Tensions Divide L.A.’s Iranian Jewish Community

By Rebecca Spence

Published December 15, 2006, issue of December 15, 2006.
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Los Angeles - By now, the large Iranian Jewish influx into this city — giving it the nickname “Tehrangeles” — is no secret. But, perhaps as with any growing community, fault lines are emerging. And since almost nothing reveals differences as sharply as an internationally broadcast controversy, the brouhaha over President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s apparent antisemitism has sparked new tensions among the expatriates.

Two recent events offer a study in contrasts.

Earlier this month, some 150 well-heeled Iranian Jews turned out at Temple Beth-El in West Hollywood to hear Maurice Motamed, the Islamic Republic’s only Jewish parliament member, report on how their kin in Iran — now numbering 25,000 — were faring. During his speech, Motamed took the opportunity to blast a lawsuit filed this fall against former Iranian president Mohamed Khatami, which laid at his feet responsibility for the disappearance of 12 Jews in Iran during the 1990s.

A week later, 40 people gathered to hear Nitsana Darshan-Leitner — a co-founder of the Israel Law Center known for her litigation against Hamas and the Palestinian Authority — and the very attorney who initiated the lawsuit. Darshan-Leitner used her hour-long talk, delivered at a luxurious residence in the Brentwood section of West Los Angeles, to sound off on the depravity of terrorist attacks against the Jewish state and what she sees as the only way to stop them: stanching the flow of funds to terrorists by suing the regimes that support them.

Not only were the two speakers worlds apart in their approaches to dealing with the Iranian regime, so too were those who hosted them.

Motamed, on his yearly visit to Los Angeles to visit his mother and sisters, was given his platform by the Iranian American Jewish Federation, an establishment group that represents the Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles and is affiliated with the city’s Jewish federation. Darshan-Leitner, on the other hand, was hosted by the Iranian Jewish Public Affairs Committee, a small but politically connected non-profit group founded in 2003 that advocates for Iran’s Jews, and by Stand With Us, a grassroots organization that fights anti-Israel bias.

Now, as tensions between Israel and the Islamic Republic are reaching a fever pitch, with Ahmadinejad issuing repeated calls for the destruction of the Jewish state and convening an international conference of Holocaust deniers, the different approaches of Iranian Jewish groups here are falling into sharp relief. “There are two trends on how to deal with the Jews in Iran,” said Pooya Dayanim, a Los Angeles-based attorney and the president of the Iranian Jewish Public Affairs Committee. “One is appeasement and attempting to work with the Iranian regime to protect the Iranian Jewish community. The other is to engage in public diplomacy, human rights advocacy and human rights litigation,” said Dayanim, adding that in his group’s experience, Iran only responds to the more public approach.

Even Motamed himself seemed to speak directly to the tensions between the two groups when he said in his talk that some in the community had tried to deny him an entry visa to the United States. Dayanim denied ever attempting to block the politician’s visa, but contended that the State Department might do so at some point because of Motamed’s seat on Iran’s energy commission.

Sam Kermanian, the secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, defended Motamed, saying that he had the best interest of Iran’s Jews in mind and that he faced substantial limitations. “With people in that kind of a position, you have to be able to read in between the lines,” said Kermanian. “He can’t turn around and either defend Israel, or attack Ahmadinejad or say Iran is a dictatorship.”

In previous years, tensions between the Iranian American Jewish Federation and Dayanim and his associates flared up when 13 Jews were arrested in 1999 in the Iranian cities of Shiraz and Isfahan on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel. At that time, debate erupted over whether to use quiet backdoor diplomacy, as advocated by the federation, or launch a more public campaign to free the prisoners, as advocated by Dayanim and his associates, who then operated as a less formal ad-hoc coalition.

In an interview following his speech, Motamed defended the Iranian president’s right to call for the destruction of Israel, labeling it “free speech.” Asked whether he was concerned that the Islamic Republic was angling to build nuclear weapons and aim them at Israel, Motamed cited international research that showed that Iran wouldn’t be capable of creating a nuclear arsenal for another six or seven years.

And after that?

Motamed threw his head back, laughed, and said: “Who knows.”

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