Torn Between Homeland, New Land and Israel

Iranian Jews in U.S. Worry Over Threat of Mideast War

Deep Roots: Sam Yebri says Iranian jews understand why Israel may have to act.
Courtesy of 30 Years After
Deep Roots: Sam Yebri says Iranian jews understand why Israel may have to act.

By Rex Weiner

Published September 21, 2012, issue of September 28, 2012.
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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.”

Jews Will Suffer: Saba Soomekh says there will be a backlash against Jews in Iran.
Agnes Stauber
Jews Will Suffer: Saba Soomekh says there will be a backlash against Jews in Iran.

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.

Delshad left Shiraz and lived for a time on an Israeli kibbutz before departing Iran for good at the age of 20 to study at the University of Minnesota, then becoming an attorney and moving to California. Though the Jews still living in Iran have not been threatened as a group thus far, Delshad’s apprehensions about the deteriorating political situation are sharpened by the fact that he still has family in Iran.

“I’m concerned that the regime will use everything in its power to jail and kill the innocent Jews in Iran,” he said.

As the political tension increases, so does the tension between split identities, according to Tabby Davoodi, executive director of 30 Years After. Davoodi was born to a middle-class Jewish family in Tehran several years after the Iranian Revolution. Her family settled in the United States in the late 1980s.

“Those of us that lived as Persian Jews in Iran after the Revolution constantly played a balancing act between an affinity for our home (Iran) and our homeland (Israel), always cognizant and wary of the new regime’s declaration of Israel as its greatest enemy,” Davoodi wrote in an email to the Forward. “Having settled in the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s, we undertook a connection to a third land, until the very definition of home itself left us begging whether this word was reserved for where we once belonged (Iran), where we always belonged (Israel) or where we now belonged (America).”

The issue is sure to be debated at the 30 Years After Biennial Civic Action Conference, to be held on October 14 at downtown L.A.’s Millennium Biltmore. Former White House adviser Dennis Ross and Israeli Consul General David Siegel are among the scheduled speakers. Despite the community’s strong support for Israel, contrarian views will not be hard to find.

“It would be very difficult and unwise for Israel to attack Iran,” said businessman and longtime community activist and publisher Dariush Fakheri, who left Iran in 1976 to study in the United States. “Iranian people are the most pro-Western in that region. They had a better relationship with Israel than with any other country, and they want to have the same relationship with the U.S. that they had under the shah.”

An attack launched by Israel against Iran “will cause violence and ethnic animosity“ in Iran, said Saba Soomekh, author of the soon-to-be published “From the Shahs to Los Angeles: Three Generations of Iranian Jewish Women Between Religion and Culture.” A professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University, Soomekh left Tehran with her family at the age of 2.

“My fear,” she said, “is that the Jewish community there will bear the brunt of the repercussions.”

Dayanim, who says he is “one of three or four liaisons” acting on behalf of the Iranian American Jewish community, hinted that the community is attempting to reach out internationally to address any such development. “We have been talking with various governments regarding the well-being of the Jewish community in Iran, and about taking that factor into any calculations they might make,” he said.

Reflecting on the community’s response to the arrest and imprisonment in 1999 of 13 Iranian Jews by authorities in the city of Shiraz, Dayanim said, “We were not prepared then.” At the present time, however, “we have some contingencies in place.” He did not elaborate.

But in the lush confines of L.A.’s most affluent areas, where many Jews of Iranian descent live, the concerns are not just for those Jews still in Iran.

“We face a lose-lose situation,” Davoodi wrote. “The primary factors of having family members in each country, as well as our connection to each land (more so to Israel), renders us wholly invested in this crisis — from all angles…. In essence, our lives would be forever changed.”

Contact Rex Weiner at rexweiner@forward.com


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