When Tehran Comes to Los Angeles

U.S. Sanctions on Iran Complicated a Jewish Exhibition

Streetscape: A view of the Jewish quarter in Isfahan, taken in 1973.
sonnenfeld collection
Streetscape: A view of the Jewish quarter in Isfahan, taken in 1973.

By Rex Weiner

Published October 20, 2012, issue of October 26, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Museum negotiations to bring artifacts from abroad for exhibits are typically complex. And the detailed discussions that brought a stunning collection opening on Iranian Jewry here in October were no exception. But the institutional arrangements between the Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles and Beit Hatfutsot: The Museum of the Jewish People, in Tel Aviv, were suddenly upended last July, when a third party unexpectedly imposed itself.

The U.S. Treasury Department, it turned out, required licenses for the exhibit’s 102 artifacts to ensure that none of them violated federal sanctions against trade with Iran — even though most of them came originally from Iranian Jewish immigrants to America who had brought the artifacts here with them when they left their homeland decades earlier.

Tehran 1964: Leora and David Nissan dressed in their Purim costumes.
courtesy of David Nissan
Tehran 1964: Leora and David Nissan dressed in their Purim costumes.

It was, ironically, the shipping company contracted to import the exhibit from Israel that advised the Fowler to apply for a U.S. Treasury Department permit just three months before the show — something neither of the museums had ever thought of.

“We did have concerns about how quickly the permit would be issued,” admitted Marla Berns, director of the Fowler. But fortunately, she said, “It was not an onerous process…. It took approximately six weeks.”

Still, that meant an exacting, politically sensitive licensing process that was completed only a short time before the show was due to open for items that had, for the most part, only traveled from America to Israel and back.

The sudden glitch seemed to illustrate metaphorically part of the shadow connoted by the exhibit’s title, “Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews,” which was set to open at the Fowler October 21. The permit requirements reflected the strictness of the sanctions that the Obama administration has imposed on Iranian imports to pressure the regime in Tehran about its nuclear program.

The “light” referenced in the title, Berns explained, “is that despite difficult periods, the Iranian Jewish community has a long history of artistic and intellectual creativity.” Overall, the unprecedented exhibition of art, artifacts and photographs will look back on 3,000 years of Jewish life in Iran, from its brilliant peaks to shadows of a troubled past. The exhibit originated at Beit Hatfutsot, where it opened in 2010 to great acclaim and 70,000 visitors.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.