Hide ‘n’ seek no child’s game in fleeing Iran

Ruben Melamed is an 80-year-old Los Angeles-area businessman and a fifth cousin of mine who escaped near death in Iran. I did not know of his story until recently, when I began searching for stories of Iranian Jews who escaped their homeland during the revolution some 30 years ago.

In the late 1970s Iranian authorities wanted the assets of the prosperous businessman and pharmacist. Melamed’s business was valued at nearly $40 million, including laboratory equipment.

He had been an important member of the Central Jewish Committee in Iran, which oversaw many aspects of Jewish life in the country. He published his memoirs in Persian a few years ago, and he remains one of only a few local Iranian Jews who have been willing and unafraid to share with me his experiences during the Iranian Revolution.

When the demonstrations in the streets of Tehran began in the early days of the revolution, the normal workaday life of Iran came to a standstill because of widespread strikes. As a result, Melamed and his family left Iran for Los Angeles with few belongings, thinking that they would return home once a new government was formed in Iran.

After Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in Iran, Melamed, who had not been able to find work in the United States, decided to return home in mid-1979. He hoped to resuscitate his large business, which had been inactive for months.

“Looking back on the whole event, I can say I was tricked by Khomeini’s assurances that nothing would happen to those who fled Iran but wanted to come back,” Melamed said.

He discovered it was a mistake when Revolutionary Guard members came to his office, seeking to arrest him after interrogating his partner.

“They had just killed Habib Elghanian [leader of the Jewish community in Iran], and I was next on their list — the new Islamic regime that had come to power wanted to get their hands on my assets,” he explained. “So they placed a label on me that I was a Zionist who had worked as a member of the Central Jewish Committee in Iran and that I had participated in the World Zionist Congress.”

His company was seized by the regime. He was forbidden to conduct any business in Iran, and he was placed on a list of people forbidden to leave the country. For the next six months, Melamed hid in the homes of both Jewish and Muslim friends in Tehran and the city of Shiraz.

“I was very tired that I had burdened these people while living in hiding with them,” he said. “You have to understand that the Islamic regime had placed ads in the newspapers saying that anyone who helped or hid a person that was on the government black list would face the same punishment as the black-listed person — so everyone that was hiding me was frightened.”

After several months of living in hiding and fear, Melamed’s friends obtained a false passport for him bearing the name of “Ravin Aminpour.” They urged him to leave the country illegally. Being proud and stubborn, he initially refused the false passport and unsuccessfully sought to obtain formal permission from authorities to leave Iran.

“I was so tired from all of this running around that at one point, I was even considering giving myself up, surrendering to the authorities and serving a prison term for a few years,” Melamed said.

His father-in-law convinced him to pay 250,000 in Iranian currency and to accept an offer from a Jewish man who promised to place Melamed on a commercial flight leaving Tehran without having to go through airport security.

A few days before his flight was to leave, the Jewish man who had promised to help Melamed informed him that he would not be able to get him on board the plane. Instead, he would help him at the airport if authorities were going to arrest him.

His friends devised a plan. Two of them would wait outside the terminal in a car with the engine running, in case Melamed had to make a quick getaway. Two other friends and a Revolutionary Guard who had been bribed would wait inside the terminal to help the businessman escape if something went wrong.

On the night after Yom Kippur, in September 1980, Melamed dressed as a construction worker. He had grown a beard to disguise himself and carried the false passport.

The businessman was able to get through the airport undetected, even though signs with photos of him were posted on the airport walls.

“After I boarded the plane, the engines revved up, the plane was readying to take off and I thought I was safe — but suddenly, the plane stopped, and the engines were turned off,” he said.

“Five armed Revolutionary Guards immediately stormed onto the plane and were demanding to see Ravin Aminpour — and that was me. My heart just sank to the floor at that moment, and I said goodbye to my wife and kids under my breath as I approached the guards.”

Suspicious, the armed guards interrogated Melamed for 20 minutes on the plane. They accused him of lying about his identity as a construction worker going to Frankfort, Germany, to have a heart operation.

“The guard asked me if I was a former military general, and at that point, I discovered they were not looking for me but rather a different person they had mistaken me for,” Melamed said.

The guard eventually accepted his story and allowed him to return to his seat after Melamed agreed to see the guard when he “returned to Iran after 10 to 15 days.”

“It was a miracle that they had not removed me from the plane and taken me away, because they would have eventually discovered my true identity,” he said.

After the flight arrived in Germany, Melamed was able to obtain his legitimate passport, which a friend, another Jewish passenger on the plane, had been carrying for him. With a U.S. visa and passport, Melamed was eventually reunited with his family in Los Angeles.

“I was one of the people who managed to survive this revolution after I was truly burned and destroyed because of it — it’s something that I will never forget for the rest of my life,” he said.

Boy proves key in getting grandparents into U.S.

Tears ran down my face as my grandmother told an interviewer in Persian the story of her miraculous escape from Iran 25 years ago.

I had heard portions of her story many times before, but this time, I was serving as her translator for an on-camera interview, and for the first time, I discovered the important role I played as a young child in making her immigration to America a reality.

“It’s been years since I left Iran,” my grandmother told the interviewer, “and I have tried to forget that very special life I had and what happened when I was forced to leave it all behind, because those are very painful memories.”

Up until that moment, her story had seemed remote to me, something that took place long ago in a faraway land.

My grandfather, Esmaeil Khorramian, who was in his 50s at the time, and my grandmother, Pari, who was in her early 40s, saw their seemingly peaceful and very affluent lives in Tehran overturned in 1983 on Tu b’Shevat at services in their synagogue. That night, friends urged them to leave the country, because some of their tenants were Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and word had leaked out that they were planning to arrest my grandfather in order to seize his assets.

“After 26 years of building my near-perfect life, one day I realized that I had to dismantle that life and leave Iran forever,” my grandmother related. “My home in a high-end neighborhood of Tehran was like a small castle, and everyone who saw it would say it was incredible.”

Escape would not be easy. My grandparents faced the problem of fleeing Iran, which had closed its borders during the Iran-Iraq War. However, a greater challenge was how to bring along my grandfather’s 92-year-old mother, Sara. She insisted that she would not leave Iran under any circumstances.

With few options, my grandparents turned to smugglers, who agreed get them out of Iran and into Pakistan for a fee. However, they demanded an extra 2 million in Iranian currency to also smuggle out my great-grandmother.

“One night I went to sleep, and the next day, Feb. 8, 1983, I left my house, my belongings, my entire life behind, and left with only a handbag in my hand,” my grandmother said in tears as she recalled the departure.

My grandparents had to lie to my great-grandmother to get her to leave the house, telling her that they were all going on a vacation.

The smugglers were also taking a Baha’i woman and her young daughter. The Baha’i woman was a doctor, and she had been released from prison by a guard who recognized her as the doctor who had treated his child.

The five got into a van and were driven to a tent in the middle of the desert, near the Pakistani border. By this time, my great-grandmother had realized that they were not headed for a vacation but instead were fleeing Iran, and she began loudly protesting.

The smugglers became upset with her and wanted to leave her behind. However, the Baha’i woman suggested slipping Valium into her food to put her to sleep.

“We were simply terrified at this point,” my grandmother said. “The smugglers told us that in the morning, we would cross the Iranian border into Pakistan at noon, when there were noon prayers, and also told us, ‘We’re glad you’re Muslims and not Jews, because if you were, we would kill you immediately.'”

The next day, they crossed undetected into Pakistan during prayers.

“It was dangerous, because not only were we illegally leaving the country, but we were also sitting on large containers of heroin that were also being smuggled into Pakistan by the smugglers,” my grandmother explained.

The group entered the notoriously dangerous Pakistani border town of Queta via a very narrow and winding road, where only one vehicle at a time could pass.

“When we arrived at the checkpoint, the guard asked us all where we were coming from and what we were doing in Pakistan; we just looked at him and said nothing,” my grandmother said, explaining that they were following instructions of the smugglers to pretend that they couldn’t speak. “He then asked my mother-in-law, Sara, the same question, and she shouted at him, ‘What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know we just escaped from Tehran?'”

Everyone was furious with Sara, and the smugglers said they were going to kill her for betraying them, the interviewer was told. One of the guards demanded a bribe of 400 rupees.

“The angry smugglers told us that they would not pay the bribe, and that we had to pay the bribe ourselves or be arrested,” my grandmother recounted. “We had no other choice, so we and the Baha’i woman each paid a share of the bribe from money we had hidden in our belongings, and they let us go.”

Not knowing anyone in Queta, my grandparents and great-grandmother took a plane to Karachi, Pakistan, where they stayed for a few days with the help of a Jewish family. Then they were able to bribe a Pakistani officer to help them get a flight to Switzerland and to Lisbon, Portugal.

My grandparents spoke neither Portuguese nor English, and they were taken to a hotel in a bad area of the city. They knew no one in Portugal, had little money left and little food, so they called my mother, who was in Los Angeles. My parents had only been in the United States for three years, and we had no contacts in Portugal and knew no one who could help my grandparents.

At the time in 1983, I was a 5-year-old kindergarten student at Temple Beth Am’s day school. My grandmother told the interviewer that at school, I told my teachers, “Mama is in Portugal” several times, because that is what I had heard my own mother saying many times at home.

My teacher asked my mother what I was talking about. She told them about my grandparents and great-grandmother who were stranded in Portugal with no contacts and little money.

“Then Temple Beth Am’s Rabbi [Jacob] Pressman got involved and told my daughter he would help find a Jewish contact in Portugal that would help us,” my grandmother said. “Thereafter, my son called the rabbi’s Jewish contact in Portugal, and the man took us to a better hotel and helped us find a lawyer.”

I honestly didn’t remember what I told my teacher at school until my grandmother told the interviewer about my part in her story — that as such a young boy, I was directly responsible for helping her in her time of need.

My grandparents and great-grandmother remained in Portugal for two months before being sent to Italy, where they sought asylum at the U.S. Embassy. Months later, they finally arrived in Los Angeles.

My grandmother wept as she told her story. She told me it was a miracle that she was able to escape from Iran with a 92-year-old woman who had jeopardized her life.

My grandmother’s story, along with the many stories from the older generation of Iranian Jews who had to flee, are particularly heart-breaking, because of how they were forced to forfeit everything.

In the 1930s and ’40s, they had worked hard to escape the poverty of the Jewish ghettos in Iran by educating themselves and working hard in business, only to have it confiscated by Iran’s totalitarian fundamentalist regime.

While I may never be able to help my grandparents fully regain what they were forced to leave behind in Iran, I am nevertheless proud to have helped them safely reunite with the rest of our family in America.

Playing Favorites

When I was a kid, I was a very important person in shul. My dad was not at all prominent in the greater society — he merely worked for his brother, selling toys and stationery as a wholesaler in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, starting his workday at 7 a.m. and working through 7 p.m. every day, including Sunday. (Sabbath-observant, he got to leave midafternoon on Fridays.) But at shul, he was well liked, even loved, and was the vice president of the local Young Israel. He was very important there, and I got treated great.

Then he died — cut down by leukemia at age 45. At his funeral, everyone from shul attended and promised to love our family, to remain close. In time, though, the bonds loosened. There were fewer visits on Shabbat to our home; fewer invitations to others’ homes. And then it happened. One Shabbat, amid 20 talking boys, I was singled out to be chastised — to be quiet. That had never before happened to me.

Never when dad was alive. I suddenly learned that, if some kid had to be made an example, had to be chastised for the noise, it was best to sanction the orphans. Kids with living fathers were protected. Their dads paid dues.

In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, we are warned so clearly to enact justice fairly: “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” — Pursue justice in heated pursuit. Do not pervert judgment. Do not play favorites in judgment by recognizing certain faces over others. Do not take bribes because bribes blind the eyes of even the wisest judges and pervert the integrity of the words of even the most righteous people. (Deuteronomy 16:19-20).

For many of us, these Torah mandates seem pretty easy to align with — forbidding bribery, requiring unperverted justice, commanding strict fairness in court. But howzabout us, in everyday life? Do we play by these rules?

When we meet someone wealthy, alongside someone of humble means, do we accord dignity to the modest as the rich guy pushes ahead of him? The modest man is telling of his daughter’s tragedy, her victimization at the hands of a man who has harassed her out of her Jewish religious faith and practice, but suddenly the rich guy pushes in to tell a joke. Who among us dares to say: “Excuse me, we were just speaking about this man’s — and his daughter’s — tragedy.”

Tevye sings it because we know it: “And it won’t make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong. When you’re rich, they think you really know.”

That indeed is what they think.

It is easy to overlook the orphan, the widow — or, in today’s society, the divorced and the young single in her 40s — because, well, they don’t fit into the “model of success.” If we hang around them, we might catch whatever they are carrying. In time, if not immunized, we might be renting a condo instead of owning a house.

Do we hear them? When they ask our help to find a match for life? When they ask for Shabbat home hospitality? Do we approach the boy and girl whose father or mother has died, or whose father is not Jewish, or the married man who merely works for his brother? I don’t think so. Not in my experience.

Listen to someone of modest means at a Shabbat hotel program lament a theft of $500 cash from his room, and who among us thinks of taking up a collection to salvage that family’s oneg? Instead, we have grist for a new mill — table conversation at lunch.

“Did you hear about the family that was robbed?”

“Yeah, it was $500, I heard.”

“Should we help them out?”

“Naaaah. They were stupid. They should have put their cash in the safe.”

Maybe that is why the Torah commands us in a strange, double command: Tzedek, tzedek — justice, justice shall you pursue. Because, amid a smug sense that no one can bribe me, that I am above being perverted in justice, that I surely would exact only pure justice if I were a judge of the Superior Court, the reality is that I — and the vast majority of us — never become clothed in the black judicial robes of the bench. But we do indeed sit in judgment of people every day of our lives. At work. At play. At home.

We legitimately encourage our kids to play with — and later to marry — approved kids from approved families. We legitimately protect them from bad elements in society. Yet we also cast our net of judgment wider, writing off so many good people, little people, the financially less successful, the children of the unimportant, just on the fringe of society’s excellence, qualified to enter yet desperately trying to gain admittance. The singles. The divorced. The boys and girls without a parent, whether missing one due to death, divorce or simple parental apathy.

Do you take bribes? Think about it.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, a member of the Rabbinical Council of California, is rav of Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine and an adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School.


World Briefs

Judge Voids Krugel Plea Agreement

Earl Krugel, a former leader of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), might face a longer than anticipated prison sentence, after a federal judge voided a previous plea agreement.

Krugel, 61, pleaded guilty last year to conspiring with the late Irv Rubin, JDL’s national chairman, to bomb a Culver City mosque and the offices of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), who is of Lebanese descent. Both men were arrested in December 2001, before the alleged plot was carried out.

In entering the guilty plea to two counts of the nine-count indictment, Krugel promised to cooperate fully with federal investigators as part of the deal.

He and his lawyer, Peter Morris, appeared Monday in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Ronald S.W. Lew, who was expected to pronounce a prison sentence of 10-16 years for Krugel and dismiss the remaining seven charges. Instead, Lew ordered a closed hearing to rule on a government motion, filed under seal, that Krugel had violated his plea agreement.

With Lew approving the motion, Krugel now faces a trial, set for Nov. 16, on the seven remaining counts of the indictment, while still being held to his earlier guilty pleas on the two counts.

Defense attorney Morris was outraged by the decision.

“This is a dark day for justice in America,” he told The Journal. “Earl has provided complete cooperation to the government and clearly met his part of the bargain. The government got everything it wanted out of him and is now reneging on its part.”

Under court rules, neither Morris nor U.S. Attorney spokesman Thom Mrozek were permitted to discuss details of Krugel’s alleged lack of cooperation.

However, the Los Angeles Times reported in February that federal investigators were putting pressure on Krugel in hopes of getting information on the 1985 killing of Alex Odeh.

Odeh, then the Western regional director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, died after a bomb denoted when he opened the front door to his Santa Ana office. The FBI interrogated JDL leaders at the time but never identified a suspect, and the JDL has steadfastly denied any involvement. The Arab American community has continued its demands that the government solve the case.

Morris said he would now counsel his client to withdraw the guilty plea on the first two charges and stand trial on all nine counts at one time.

If convicted, Krugel would face a mandatory 40-year prison term, which, at his age, would probably amount to a life sentence.

Morris said that Krugel, the JDL’s former West Coast coordinator, had no statement.

Earlier, Krugel’s sister told The Journal that Rubin and Krugel had been entrapped by an FBI informant, who had infiltrated the JDL, and that the government went after the two men to prove its “even-handedness” to the Arab community.

Krugel, a dental technician, came from a working-class background, married late in life and has two adopted grandchildren from his wife’s first marriage.

Rubin, who was arrested with Krugel, died in November 2002 in federal prison. Prison authorities said he committed suicide by slashing his throat and jumping over a railing, a finding contested by Rubin’s family. –Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

UCI Muslim Student Sashes Draw Fire

UC Irvine Jewish student groups are protesting the Muslim Student Association’s plans to wear green sashes with the word “Shehada” printed on them to this Sunday’s graduation. Shehada, which is one of the five pillars of the Muslim faith that literally means, “to bear witness” and is the recitation, “there is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet.” According to the Jewish groups, members of the terrorist group Hamas wear similar sashes and armbands.

Members of Anteaters for Israel, Hillel-Jewish Student Union, Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi and Jewish sorority Epsilon Phi, as well as members of StandWithUs and the American Jewish Congress have been sending protest letters to campus officials asking that the students not be allowed to wear the sashes, saying that the message on them incites anti-Semitism.

Representatives from the groups are also meeting with UC Irvine Vice Chancellor Manuel Gomez on Thursday in the hope that he will ban the sashes.

“The administration told us there is nothing they could do, because of freedom of speech,” said Merav Feren, president of Anteaters for Israel. “[The administration] aren’t responsive to Jewish fears, so I am not expecting much of a response.”

As of press time, university officials did not return calls seeking comment. — Gaby Wenig, Staff Writer

Sharon Cleared of Bribery Charges

Israel’s attorney general announced Tueday that there was not enough evidence to press charges against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on allegations of bribery.

Menachem Mazuz’s decision to drop the long-running case against the prime minister came as no surprise, as media reports in recent weeks had predicted the decision.

“The evidence in this case does not meet the requirement of suggesting a reasonable chance of conviction — not even close,” Mazuz, in his first major public appearance since taking office in January, told reporters in Jerusalem.

Mazuz reportedly called the prime minister shortly before the news conference to inform him of the decision, and Sharon replied, “Thank you very much,” sources said.

Sharon consistently had denied allegations that he took a bribe from real estate magnate David Appel, a Sharon friend who employed Sharon’s son, Gilad, in the 1990s to serve as a adviser in his bid to win development rights for a lucrative Greek island resort. Appel has been charged with trying to secure the help of Sharon, then Israel’s foreign minister, by paying Gilad Sharon hundreds of thousands of dollars to serve as his adviser on the project.

The so-called Greek Island Affair, which became public last year, compounded two other funding scandals dogging the prime minister and drew calls from the Israeli opposition for Sharon’s resignation.

Sharon still faces the possibility of charges in another case, also involving his family. That case involves a $1.5 million loan Sharon’s sons took from Cyril Kern, a family friend and businessman in South Africa, to cover illegal campaign contributions in Sharon’s 1999 bid for the Likud Party leadership.

An indictment recommendation by Mazuz in the Appel case would have made Sharon the first sitting prime minister to face criminal charges in Israel’s history. In March, then-state prosecutor Edna Arbel recommended that the prime minister be indicted.

But Mazuz was unequivocal in clearing

“It should be remembered that for more than two years, the police listened in to Appel’s two phone lines, recording thousands of conversations. Nonetheless, these wiretaps yielded no evidence, either direct or indirect, for substantiating the suspicion that Sharon was bribed by Appel,” Mazuz said.

Mazuz also closed the case against Gilad Sharon. Sharon’s political detractors cried foul after Mazuz’s announcement.

“What does the attorney-general expect — for the tainted money to be put on his desk so he can touch it himself?” asked Yossi Sarid, a lawmaker from the liberal Meretz party.

Sarid vowed to petition the High Court of Justice to overturn Mazuz’s decision. — Dan Baron, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Pollard Wins Appeal to Appeal

A U.S. appeals court is giving Jonathan Pollard a chance to appeal his life sentence. An American Jew convicted for selling U.S. intelligence secrets to Israel, Pollard will be allowed to present his case to a three-judge panel later this year. The panel will not decide whether Pollard’s sentence was too harsh, but only if Pollard can take the next step in his legal fight. It also could grant a request from Pollard’s lawyers to see partly classified documents used in his 1987 sentencing. — JTA

Federal Funding for Synagogue Security

A bill to give federal funding for the security of synagogues and other high-risk, non-profit sites passed a congressional committee. The U.S. House Judiciary Committee added language Wednesday to the Faster and Smarter Funding for First Responders Act, earmarking up to $100 million from the Homeland Security Department appropriation to secure non-profit sites that face the threat of terrorism. The bill has been touted by the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella organization and several other Jewish groups that are concerned about rising security costs for Jewish sites. Americans United for Separation of Church and State came out against the legislation Wednesday, suggesting that it was unconstitutional to give money directly to houses of worship.

Jewish organizational leaders discussed their alert system for Jewish organizations and religious sites with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. Ridge praised the community’s pilot program, the Secure Community Alert Network, and discussed the community’s security needs, those involved in the meeting said.

Ridge suggested that the Jewish community’s plan for alerting members about a terrorist attack could be a model for other ethnic minorities. Department officials will continue to meet with Jewish leaders this week to discuss information sharing and coordination opportunities. Legislation to use homeland security funds to secure high-risk nonprofit organizations, such as synagogues and other Jewish sites, was not discussed, participants said. — JTA

9/11 Panel: Al-Qaida Wanted To Attack During
Sharon Visit

Al-Qaida considered attacking the White House during a visit by Ariel Sharon in the summer of 2001, the Sept. 11 commission said. Osama bin Laden’s terrorist group planned the attack in Washington during a visit by the Israeli prime minister in order to draw a connection between U.S. policy and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the panel investigating the Sept. 11 attacks said in its final session Wednesday. — JTA