Los Angeles-area Iranian Jewish activists are condemning Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif for his use of an antisemitic term in describing Jews during an online Farsi language interview.
In the Dec. 9 program, which was posted by the Iran-based Arman Media YouTube channel, Iranian journalist Mehdi Nasiri asks Zarif various questions about the future of the Iran nuclear deal. When asked what the Iranian regime’s solution would be for dealing with Israel, Zarif responded, “We’re not talking about throwing the Johoods into the sea, or about a military attack, or about suicide operations.”
Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian-Jewish activist, and head of the Los Angeles-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, said the word “Johood” in Farsi has long been very antisemitic and highly offensive to Jews.
“In the last few centuries, the term ‘Johood’ used in Iran to denote the Jews, has become a highly offensive and humiliating word akin to the ‘N’ word used against African Americans here,” said Nikbakht. “The derogatory term ‘Johood’ is reminiscent of degradation, discrimination, even physical threat and past massacres and plunder.”
Iranian Jewish community leaders said Zarif’s use of the word ’Johood’ revealed his deep-rooted antisemitism, which he has been trying to hide over the years by falsely claiming he is only anti-Israel and not does hate Jews.
“The Iranian regime’s antisemitism continues to reach new depths, said Sam Yebri, president of 30 Years After, an Iranian Jewish non-profit group based in Los Angeles. “By using that abominable hurtful term publicly and refusing to apologize, Foreign Minister Zarif revealed his own bigotry and gave the world a glimpse into how the regime dehumanizes all Jews, not simply Israelis.”
Zarif’s Farsi language interview also caused a stir among Iranian Jews and non-Jewish Iranians on various social media platforms recently after the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a Washington D.C.-based non-profit group, translated the program with English subtitles.
Zarif lashed out against MEMRI and downplayed his use of word by stating in a tweet.
“I was mocking the allegation that Iran seeks to ‘throw the Jews into the sea’ and reiterating our solution is a referendum with participation of all: Jews, Muslims, Christians.”
Representatives at the Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations did not return calls for comment concerning Zarif’s use of the word.
Iranian Jewish activists said they do not believe Zarif’s claim that he used the word without ill intentions. Dr. Ari Babaknia, a retired Iranian Jewish physician and activist based in Newport Beach, said Zarif’s used of the word was deliberate and made with malice towards Jews.
“He (Zarif) is no friend to the Jews and no friend to humanity,” said Babaknia who wrote the first Farsi language book about the Holocaust in 2012.”
Babaknia pointed out that in the same interview, Zarif said, “America is still obligated to lift its sanctions, and to refrain from creating obstacles, because it has remained a member of the U.N. since leaving the JCPOA. Of course, it had the option to [leave the U.N.], like it left UNESCO and other organizations. Allah willing, it will also leave Planet Earth.”
“What kind of person wishes for 300 million people in America to be destroyed? It’s sickening,” said Babaknia.
Nikbakht said Zarif and other Iranian regime officials are aware of the offensive nature of the word Johood because their official statements and discriminatory laws, refer to Jews as “Kalimi”, which is a respectable term meaning “the followers of the one (i.e., Moses) who spoke to God.”
“When these people use the highly humiliating term ‘Johood,’ it means they are in their most basic anger mode, reverting back to their hateful upbringing, when Muslim children were told Jews would bleed them and use their blood in their matzah!” said Nikbakht.
Babaknia said this incident should be used to highlight long-standing Farsi vocabulary or phrases which are antisemitic in nature and discourage Farsi speakers from using them in their daily lives. “This is a good opportunity to educate Iranians who are not Jewish and may not realize that this word ‘Johood’ is very hurtful to Jews, and there are other words more appropriate that they can use in Farsi to describe Jews such as ‘Kalimi’ or ’Yahudi.’”
George Haroonian, an Iranian Jewish activist living in Los Angeles, said the use of the antisemitic word ‘Johood’ goes beyond Zarif’s use and has sadly been a part of Iran’s poetry and popular literature for many centuries.
“The great Iranian poet Saadi has references to ‘Johood’ in his writings,” said Haroonian. “In the 20th-century literature, Sadegh Hedayat, the most important Persian novelist of that period, and Sadegh Choobak, another great writer and storyteller, have both used the word ‘Johood’ and portrayed Jews as money-hungry, cunning and liars in their works.”
Haroonian also said the word ‘Johood’ has often widely been used negatively in popular Farsi phrases such as “Johood Bazee” which translates to “acting as a stingy Jew” or the phrase “Johood-e Najes” which translates to “a dirty Jew”.
For their part, many Iranian Jews living in Southern California said the word ‘Johood’ is not only offensive but brings back painful memories of anti-Semitism they experienced throughout their lives in Iran.
“In Iran when we were kids, some of the Muslim students would chase us, beat us with sticks or hit our heads against the walls calling us dirty Johood,” said Dr. Abraham Emanuel, a retired Iranian Jewish gynecologist and obstetrician living in Los Angeles. “So, when we hear this word ‘Johood’ today it also reminds us of how we were attacked just for being Jewish.”
While many of the leaders in Southern California’s Iranian Jewish organizations have long remained silent about criticizing the Iranian regime for fear of the regime’s potential retaliation against Iran’s 5,000 to 8,000 Jews, individual Iranian activists have been very vocal in recent years in protesting against antisemitism coming from Iran.
In 2015, local Iranian Jewish activists were successful in shutting down a Farsi language performance by Akbar Abdi, a visiting Iranian Muslim comedian notorious for his antisemitism and wide use of the word “Johood” in his programs and films.
Likewise, in late 2017, hundreds of Iranian Jews protested outside a downtown L.A. musical venue featuring a concert from the antisemitic singer Mohsen Yeganeh visiting from Iran. Yeganeh’s popular song, “Flock of Vultures,” calls Jews vultures, blames Israeli soldiers for killing Palestinian children and demands violence against Jews.
Iranian Jews working within larger Jewish organizations in Southern California said they will continue to expose the Iranian regime’s on-going anti-Semitism and human rights abuses.
“The Iranian regime recently executed another dissident journalist and routinely calls for the Jewish state to be destroyed,” said Siamak Kordestani, an Iranian Jewish activist and West Coast director of Friends of the European Leadership Network (ELNET), an organization dedicated to expanding Europe-Israel ties. “ELNET will continue to highlight the threats posed by Iran’s government as well as its antisemitic rhetoric with our European and Arab partners.”
For their part, many L.A. Iranian Jewish activists said they continue to expose the Iranian regime’s continued campaigns of antisemitism and Holocaust denial to educate American Jews who are largely unaware of the regime’s on-going anti-Jewish activities.
“As Iranian Jews, with a bitter experience of discrimination and persecution in recent decades, we bear the responsibility to educate the American Jewish community of the racism and antisemitism of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the fanatics within the Iranian society,” said Nikbakht.
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Karmel Melamed is an award-winning Iranian Jewish journalist, activist and attorney based in Southern California.