During the war between Israel and Hamas, local Iranian Jews have taken a two-pronged approach to supporting the Jewish state: raising substantial dollars on behalf of humanitarian causes in Israel and speaking out on Farsi-language media outlets based in Southern California.
“We need to be the voice of Israel, the voice that upholds, uplifts and supports Israel, our home country, and our brave IDF [Israel Defense Forces] soldiers who bravely, tirelessly and selflessly stand in our defense. ... If we don’t, who else will?” said Simon Etehad, president of the Beverly Hills-based Iranian Nessah Synagogue.
Nessah is one of a dozen local Iranian-Jewish groups raising money for Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF), having collected more than $100,000 on its own since July 12, according to Etehad.
The West Hollywood-based Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) joined with more than a dozen other Iranian Jewish groups — including Nessah — on July 23 to raise nearly $1 million for the FIDF. IAJF President Susan Azizzadeh said the money her organization raised was matched by Hollywood mogul and Israeli philanthropist Haim Saban.
And while local Iranian-Jewish organizations have not openly criticized the Iranian regime for its involvement in supporting Hamas, more than two dozen Iranian-Jewish activists in Southern California on July 29 penned a three-page letter denouncing both Hamas and the Iranian regime for their reign of terror on Israeli civilians.
Sam Kermanian, a senior adviser to the IAJF, said the majority of Iranian Jews have strong reasons to support Israel. They consider the creation of the Jewish state as a type of redemption, with Israelis as heroes for the Jewish people worldwide.
“Our community has always supported Israel to the best of their abilities. In fact, more than two-thirds of Jews of Iranian origin currently live in Israel,” he said. “There are no Iranian Jews anywhere in the world who do not have direct family ties to Israel, which is only topped by their religious and cultural ties to that land.”
Sam Yebri, president of 30 Years After, a Los Angeles-based Iranian-Jewish nonprofit group, said the community’s strong affinity for Israel can also be traced to painful experiences of fleeing Iran more than 30 years ago due to the country’s radical Islamic regime.
“Iranian-American Jews feel a deep connection to Israel as our Jewish homeland and as the Jewish people’s safe haven, especially given our experience in Iran,” Yebri said. “More importantly, the anti-Semitism that emerged internationally and the mischaracterization of Israel as committing ‘war crimes’ in some media outlets and at local rallies made it crystal clear that we must do our part to support Israel, as Americans and as Jews.”
Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian-Jewish activist who heads the L.A.-based Committee For Minority Rights in Iran, said some locals have increasingly tried to focus public attention on the major role the current Iranian regime has played in its sponsorship of Hamas’ terrorism.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran has been the major instigator for this war and for quite a while they have been complaining about why ‘Palestine’ has been forgotten because of the ISIS [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] and the Ukraine conflicts,” Nikbakht said. “They have been pushing Hamas for offensive tactics and massive kidnappings of Israelis. The Iranian regime’s commanders thus revealed that they have indeed been behind the kidnapping and tunnel strategy.”
Last week on Iranian state-run television, Mohsen Rezaei, a senior adviser to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the Iranian regime had already provided Hamas with missile-building technology being used in fighting the IDF in the Gaza Strip. At the same time, Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani last week said Iran “had no hesitation in its coming to the aid of Hamas and other militant groups fighting Israel.”
Many of L.A.’s Iranian-Jewish activists have countered by appearing on Farsi-language radio programs and satellite news programs. One such example came last week when local Iranian-Jewish businessman and community activist Bijan Khalili appeared on KIRN 670-AM, a Studio City-based Farsi-language radio station. Khalili offered his insights to the majority Iranian-Muslim listeners during the station’s news program about Israeli military objectives to defend its citizens from Hamas rocket attacks.
“The tragedy of this war is that Hamas, a terrorist organization that is well funded and armed by the Iranian regime, clearly does not value Palestinian life nor Israeli life, and as a result both sides have suffered,” Khalili said on the radio program. “This war was begun by Hamas rockets fired at Israeli citizens. What would you expect your government to do but to protect your children and family from terrorists trying to kill them?”
While Iranian Jews living in the United States have been voicing strong support for Israel during the latest war with Hamas, leaders of the Jewish community in Iran have publicly denounced Israel. Homayoun Sameyah Najafabadi, the leader of the Jewish Committee of Tehran, denounced Israel on Iranian state-run news television broadcasts last week. Additionally, the only Jewish member of the Iranian parliament, Siamak Moreh Sedgh, recently compared Israel’s government with that of Nazi Germany.
Community activists in the U.S. argue that this is the result of pressure from the Iranian regime. Kermanian said Moreh Sedgh’s comments about Israel are not shared by the 10,000 Jews still living in Iran and that Moreh Sedgh has no credibility among Iranian Jews in Iran or the U.S.
“First and foremost, Moreh Sedgh’s own history indicates that far more than being the representative of the Jewish community in the Iranian parliament, he is a hand-picked representative of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence for representing that community in accordance with the wishes and propaganda guidelines of the Iranian regime,” Kermanian said. “Secondly, considering the regime’s policies toward Israel and the fear and intimidation that the Iranian-Jewish community faces inside Iran, he might wrongfully think that he is serving the interests of that community by selling himself out to the regime.”
For more than three decades, many Iranian Jews living in America have been hesitant to voice their opposition to the Iranian regime for fear that their comments may have negative repercussions against their Jewish brethren still living in Iran. Kermanian said the Iranian regime has tried to utilize this retaliatory fear to silence Iranian Jews living in the U.S. but that there are limits to the strategy’s effectiveness.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran needs to be aware that there are certain red lines beyond which our community abroad will not go, and certain issues on which it will not keep quiet, regardless of cost, “ Kermanian said. “The safety and security of Jews and the State of Israel are two such issues.”
To read more about the Iranian regime’s involvement in the current Gaza war, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.