Long-Silenced Iranian Jews Find Their Political Voice

By Rebecca Spence

Published February 28, 2008, issue of March 07, 2008.
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Los Angeles - When Beverly Hills’s Iranian Jewish mayor, Jimmy Jamshid Delshad, ran for office in 2007, he faced an uphill battle. But contrary to conventional wisdom, his biggest challenge wasn’t persuading skeptical non-Iranians to rally behind him. Instead, Delshad’s toughest fight was convincing his natural constituency — the city’s roughly 8,000 Iranian American Jews — simply to register to vote, let alone vote for him.

Delshad: Beverly Hills mayor broke new communal ground.
Delshad: Beverly Hills mayor broke new communal ground.
Newcomers: Young Iranian Jews gathered at a Super Tuesday event sponsored by the group 30 Years After, which ams to bring more Persian Jews into the political process.
Newcomers: Young Iranian Jews gathered at a Super Tuesday event sponsored by the group 30 Years After, which ams to bring more Persian Jews into the political process.

“I worked on the Persian vote four times harder than I worked to get the American vote,” Delshad said in a recent interview at Beverly Hills City Hall. “They wouldn’t even register to vote. They would say, ‘I don’t want my name on anything.’ They wanted to be under the radar.”

Iranian Jews, alienated from the political process in their home country and mistrustful of government — the result of living for centuries under a repressive, undemocratic regime — carried their skepticism with them to America. When Delshad campaigned for mayor, many still clung to their old attitudes.

But that was then. Just one year later, as Delshad’s groundbreaking mayoral term draws to a close, attitudes in the Iranian American Jewish population vis-à-vis political involvement are showing a marked shift. Observers are beginning to note that Iranian American Jews, with their numbers totaling nearly one-quarter of Beverly Hills’s population, may present untapped potential as a powerful voting bloc on both the local and the national level — an opportunity not going unnoticed by a younger generation.

“There’s a growing sense in the Iranian Jewish community that they have a stake in the political system, that their votes matter and can bring real change,” said Sam Yebri, who co-founded 30 Years After, a new not-for-profit organization created by young Iranian American Jews to encourage political involvement.

Yebri, a 26-year-old lawyer who grew up in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, recently co-founded the group, whose name refers to the time that has passed since the Iranian Revolution. In the three decades since Iranian Jews first settled in America, most predominantly in Los Angeles and in Great Neck, N.Y., they have prized education and accrued wealth, Yebri said, but they have not imbibed America’s culture of political engagement.

“The community on the whole isn’t voting on a level where it can have a meaningful impact,” Yebri said. “It’s not taking leadership roles in civic and political organizations, and we felt there was a need to create an organization dedicated solely to educating and uniting our community on political issues.”

Yebri’s nascent group, founded by 20 Iranian American Jews who are all in their 20s, is now in the midst of organizing the Iranian American Jewish community’s first ever large-scale conference on politics and civic life. The conference, “30 Years After: the Iranian American Jewish Community at a Crossroads,” is slated for September 14 and hopes to draw some 1,200 Iranian American Jews. To date, the group has met on Saturday mornings at local synagogues with high numbers of Iranian American Jews — the 2,000-family Sinai Temple and the Sephardic Temple among them — to register voters. It has successfully registered more than 100 voters, according to Yebri.

It’s a far cry from 2006, when, in the first months of Delshad’s campaign, the mayoral candidate had to turn to Iranian American Jewish school children to help him get out the communal vote. Delshad would make appearances at Beverly Hills elementary schools, and after handing out campaign buttons, he would suggest to the students that they go home and ask their parents, “Why aren’t you supporting Jimmy?”

A mélange of cultural and historical factors has conspired to keep Iranian Jews away from political engagement. Those factors include political apathy — born of a system that allowed the Jewish community no political representation, save for one designated member of the Iranian parliament — as well as a fear that to engage with government is to tread in unsafe waters.

“On top of the general Iranian experience, which didn’t prioritize political involvement because of closed doors, the Iranian Jewish experience is a much more compounded version of that, because Jews had to deal with the stigma of being Jews,” said David Nahai, an Iranian Jew who was appointed by L.A.’s mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, as CEO of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. “We’re basically two generations out of the ghetto.”

This negative view of voting and politics has not been confined to the older generation. Even the children of immigrants, the vast majority of whom arrived in America in the wake of the fall of the shah in 1979, have inherited their predecessors’ prevailing attitudes.

Eman Esmailzadeh, a 25-year-old engineer who was born in Tehran but moved with his family to the Brentwood section of L.A. when he was 3 years old, only recently registered to vote. “Before, I never felt like I could have an effect,” he said. “Most people around me never spoke of politics. Let’s put it this way: I seldom saw any of my friends or family with the ‘I voted’ stickers.”

But Esmailzadeh, who now serves on the board of 30 Years After, said that in the past year, he was persuaded that his vote could have meaning. “When I saw that with numbers you have power, it triggered me to realize that if we all get together, I can actually have an effect,” he said.

On the opposite coast, on Long Island’s North Shore — home to America’s second-largest Iranian American Jewish community after Los Angeles — communal efforts to encourage voter registration and participation have been ongoing. In Great Neck, where Iranian American Jews make up more than 15% of the population, Raymond Iryami, a lawyer, has made it his personal crusade over the past 15 years to register Iranian-American Jewish voters.

Iryami, 36, moved to America from Tehran in 1982, landing in Great Neck seven years later. He said that voter registration efforts in Great Neck first began in the 1980s, when a generation of Iranian Jewish immigrants who preceded the fall of the shah came of age. But it wasn’t until the late 1990s, Iryami said, that the community underwent a sea change. “The collective fear and apprehension toward registering to vote broke with Lieberman,” Iryami said, referring to then presidential candidate Al Gore’s choice of the Orthodox-Jewish congressman as his running mate. Iryami, a Democratic Party activist, estimated that prior to 1999, the number of registered Iranian American Jewish voters in Great Neck hovered at 1,000. “Throughout the course of the 2000 election,” he said, “that number doubled.” It has since grown, he said, to about 3,000.

Now, an Iranian American Jew, Janet Eshaghoff, sits on the seven-member board of the Great Neck Library. In that local election in 2006, Eshaghoff won nearly 80% of the vote, suggesting that Iranian American Jews were far from the only constituents who backed her run. “Iranian Americans voted for her,” Iryami said, “but the non-Iranians also voted for her in large numbers” — a fact that, Iryami said, is simply “beautiful.”

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