Despite a flurry of criticism directed at Israeli President Moshe Katsav over rape and sexual harassment allegations, support for Israel’s embattled president remains strong among Southern California’s Iranian Jews.
“Many in the community here know President Katsav on a personal basis,” said Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the L.A.-based Iranian American Jewish Federation. “The feeling is that he is not the type of person who is capable of committing the sorts of crimes attributed to him.”
Katsav’s ascension to the presidency nearly seven years ago marked the first time an Iranian Jew was elected to such a high political office in any government. The achievement served as a source of pride for many Iranian Jews worldwide.
Katsav, 61, has been accused of sexual harassment and rape, but no formal charges have been filed. A hearing is scheduled for May 2, after which Israeli Attorney General Menachem Mazuz will determine whether to indict the president.
Allegations that Katsav sexually harassed or assaulted female workers surfaced in July 2006. Katsav suspended himself from office on Jan. 25, after Israeli prosecutors drafted a rape indictment. Other allegations being considered against Katsav include breach of trust, obstruction of justice, harassment of a witness and fraud. He denies any wrongdoing.
“The charges against me have nothing to do with reality,” he said during a Jan. 24 press conference. “When the truth emerges, the citizens of Israel will be shocked.”
Katsav also accused Israeli journalists of libel and suggested that the Israeli media, motivated by racism, has been trying to discredit him ever since his 2000 victory over Shimon Peres for the presidency.
Calls made to Katsav’s attorneys in Israel seeking comment were not returned. Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik is filling in as president during Katsav’s self-imposed three-month suspension, which ends on April 23, Israeli Independence Day. According to Israeli law, the president is immune from prosecution while in office and can only be tried after the end of his term or if he resigns.
Katsav is expected to ask the Knesset for a second three-month extension to accommodate the May 2 hearing. Katsav’s term ends in July, and he has vowed to resign if formally indicted. Earlier this month, a Knesset committee voted against impeaching the embattled president.
Dr. David Menashri, chairman of the modern Iranian studies program at Tel Aviv University, said despite the negative press Katsav has received in the Israeli media, various Israelis of Iranian descent have by and large been sympathetic to him.
“Some prominent figures in the Iranian Jewish community expressed public support for Katsav, blaming the media for blowing the issue out of proportion and coming out with a verdict even before President Katsav has been brought to trial,” Menashri said.
A number of Southern California’s Iranian Jewish leaders said they were disturbed by the backlash against Katsav in Israel, given the fact that no formal charges have been filed.
“Mr. Katsav was not judged, not taken to court and the accusations have not been substantiated. So how can a whole country consider him guilty?” said Rabbi David Shofet of the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills. “It’s against the Jewish teachings of the Talmud to do so.”
Local Iranian Jewish leaders said they have been urging the larger L.A. Jewish community to show restraint when it comes to judgment on Katsav until after his trial.
“As people who are concerned for Israel’s well-being and who are not always happy with what they see on the political scene, I think we should all be very interested in seeing that Mr. Katsav has the full opportunity to defend himself and make sure the whole truth comes out,” said Kermanian, the Iranian American Jewish Federation’s secretary general.
Ebrahim Yahid, a West Los Angeles resident and 40-year friend of the Israeli president, said the allegations made against Katsav were not typical of the president’s behavior. He said the accusations caught local Iranian Jews by surprise.
“The news was a major shock for our community, and we wanted to organize some sort of demonstration supporting President Katsav,” said Yahid, who chairs of the nonprofit Arbitration and Mediation Committee in Beverly Hills.
Ironically, the Iranian Jewish Woman’s Organization, a Los Angeles-based social group, honored the Israeli president’s mother Goher last year for her success in raising Katsav to become a source of pride for Iranian Jewry worldwide.
Other local Iranian Jewish leaders said they were confident the community’s image would not be tainted as a result of the scandal.
“Why should one scandal tarnish the whole community?” said Dariush Fakheri, co-founder of the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana. “We [Iranian Jews] are not known as a community with a high crime rate, nor low education, nor a lack of interest in humanity or philanthropy.”
Some Iranian Jewish legal experts said that while there may be support for Katsav, the scandal has tainted his reputation and sparked rumors among certain circles within the community.
“The notion of you are innocent until proven guilty is a very new and alien concept in the Iranian Jewish community,” said Nazila Shokrian-Barlva, an attorney with Los Angeles County public defender’s office. “The whole idea of gossip is to assume the reverse, and even if you are never proven guilty, the cloud never goes away.”
This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles: