Earlier this week, Southern California’s Iranian Jewish community said goodbye to one of their most respected and dedicated leaders, Ebrahim Yahid who passed away at age 90. Yahid was one only three individuals from the older generation of Jewish leaders from Iran who had pulled himself up from poverty, helped the Jewish community prosper and aided Israel in every way possible from age 22 to the last days of his life. The man’s accomplishments for this community and for the State of Israel were nothing short of remarkable.
I had a close friendship with Yahid over the last 12 years and interviewed him frequently for articles I was working on regarding the lives of Jews under the “Pahlavi Dynasty” in Iran. This time period was by historical standards a “golden age” for Jews in Iran who gained greater personal freedoms, achieved educational and financial success and enjoyed substantial tolerance as minorities living in a country of Muslims in the majority. Contrary to their current second class status which has been in place since the 1979 revolution, Jews under the Pahlavi dynasty thrived and were able to help Iran modernize and develop rapidly because of their contacts in trade and commerce. In fact, a select few Iranian Jews helped gradually foster and forge the significant ties between Iran and Israel during this time period— a relationship which benefit for both countries. Yahid was one of those special Iranian Jews who promoted trade and political cooperation between the two countries. With both Israel and Iran sharing mutual enemies about the Arab countries in the region, their alliance was only natural. In one interview Yahid informed me how the city of Qazvin in Iran was destroyed following a horrible earthquake in the 1960s and how the Israeli government donated pre-fabricated homes for the residences of Qazvin to live in afterwards. That goodwill gesture between the two countries was brought about because of individuals like Yahid who saw the larger geo-political and trade importance of the Israeli-Iranian alliance. Interestingly enough Israeli engineering firms later helped modernize Qazvin under new urban development programs put in place by the Iranian government. More significantly, Yahid informed me that Israeli civil engineers even discovered a sweet water lake meters under the surface in Qazvin and they helped put in place a remarkable irrigation and water usage system for the city that is still in use to this day in Qazvin. This project was just one of hundreds in place between Israel and Iran during the late Shah of Iran’s reign that helped modernize Iran’s agriculture, technology, infrastructure and commerce. While the mullah’s who rule Iran today with an iron fist condemn the Iranian-Israeli relationship during the Shah’s reign as evil, historians will eventually look back on the ties between the two nations more favorably because of the substantial benefit to both countries that came about.
Yet trade was not the only contribution Yahid made to Israel and Iran. At the start of World War II, Yahid volunteered to serve in the British army based in Iran and was later promoted to the rank of Second Lieutenant in the military intelligence. During the course of his work in the British military, he was responsible for protecting the vital oil pipelines in Iran that were used by the allies against the Nazis. Yahid was also a member of the Jewish Brigade and was key in helping to transport Jewish soldiers from Poland and the former Soviet Union onto oil carrying ships from Iran that were headed for Israel. In his military capacity, Yahid was also one a small group of Iranian Jews who aided in the transport hundreds of orphaned Jewish children known as the “Tehran Children” who had fled Nazi Europe via Iran and were later sent to Israel. A true Zionist through and through, following World War II and the establishment of the State of Israel, Yahid worked voluntarily and tirelessly to support the new Jewish state as a liaison between the Israeli embassy in Tehran under Israeli Ambassador Meir Ezri and the Iranian foreign ministry. During the early 1950’s when Jews were fleeing or exiled from Iraq and traveling to Iran, Yahid was among a group of Iranian Jews who helped the Iraqi Jews immigrate to Israel. In addition, Yahid spearheaded fundraising efforts in Iran on behalf of countless Israeli non-profits including the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Agency that was promoting Iranian Jewish emigration to Israel.
During the last 30 years a retired Yahid dedicated his life to countless causes in Southern California’s Iranian Jewish community and numerous non-profit groups based in Israel. He was one of the founders of both the “Iranian American Jewish Federation” and the “Nessah Israel Educational & Cultural Center”. He continued his fundraising efforts among local Iranian Jews on behalf of the Jewish National Fund and even into his 70’s and 80’s he was taking large tourist groups of Iranian Jews to visit Israel. He was a tremendously knowledgeable resource that I tapped into on many occasions to shed light on how Iranian Jews have changed since their arrival to the U.S. from Iran.
In the end Yahid’s impact on Iranian Jewry during the last century and support for both Iran and Israel were monumental. His loss to the Iranian American Jewish community is substantial and his void will no doubt be felt. What is more heartbreaking about the loss of Yahid is the fact that there are not very many couragous, dedicated and heavily involved leaders in the Iranian Jewish community today who are taking bold actions to strengthen the community in the U.S. and unselfishly give to the cause of Israel. Sadly most of our older leadership in Los Angeles seem to be more interested in their own private business pursuits and involvement with social gatherings rather than doing anything substantive for the community. Likewise as Israel and Iran are today on the brink of war, the warm relations which once existed between the two countries from the 1950’s to 1979 should stand as an excellent example of how countries in the Middle East of different backgrounds can prosper together and also what happens when radical fundamentalist Islamic forces, that have no tolerance for others, can do the opposite in the region.