewish community’s by in large collective public silence about the effects of revolution has baffled me. Who will seek justice for them after this great injustice they endured? Who will care enough to help them possibly reclaim their lost assets? Who will stand up to the current Iranian government on their behalf? The answer is quite simply NO ONE! Not a single soul would likely do anything for them because the general public worldwide knows very little about the plight of Jews during the Iranian revolution. With a lack of education about the topic, no one would know nor care about this very important Jewish community. Perhaps now that I’ve revealed the tip of the iceberg on this issue, more people will have the courage to speak up.

Likewise I decided to tell my grandmother’s remarkable story of fleeing Iran, not for any personal glory nor to seek sympathy from people—but to reveal an example of the hardships Jews encountered as a result of the Iranian revolution. Many average folks in the West haven’t a clue about the unmerciful brutality of the current Iranian government. Indeed we even have some U.S. and European politicians (not to mention a U.S. presidential candidate) who have the absurd belief that one can actually sit down and logically negotiate with the insane religious leaders of the Iranian government! If Iran’s government mistreated, killed, abused its Jewish population and its other non-Muslims citizens during the revolution and afterwards—God knows what nefarious plans they have ready to unleash on the rest of the world once they acquire nuclear weapons! The Iranian American Jewish story of escape and exile from Iran should serve as a clear example for all American politicians of the pure evil that lies at the heart of Iran’s current regime. While my community may be tight-lipped about what they endure in the late 1970’s and 1980’s in Iran, I for one will cannot remain silent. What they endured was a horrible injustice that one day must be done right—it may take decades for Iranian Jewry to have this justice but nevertheless it should be sought.

Recording what the community suffered during the revolution is also essential for historical purposes. Just as Shoah survivors today are slowly dying away, their stories of suffering and survival thankfully remain alive and recorded for future generations as well as for historians to refer to. Unfortunately I do not see very many Iranian Jews seeking to record our oral history during the revolution. How on earth will the younger generations of American Jews from Iranian heritage fully comprehend what their families experienced at the hands of Iran’s ayatollahs? When their parents and grandparents are long gone, they may have a limited knowledge for what transpired during the late 1970’s, but nothing substantial. That would be a great calamity! My hope is that my work may somehow serve as some sort of long term historical reference for future generations in our community. Sadly Iranian Jews living in the U.S. and Israel are largely afraid to speak about what hardships they encountered during the revolution because many still have relatives in Iran and they feel that the regime’s leadership will harm their relatives if they speak up. This silence is heartbreaking because it seems as if the current Iranian government is harming Iranian Jewry a second time today by indirectly causing the community to remain quiet about the regime’s crimes.

Perhaps my final motivation in preparing this cover story was because of the incredible growth and tremendous success of Iranian Jewish immigrant to the U.S. during the last 30 years. I honestly cannot think of very many other immigrant groups to this nation that have within such a short time after their arrival here achieve financial, educational, social and even political victories. To have been plucked from that third world nation in the Middle East with little money, a lack of language skills and few contacts in the U.S., Iranian Jews today have made millions (and yes some billions) through their companies. Likewise during the last 30 years they have sent their children to obtain higher education and the new generation of Iranian Jews in America are among the most accomplished professors, educators, physicians, lawyers, entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists in the country! Now I ask you, isn’t it amazing how this ancient Jewish community was able to so quickly adapt and thrive in the U.S.? I for one believe so and feel compelled to share the news of their successes.

In the end, I feel honored to be one of the few journalists/authors today that has had the special opportunity to share the Iranian Jewish community’s stories from the revolution. I am also eternally grateful to the editors of the L.A. Jewish Journal for permitting me one special issue to retell the Iranian Jewish experience and shed light on all that they have overcome to achieve success in the U.S. My special thanks to our editor-in-chief Rob Eshman and managing editor Susan Freudenheim for having the open mind, open heart and wisdom to welcome this week’s cover story as well as the many others about Southern California’s dynamic Iranian Jewish community published in the paper regularly. You guys are the best for seeking to welcome all the various Jewish factions—including the Iranian Jews (who often seclude themselves) into the Jewish tent in Los Angeles.

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