Los Angeles — As Iranian Jews prepared traditional Rosh Hashanah pots of abgoosht — the community’s lamb-based answer to Ashkenazi chicken soup — the topic on many of their minds was a somber one.
Will Israel strike at the place Iranian Jews once called home?
“A lot of people are talking about it, and it is a topic of discussion over dinner tables,” said attorney Sam Yebri, president and co-founder of 30 Years After, the leading not-for-profit organization of Jews who have immigrated to Los Angeles from Iran. “There are still a lot of Jews in Iran, and there is concern about what the aftermath would be for them.”
Caught between strong feelings for their native homeland, their new homes in America and their identification with Israel, Persian Jews in L.A. feel pulled in multiple directions by the threat that Israel and the West see in Iran’s nuclear development program.
“It’s very complex,” said Pooya Dayanim, president of the Iranian Jewish Public Affairs Committee. “On the one hand, I feel very bad about what has become of Iran since the revolution. On the other hand, as Jews we have a strong identification with Israel. Iran is our father. Israel is our mother. We don’t like to see our mother and father fighting.”
Southern California’s Iranian Jewish community numbers some 45,000 to 50,000, including children and grandchildren of the original immigrants, though most members still hail originally from Iran themselves. In Iran, their community numbered more than 100,000, and an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Jews still choose to remain in Iran today. The rest are scattered, with outposts in Israel, the United States and Europe. Collectively, they make up the oldest Jewish Diaspora community in the world, one tracing its origins back to the days before the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem and the Persian empire of Cyrus the Great.
But, Yebri told the Forward, the deep roots Iranian Jews have in their native land notwithstanding, “there is still strong support for Israel. If the Israeli leadership feels a strike is necessary, we will support them. But we are hopeful that sanctions and diplomacy will change the regime’s march toward nuclear weapons.”
Iran, a signatory of the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty, has denied repeatedly that its uranium enrichment efforts, which the treaty allows for civilian purposes, are part of an effort to develop nuclear weapons. But the International Atomic Energy Agency has found evidence at Iranian facilities of activities inconsistent with purely civilian programs. A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate concluded in 2007 that Iran had suspended a covert nuclear weapons development program in 2003. But suspicions remain about the existing program’s ultimate aim, and Iran has defied multiple resolutions by the United Nations Security Council demanding that it suspend uranium enrichment, which could eventually give it fissile material suitable for use in nuclear bombs.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose country has its own arsenal of nuclear missiles and does not participate in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, has declared Iran’s continued enrichment activities an “existential threat” to Israel, citing Tehran’s opposition to the country’s continued existence as a Jewish state. His threats to attack Iranian nuclear sites soon if the United States does not establish clear red lines for Iran and commit to attacking the sites itself if necessary have roiled relations between the United States and Israel, and stoked the Iranian Jewish community’s own internal sense of crisis.
Jimmy Delshad, the Iranian-born former mayor of Beverly Hills, Calif., is an optimist. “Unless [President] Obama gives his permission,” he said of the potential Israeli military strike, “it’s not going to happen.” But Obama could do more, in his opinion. “Obama failed to support the people of Iran three years ago, during the election,” he said, referring to Iran’s brutal repression of huge street protests following the country’s 2009 presidential election. Many consider the hard-liners to have won then only through fraud.