September 20, 2001
Mistaken for Muslim
In the wake of terrorist attacks, some Persian Jews fear -- and suffer -- discrimination because of their skin color.
Two days after the devastating attack on the World Trade Center, Jimmy Delshad was driving toward the Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale to attend a funeral, when he stopped to ask an elderly man for directions.
The man took one look at Delshad's face, then angrily waved him off, shouting, "You should all go to hell!"
Delshad is a business executive, immediate past president of Sinai Temple, and a prominent member of the 30,000-strong Iranian Jewish community of Los Angeles. He is convinced that the elderly man mistook him for an Arab and is concerned that such cases of hostility based on mistaken identity will increase in the future.
"I faced similar experiences in 1979 and 1980, when Iran's new revolutionary regime held 62 Americans hostage at the U.S. embassy in Tehran," Delshad said. His defense mechanism then was to wear an American flag pinned to his lapel, and he has now bought a new batch of flag pins for members of his family.
George Haroonian, president of the Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations, approached a customer in his rug store a week ago to offer assistance. The customer looked at Haroonian, then remarked sarcastically, "You don't have any rugs from Afghanistan?"
Such incidents are rare, and so far quite isolated, but they are enough to put the Iranian Jewish community on alert.
"There is a reasonable concern that the backlash against Muslim terrorists might mistakenly extend to all people of Middle Eastern background," said Marjan Keypour, the Iranian-born associate director of the regional Anti-Defamation League office.
"It's our responsibility, and that of the media, to educate the public about the diversity of people who come from the Middle East," she added.
Keypour also thinks that Iranian Jews, who have had firsthand experience of living under a fundamentalist Muslim regime, should take the initiative in explaining to their fellow Americans the mindset that leads young extremists to become suicide terrorists.
Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, recalls unpleasant experiences from the embassy hostage period, but has heard of none since the World Trade Center attacks.
Although he believes it might be useful to prepare fellow Iranian Jews for possible future incidents, he noted that "the leadership of the community has been in such a state of shock" that no concerted plan has been put forward at this time.
Kermanian urged that the Iranian Muslim community in Los Angeles, with which his organization is on generally good terms, not be scapegoated for the crimes of the terrorists.
"We must distinguish acts of terrorism from the Islamic religion," he said.
Pooya Dayanim, an outspoken community activist, advocated a similar view. At the request of Iranian Muslim organizations, he advised them on how to demonstrate their American patriotism by setting up relief funds and giving blood for the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.