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.
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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.


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