For the last 30 some odd years L.A. area Iranian Jewish activist, George Haroonian has been involved with a whole host of community related issues from religious and traditional controversies to political matters concerning Iran and the Jews still living in Iran. Yet during the last two and half years, as a creditor in the Namvar case that has plagued his community, his involvement with the community with regards to this case has been intense. Like the handful of other L.A. area Iranian Jews who have been vocal about the case of now convicted Iranian Jewish businessman, Ezri Namvar, Haroonian has not been spared the verbal attacks and criticisms from some in the community for his making his voice heard. Even though he and his family have financially suffered as a result of Namvar’s alleged business fraud, Haroonian has chosen to take the high road, been a voice of moderation and urged creditors and community members to resolve their differences in a conciliatory manner.
I recently sat down with him to discuss his reactions to the recent Namvar conviction and the impact it has had among Southern California’s Iranian Jewish community.
You were one of the victims of Namvar’s alleged ponzi scheme, what was your immediate reaction to news of his conviction?
My immediate reaction. was one of sadness and uncertainty. I am sad for our community and the creditor body, that has had to go through this divisive ordeal. This is also a sad day, because it is another chapter in the downfall of someone who was once considered a successful and benevolent businessman and now faces a bleak possibility. Uncertain, because it is very difficult to appraise this community’s internal relations once we are through with this case. It would take a lot of work to unify the community or create mutual respect.
Can you please share any feedback or reaction you have heard from other Namvar creditors from the local Iranian Jewish community as to his recent conviction?
It has been a mixed reaction. Most people do not see any closure or satisfaction in this. After all, the case is not about the case of unsecured creditors of Namco Capital but the Namco Escrow company. There are few who have expressed delight and satisfaction. I find this completely contrary to Jewish teachings, when one does not even enjoy witnessing the demise of his enemies.
What message do you think this conviction sends to others like Namvar in the Iranian Jewish community who may be involved in similar schemes?
These people should come clean and show what they have done with other people’s funds— the sooner the better for every one. Unfortunately, some of the people committed the fraud, act as if the funds that were entrusted to them are their own personal funds. The long term message is that “greed” should be controlled and financial success cannot come at the cost of taking other people’s life savings.
There has been a lot of verbal and e-mail criticisms for the local religious leaders of the Iranian Jewish community for their response or lack of response to this Namvar affair. Can you please explain why or why not you think this criticism has been fair?
First of all, the e-mail campaign and spreading of rumors was started primarily by one person, who is not even a creditor and has a personal vendetta against the Namvars and the Rabbis— whom he proposes do not follow his readings of the Torah and Judaism. I can say with certainty, since I have attended many meetings on this matter, that our rabbis, particularly Rav David Shofet, were involved even before the case was taken into bankruptcy, so to resolve the matter without causing so much hardship. Now some in this community wrongly expect the rabbis to have executive power, which they don’t. The rabbis did suggest to leaders of the creditors and Namvar to seek resolutions through Bet Din, but this was rejected. The rabbis sat in on many meetings to bring an internal resolution to the case, but again due to some intransigence, their offers were rejected. What is unfortunate is that only a handful of our so called “community leaders” took the time to be involved and try to make a difference. Those who claim to be in the “umbrella” organization of the community, were not any where to be found regarding this case.
What response have you given individuals spreading rumors that the community’s rabbis have been involved with Namvar’s business dealings?
Many, wrongly thought that the rabbis were financially involved with Namvar, but this has been proven to be a false and a vicious rumor. A letter by the bankruptcy trustees proves that there was never such involvement. I think there was a slowness in responding to public dissatisfaction by some leaders. They acted as if this will go away. But they were mistaken. Our rabbis do not have very good public relations. The fact is that a lot of work was done to resolve this case, but many are not informed about it. That is a criticism that one can fairly mention. It was necessary to inform people what you have done, so people could judge fairly. It also has to be mentioned that the case was too complicated and mutli-dimensional to be resolved by one or two people. It needed and still needs a team of volunteers with various talents to step forward. I have asked for this on different occasions from different individuals.
Earlier on when this Namvar affair began you were critical of the community’s leadership, but it seems now that you have taken a moderate tone and approach to community dialogue when it concerns this issue. Why if at all has there been a change in your attitude?
I don’t believe there has been any change of attitude by me. In October 2009, when I concluded that Nessah’s board of directors was not reacting properly to the situation, through an open letter I suggested to them that Mr. Namvar’s membership of the board of directors has to be suspended, until the verdict on the case is out. This I did because I thought the community’s values were under question. They finally suspended or removed him. Maybe a little too late. Since early 2009, I have actively involved myself in the case. I maintain that the bankruptcy case has not only caused a lot of financial losses to many, it has also caused a lot of “unnecessary enmity” among people— or in Hebrew “sinat hinam”. While there could be valid differences of opinion about how to achieve the most return to the creditors, for me the long term issue is what will happen to us, as Jews and as people who have a common destiny. This is how I believe I have acted.
Some in the community have criticized you for taking a moderate more conciliatory stance regarding this Namvar matter and accused you of being a Namvar “collaborator”. How have you responded to these personal attacks?
There is one person who has made it his life mission to spread this dirt. He is not even a creditor and has shown he has ulterior motives. Like the dirt thrown at rabbis and anyone who felt responsible to step in to make a difference. I have not been spared. The fact is that my family and I have not gotten back a dime of our money, where a couple of the people who support this lie, have gotten back some of their money from Namco. So what should they be called? Traitors? No I won’t go that route. As I mentioned, my goal has been to bring a logical approach to a business and legal fiasco, not experienced before. Unfortunately it is very tough to bring about “reason” when “emotions” are dominant. But I guess if I had to do this based on the unfair comments of a few, I should have been out of this affair much earlier.
How has this Namvar fiasco transformed the Iranian Jewish community here in Southern California and do you believe there will be healing in the community eventually over this issue?
I compare these past two years, to a “taking advantage of a lonely orphan” syndrome. A community were more or less, there was some “trust” among people to do business, there is not longer trust. Those who disliked the “observant” section of the community, found additional excuses in this case and expanded their unfair bashings. Our image as a dependable and ethical business people has severely been hurt, both within and outside the community. I refer to the community as an “orphan” because we have seen it does not have many who care and are capable of doing something about its communal problems. There is a lot of talk and acts of kindness, but this issue needed our communal organizations and activists to step forward and ask “what can I do? what can we do?” No they did not do that. To be fair, fortunately many did. Of course there will be healing, but I hope we come out of this, not only wiser individually in handling of our personal affairs, but our community will finally realize that, communal institutions are not only to deal with disasters when they happen, but also to avoid them or prepare for them.
What lessons do you think our community can learning from this Namvar case?
Our first generation immigrant community has been dealing with the social values of America since its arrival here. Our religious, cultural and family relations have been challenged and for some it has changed. Good or bad is not the issue. The fact is they have changed or adapted. Our business relations among ourselves could not have been exempted. The same way that many learned the hard way, how expensive “divorce” and settling the difference between husband and wife is, now it has experienced that it would be ideal if business matters are handled out of court and without all the expenses that are incurred through the legal system. This is also a testimony to the basic “unfairness” of the bankruptcy legal system, where the real winners are the attorneys and their team of professionals and not the creditors. My hope is that we do not lose site of the fact that our forefathers continued through thick and thin and we learn from the mistakes we make and be a better community in future.