During presidential campaign, engaging Iranian Jews at 30 Years After event

By the time former Congressman Mel Levine took the stage as an official surrogate for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign at a gathering of mostly young Iranian Americans, the ballroom at downtown’s Millennium Biltmore Hotel was more than half empty. 

Most of the more than 1,000 attendees at a daylong Oct. 14 civic action conference organized by 30 Years After (30YA) had left before the after-dinner speeches by Levine and his counterpart, David Javdan, who spoke on behalf of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. 

Not Shala Kohan, though. 

After a full day of panel discussions about the challenges, opportunities and choices facing publicly minded Iranian-American Jews, Kohan sat at a table near the back of the room with her husband, her two daughters and one granddaughter, dissecting Levine’s every word and offering a running commentary. 

“We haven’t climbed out at all!” Kohan said after Levine touted the Obama administration’s record on job growth since the 2008 economic collapse. When Levine said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had “called President Obama” to help arrange the rescue of six Israelis trapped in the Israeli embassy in Cairo in September 2011, Kohan responded, “He called America.” 

Levine knew the audience wasn’t going to be particularly friendly to an ally of the Democratic president; his joke about how the 30YA crowd “would be a hotbed of Obama support” didn’t even draw a laugh. 

Javdan, who served as general counsel in the Small Business Administration under President George W. Bush, drew applause from the remnants of the crowd even before he made a single policy statement on behalf of Romney.

“Our community understands implicitly that the key element of freedom is economic freedom, that the American dream is about being your own boss and controlling your own destiny,” Javdan said to more applause. “Drowning our small businesses with higher tax rates than corporations pay and binding them in endless red tape and regulations is no way to go.”

Although the campaign surrogates were given the last slot of the night, the hotly contested presidential campaign had been simmering just beneath the surface of many of the public and private conversations throughout the day, and the subject had worked its way into panel discussions, though often indirectly. 

During a discussion among Jewish elected officials, Rep. Howard Berman offered a vigorous defense of the Obama administration’s work to secure sanctions against Iran. In the context of another conversation about improving public perception of the Iranian-American community, panelist David Peyman, a deputy attorney general with the Department of Justice, wondered why the Iranian-American Jewish community hasn’t commanded the kind of attention from the two candidates on Iranian issues that the Cuban-American community commands on Cuban relations. 

And every conference attendee received, along with the day’s schedule of events, a form letter to sign addressed to Obama and Romney urging the president and his Republican rival to toughen their positions on Iran by agreeing to impose a “full economic blockade” of the regime. 

Even so, most of the discussion at the conference was dedicated to subjects that weren’t quite partisan, even though political issues sometimes came up, even when presenters expressed opposing positions. 

Foreign policy “insiders,” including former ambassadors Dennis Ross and Mark Wallace, presented briefings about Iran, Israel and United States in the morning, and four candidates running for mayor of the City of Los Angeles — a nonpartisan position — were on hand to make their cases in the afternoon. 

Rabbi David Wolpe spoke not about Iran, as he had in his Rosh Hashanah sermon at Sinai Temple, but rather addressed more personal matters facing young Iranian-Americans and their community — struggling with one’s ego, figuring out how to best use one’s money and the search for love.

When Berman and his congressional colleague Rep. Henry Waxman — both of them facing tougher opposition than usual this election season — appeared on stage together, no mention was made of Bill Bloomfield, an independent who has spent more than $2 million of his own money on his race against Waxman, or of Rep. Brad Sherman, who is leading Berman in the polls and had appeared at the 30YA conference earlier in the day.  

The two long-serving congressmen together presented a commendation to Shervin Lalezary, the Iranian-American Jewish reserve deputy with the Los Angeles County Sheriff who caught the suspect now charged with 100 arson-related counts connected with a series of fires that burned around Los Angeles in the days leading up to and following New Year’s Eve 2011. 

Lalezary was featured in national and local press when he made the arrest in January and he has been honored by 30YA on at least one other occasion this year. He serves as a model for the five-year-old group — a successful lawyer who also volunteers to advance the public good. 

But if Lalezary is one model of civic action put forward by 30YA, Assemblyman Mike Feuer, who appeared on a panel titled “Why Politics Matters” at the conference, offered up another, more political suggestion. 

Feuer, with the support of 30YA, has passed legislation in Sacramento that puts economic pressure on the Iranian regime by taking action at the state level. Because of term limits, Feuer is now running for Los Angeles city attorney next year; if he doesn’t win, he and possibly two of his co-panelists — Berman and Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who announced in September that he will retire at the end of his term — could all find themselves out of office by 2014. 

With all eyes on the race for the White House, Feuer encouraged the conference attendees to consider upping their political involvement at the local level, as well.

“Find someone in whom you believe,” he said, “and get involved in one of their campaigns.”