L.A.’s Iranian Jews stand with Israel during war

During the war between Israel and Hamas, local Iranian Jews have taken a two-pronged approach to supporting the Jewish state: raising substantial dollars on behalf of humanitarian causes in Israel and speaking out on Farsi-language media outlets based in Southern California. 

“We need to be the voice of Israel, the voice that upholds, uplifts and supports Israel, our home country, and our brave IDF [Israel Defense Forces] soldiers who bravely, tirelessly and selflessly stand in our defense. … If we don’t, who else will?” said Simon Etehad, president of the Beverly Hills-based Iranian Nessah Synagogue.

Nessah is one of a dozen local Iranian-Jewish groups raising money for Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF), having collected more than $100,000 on its own since July 12, according to Etehad. 

The West Hollywood-based Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) joined with more than a dozen other Iranian Jewish groups — including Nessah — on July 23 to raise nearly $1 million for the FIDF. IAJF President Susan Azizzadeh said the money her organization raised was matched by Hollywood mogul and Israeli philanthropist Haim Saban. 

And while local Iranian-Jewish organizations have not openly criticized the Iranian regime for its involvement in supporting Hamas, more than two dozen Iranian-Jewish activists in Southern California on July 29 penned a three-page letter denouncing both Hamas and the Iranian regime for their reign of terror on Israeli civilians.

Sam Kermanian, a senior adviser to the IAJF, said the majority of Iranian Jews have strong reasons to support Israel. They consider the creation of the Jewish state as a type of redemption, with Israelis as heroes for the Jewish people worldwide. 

“Our community has always supported Israel to the best of their abilities. In fact, more than two-thirds of Jews of Iranian origin currently live in Israel,” he said. “There are no Iranian Jews anywhere in the world who do not have direct family ties to Israel, which is only topped by their religious and cultural ties to that land.”

Sam Yebri, president of 30 Years After, a Los Angeles-based Iranian-Jewish nonprofit group, said the community’s strong affinity for Israel can also be traced to painful experiences of fleeing Iran more than 30 years ago due to the country’s radical Islamic regime.

“Iranian-American Jews feel a deep connection to Israel as our Jewish homeland and as the Jewish people’s safe haven, especially given our experience in Iran,” Yebri said. “More importantly, the anti-Semitism that emerged internationally and the mischaracterization of Israel as committing ‘war crimes’ in some media outlets and at local rallies made it crystal clear that we must do our part to support Israel, as Americans and as Jews.”

Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian-Jewish activist who heads the L.A.-based Committee For Minority Rights in Iran, said some locals have increasingly tried to focus public attention on the major role the current Iranian regime has played in its sponsorship of Hamas’ terrorism. 

“The Islamic Republic of Iran has been the major instigator for this war and for quite a while they have been complaining about why ‘Palestine’ has been forgotten because of the ISIS [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] and the Ukraine conflicts,” Nikbakht said. “They have been pushing Hamas for offensive tactics and massive kidnappings of Israelis. The Iranian regime’s commanders thus revealed that they have indeed been behind the kidnapping and tunnel strategy.”

Last week on Iranian state-run television, Mohsen Rezaei, a senior adviser to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the Iranian regime had already provided Hamas with missile-building technology being used in fighting the IDF in the Gaza Strip. At the same time, Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani last week said Iran “had no hesitation in its coming to the aid of Hamas and other militant groups fighting Israel.”

Many of L.A.’s Iranian-Jewish activists have countered by appearing on Farsi-language radio programs and satellite news programs. One such example came last week when local Iranian-Jewish businessman and community activist Bijan Khalili appeared on KIRN 670-AM, a Studio City-based Farsi-language radio station. Khalili offered his insights to the majority Iranian-Muslim listeners during the station’s news program about Israeli military objectives to defend its citizens from Hamas rocket attacks.

“The tragedy of this war is that Hamas, a terrorist organization that is well funded and armed by the Iranian regime, clearly does not value Palestinian life nor Israeli life, and as a result both sides have suffered,” Khalili said on the radio program. “This war was begun by Hamas rockets fired at Israeli citizens. What would you expect your government to do but to protect your children and family from terrorists trying to kill them?”

While Iranian Jews living in the United States have been voicing strong support for Israel during the latest war with Hamas, leaders of the Jewish community in Iran have publicly denounced Israel. Homayoun Sameyah Najafabadi, the leader of the Jewish Committee of Tehran, denounced Israel on Iranian state-run news television broadcasts last week. Additionally, the only Jewish member of the Iranian parliament, Siamak Moreh Sedgh, recently compared Israel’s government with that of Nazi Germany. 

Community activists in the U.S. argue that this is the result of pressure from the Iranian regime. Kermanian said Moreh Sedgh’s comments about Israel are not shared by the 10,000 Jews still living in Iran and that Moreh Sedgh has no credibility among Iranian Jews in Iran or the U.S.

“First and foremost, Moreh Sedgh’s own history indicates that far more than being the representative of the Jewish community in the Iranian parliament, he is a hand-picked representative of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence for representing that community in accordance with the wishes and propaganda guidelines of the Iranian regime,” Kermanian said. “Secondly, considering the regime’s policies toward Israel and the fear and intimidation that the Iranian-Jewish community faces inside Iran, he might wrongfully think that he is serving the interests of that community by selling himself out to the regime.” 

For more than three decades, many Iranian Jews living in America have been hesitant to voice their opposition to the Iranian regime for fear that their comments may have negative repercussions against their Jewish brethren still living in Iran. Kermanian said the Iranian regime has tried to utilize this retaliatory fear to silence Iranian Jews living in the U.S. but that there are limits to the strategy’s effectiveness.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran needs to be aware that there are certain red lines beyond which our community abroad will not go, and certain issues on which it will not keep quiet, regardless of cost, “ Kermanian said. “The safety and security of Jews and the State of Israel are two such issues.”

To read more about the Iranian regime’s involvement in the current Gaza war, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.

AIPAC discouraged Rouhani overture, Rabbi Wolpe says

The pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC “actively discouraged” an effort by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to reach out to Iranian-American Jews in Los Angeles, according to Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe.

During Shabbat services on Sept. 21, Wolpe informed his congregation, which has a sizable population of Iranian-American Jews, that Rouhani had extended a request to meet with several members of L.A.’s Iranian Jewish community, but that AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) had discouraged such a meeting.

“AIPAC was concerned that a meeting would be used for propaganda purposes,” Wolpe told the Journal on Sep. 25. “I was happy to announce that as AIPAC’s position, though I myself didn't take a position.”

AIPAC’s West Coast office declined to comment. As of press time, the group’s spokesman in its Washington, D.C. headquarters had not returned the Journal’s telephone call or e-mail.

Sam Kermanian, senior adviser to the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) in Los Angeles, told the Journal that when Rouhani’s office reached out to the IAJF about two weeks ago, “We respectfully declined the invitation.”

“It looked like under the current circumstances any such meeting would easily be misinterpreted,” Kermanian said.

When asked whether IAJF consulted with AIPAC, Kermanian said that his group always consults with AIPAC and other national pro-Israel organizations on major issues, but that IAJF’s refusal of Rouhani was its own decision.

Kermanian added that even after IAJF turned down Rouhani’s offer, “The Iranian mission in New York was still inviting individual Jews to a dinner that the Iranians were hosting for the president.” Kermanian said that as far as he knows, nobody from Los Angeles’ Iranian Jewish community accepted the invitation.

Wolpe told his congregation that although he was ambivalent about discussing politics from the pulpit and would not give his personal opinion, he “trust[s] the judgment of AIPAC.” Wolpe added that he believed AIPAC was channeling the view of the Israeli government, and in particular Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who regarded Rouhani’s invitation as a public relations stunt.

According to The Guardian, Rouhani was accompanied to New York by Iran's only Jewish MP, Siamak Moreh Sedgh, as part of his efforts to revamp the country's image.

Although Rouhani’s election last June was welcomed as a potentially moderating force in the Iranian regime, he has not refuted the Holocaust denial of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Last week, during an interview in Tehran, NBC news anchor Ann Curry asked Rouhani whether he believed the Holocaust was a “myth.” Rouhani replied: “I'm not a historian. I'm a politician.”

Wolpe told his congregation that Rouhani’s pronouncement on the Holocaust was dubious, at best, and reminded them of Netanyahu’s response: “It does not take a historian to recognize the existence of the Holocaust — it just requires being a human being.”

Netanyahu is clearly skeptical of any sincere political shift in Iran — he has referred to Rouhani as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”   

Earlier this week, Rouhani used the occasion of attending the U.N. General Assembly to express a more detailed opinion of the Holocaust, telling a group of U.S. reporters that “the Nazis carried out a massacre that cannot be denied, especially against the Jewish people.”

“The massacre by the Nazis was condemnable,” Rouhani said, according to NBC News. “We never want to sit by side with the Nazis. They committed a crime against Jews — which is a crime against Christians, against Muslims, against all of humanity.”

Netanyahu called Rouhani’s speech a “cynical PR charade.”

A Jew murdered in Iran

In the wake of the gruesome murder of a 57-year-old Jewish woman living in the Iranian city of Isfahan nearly three weeks ago, a group of Iranian-Jewish activists in Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., have banded together in an informal group hoping to raise public awareness of the murder and to help bring the murderers to justice. This new group, known as the Jewbareh Committee — named for the ancient Jewish ghetto in Isfahan where the victim, Toobah Nehdaran, was murdered — released a statement last week calling upon Iranians and the international community to push for a real investigation of the case.

“The Jewbareh Committee has appealed to all the kindhearted Muslims and neighbors in Isfahan and around the Jewbareh district, as well as to honest police officials to observe the situation, report any suspicious findings and push authorities to launch a fair investigation into this matter,” the statement said.

Following online news reports of the murder, committee members reached out to contacts in Iran, including an alleged eyewitness, who said that on Nov. 26, Nehdaran, a married Jewish woman, was strangled, then repeatedly stabbed to death, and her body was mutilated in a ritual manner by thugs who had broken into her home.

“People who have seen the body talk of mutilation as a result of multiple stabbings following the strangulation of the victim,” said George Haroonian, a Los Angeles-based Iranian-Jewish community activist and committee member. “Our investigation indicates that the victim’s body was surrendered to the family and the local rabbis, who had requested it on Nov. 29.”

Conflicting stories have emerged from Iran in relation to the murder, but committee members have confirmed that the victim’s two sisters — one of whom is blind — were living with her at the time of the murder and were tied up but not killed by the intruders. 

Committee members said Jewish leaders in Tehran have been spreading rumors that Nehdaran’s murder was as a result of a botched robbery in hopes of absolving local authorities before any investigation, out of fear of reprisals from the regime against the Iranian-Jewish community.

But Haroonian said that the burglary explanation was unlikely. “One witness overwhelmed by the scene believes that it is highly improbable that burglars would have killed someone in this manner,” Haroonian said.

According to the committee’s statement, a more plausible motive may stem from an official legal complaint, filed with local authorities in recent years, by the Nehdaran family against the nearby Kareem Saaghi mosque. The dispute began when the mosque’s “religious radicals” allegedly took over a portion of the family’s land when the family refused demands to sell its property to the mosque.

The committee said the motive of robbery did not make sense, because the victim’s family was poor and living in a dilapidated home in one of the poorest areas of Isfahan. 

Committee members say they believe Nehdaran’s murder may have been premeditated because it took place during the Islamic month of Muharram, a holy time for religious Shiite Muslims, when they publicly mourn the killing of their prophet Hussein through large public rallies, as well as a time when religious fanatics have, for centuries, killed non-Muslims in Iran.

In recent years, Iranian-Jewish community leaders in the United States have avoided commenting on the status of Jews in Iran and do not openly criticize the Iranian regime for fear of reprisals against the Jewish community still remaining in Iran. Despite this, the Los Angeles-based Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) issued a statement to the Journal, calling on Iranian officials to bring Nehdaran’s killers to justice.

“We strongly request the local authorities in Isfahan to launch a prompt, credible and thorough investigation of this murder, overseen by the highest authorities in the country and to provide for immediate, adequate and effective security for all residents of this terrified community,” the IAJF statement reads.

The L.A.-based  30 Years After (30YA), a nonprofit Iranian-Jewish group, also condemned the murder and called for help from international human rights organizations.

“Our community is saddened and outraged by this heinous, targeted murder of a Jewish woman in Isfahan,” 30YA President Sam Yebri said. “This tragedy brings to light the precarious situation of all religious minorities in Iran who face discriminatory laws and random acts of violence, condoned by the Iranian authorities.”

Currently, an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Jews still live in Iran, most of them based in Tehran. Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian-Jewish activist who heads the L.A.-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, said that despite discriminatory laws and constant threats to their lives, Jews remain in Iran for a variety of reasons.

“First of all, it is very difficult for more traditional people in Iran, whether they are Jewish or non-Jewish, to leave the country because it’s their homeland,” Nikbakht said. “It is also very difficult for elderly Jews to leave, because they are sick or just set in their ways — and a lot of Jews believe that they can just outlast the regime. After all, Jews have been living in the Jewbareh in Isfahan since the time of Cyrus the Great, for more than 2,500 years, and believe they can continue living there.”

Nikbakht said official Shiite Islamic laws in Iran are discriminatory against non-Muslims. While a non-Muslim who murders a Muslim will face the death penalty, a Muslim who murders a non-Muslim will not be charged with the death penalty or imprisonment and can typically get off by merely paying the non-Muslim victim’s family “blood money,” he said.

The life of a Jew, a Christian or a Zoroastrian — all of whom are viewed as dhimmis (second-class citizens), according to Iran’s Islamic laws — is worth one-twelfth  the life of a Muslim in blood money, Nikbakht said. At the same time, nonrecognized dhimmi “infidels” in Iran are not so fortunate.

“A Muslim who murders an ‘infidel,’ such as a person who is a communist or from the Baha’i faith — can get away with the crime by simply stating that the victim ‘deserved to be killed’ because he was an infidel according to the Islamic laws of the land,” Nikbakht said.

According to a 2004 report by Nikbakht, at least 14 Jews have been murdered or assassinated since 1979 by the regime’s agents, at least two Jews have died while in custody, and 11 Jews have been officially executed by the regime.

In 2000, with the assistance of various American-Jewish groups, the Iranian-Jewish community in the United States, and particularly in Los Angeles, worked to  publicize the case of 13 Iranian Jews from Shiraz who were imprisoned in 1999 on fabricated charges of spying for Israel. Ultimately, the international exposure put pressure on the Iranian regime, and the so-called “Shiraz 13” were released.

In Iran, the state-run media has not yet reported on Nehdaran’s murder, and Iranian officials have not released any official statement concerning the murder.

Three alleged suspects have been arrested and are currently in custody, but no official investigation has been launched, according to committee members in contact with the Jewish community in Isfahan.

Committee members said they have just begun efforts to reach out to American-Jewish community organizations such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles for help and have not yet developed a formal plan to approach elected officials or human rights groups.

Representatives at the Iranian Permanent Mission to the United Nations did not return calls for comment.

To read Karmel Melamed’s blog, Iranian American Jews, go to jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.

U.S. economic woes spark rift in Iranian community

The U.S. economic problems over the past several months have resulted in rising conflicts among some Southern California Iranian Jewish community groups.

The most recent example occurred in late September, when Washington Mutual appeared to be on the verge of collapse. The L.A.-based nonprofit, International Judea Foundation (SIAMAK), had more than $300,000 deposited in the financial institution, well over the amount insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC).

“I was sitting at home watching the business news one night, and there was a report that Washington Mutual may go belly up,” said Dariush Fakheri, a current caretaker member of SIAMAK. “At the time, only $100,000 of our organization’s money, which was all from the community’s contributions, was insured by the U.S. government, and I was very scared the rest of the money would be lost if the bank went belly up.”

Fakheri knew that to transfer all of SIAMAK’s funds from Washington Mutual into a new bank would require several weeks — an option his group was unwilling to wait for, as the clock was ticking on Washington Mutual’s solvency. Relying on old traditions and friendships from Iran, where Jews quickly helped one another in times of need, Fakheri said his group turned for assistance to the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF), a local umbrella group consisting of nearly two dozen Iranian Jewish organizations.

“I asked an adviser to Mr. Manoucher Nazarian, president of the Iranian Federation, to see if they could take SIAMAK’s money in the form of a loan and place it in their account until it was safe to take the money back, once our bank was stable,” said Fakheri, whose group is not affiliated with the IAJF. “Their center immediately took the money, helped us, and I am very grateful to them — I could not think of any other organization that we could have done this with.”

However, IAJF leadership’s action sparked a controversy when IAJF’s chairman, Daryoush Dayan, discovered documents related to the transaction. In a formal letter dated Oct. 3, Dayan demanded that Nazarian immediately return the funds to SIAMAK.

He claimed that proper protocol had not been followed, because the IAJF’s board was not advised of the transfer. His letter also said that the IAJF board had not approved the transfer, but that nevertheless, each board member was individually liable for the debt obligation created by acceptance of the money.

Nazarian said that Dayan had no jurisdiction over the transaction, because SIAMAK gave its funds as a loan to the Iranian American Jewish Center, a separate entity with separate tax identification numbers than the IAJF’s and, therefore, did not require IAJF board approval.

Nazarian is president of the Iranian American Jewish Center located in West Hollywood and also known as Hollywood Temple Beth El.

“This issue with SIAMAK happened in such a quick way, within two days, that I would have for sure informed the [IAJF’s] board, even though I did not have to, since the center which was involved is a totally separate organization,” Nazarian said in an interview. “But we had to act fast because of what was happening with Washington Mutual. Unfortunately, he [Dayan] never asked me for any explanation.”

Dayan resigned as IAJF chairman when his demands were not implemented, and the IAJF’s board elected the organization’s former president, Solomon Rastegar, as interim chair.

According to IAJF bylaws, the organization’s president has the exclusive powers of a chief executive officer to oversee the organization’s day-to-day business. While the bylaws do not identify powers of the board chairman, Rastegar said the position is ceremonial and can only recommend the overall direction he or she would like the organization to pursue.

Rifts of this nature within the Iranian Jewish community are not new. For nearly 30 years since their arrival in Southern California from Iran, groups have often been plagued with infighting over financial, religious and leadership issues.

In many instances, factions have developed over differences between older- and younger-generation members on how to address the community’s needs. Fakheri said this has been particularly true for SIAMAK during the past 16 months, as the organization has been in the process of formally separating from the Eretz Center in Tarzana and the Neria Yomtoubian Foundation, both community organizations that provide religious and social events for local Iranian Jews.

The three groups had originally merged in 2004 in hopes of unifying the community in the San Fernando Valley under one umbrella organization.

After Washington Mutual was taken over by JP Morgan Chase Bank, Fakheri said the center quickly returned SIAMAK’s funds.

However, Dayan’s departure also prompted three additional IAJF board members to resign and some community members to accuse IAJF’s leadership of wrongdoing, Rastegar said.

In an Oct. 23 letter to IAJF board members, Nessah Syangogue Rabbi David Shofet, whom many local Iranian Jews consider the community’s spiritual leader, suspended his membership in the organization.

“With great sorrow and regret, I must say that the federation has forgotten its real responsibility and function,” Shofet wrote in the Persian-language letter. “Instead of attending to and dealing with issues surrounding our society’s young people and establishing long- and short-term plans, the members’ time and energy are being wasted on useless discussions.”

The rabbi’s letter indicated his desire that the IAJF be reformed with new objectives and new blood, reflecting changes within the community over the past 30 years.

The IAJF had been established primarily to help Jews still living in Iran, but now, as the community in Iran has mostly left, Shofet is among those who believe the organization should move its focus to better serve the needs of the Los Angeles community.

Dayan, a well-known businessman and philanthropist in the Iranian Jewish community, was first elected IAJF board chairman last summer. He declined to be interviewed for this article but issued a statement saying, “Rabbi David Shofet’s letter to the Iranian American Jewish Federation clearly articulates my position and those of other directors who recently resigned from the board of Iranian American Jewish Federation.”

Shofet, who could not be reached for comment, issued a second letter Oct. 31 encouraging IAJF members to enter into a serious dialogue — without attacking one another — in order to bring about reform in the organization.

Although some in Los Angeles’ Iranian Jewish community remain critical of the IAJF’s action in this matter, the organization’s leaders remain unapologetic, continuing to believe they made the correct decision.

“Although SIAMAK is not a member of our organization, we, as responsible Jews, acted immediately to help them for the sake of mitzvah, because the money that was at risk belonged to community,” Rastegar said. “This was all done legally. We did not receive any interest in safekeeping it for them; we did not charge them an interest for the safekeeping, and the money was promptly returned to them.”

Current IAJF leadership members said that despite the resignations from their ranks, the group will continue to represent the interests of the Iranian communities in the United States and Iran as one of the primary official voices for both.

“This is a free country, and everyone has the freedom to make his own decisions — if some do not want to continue with us, that is their choice,” Rastegar said. “I am sure members of our community here will be standing with us as they have been for the last three decades, because they know we will be protecting our community — especially those in our community still living in Iran.”

Local Iranian Jewish activists said the recent IAJF controversy is just the latest manifestation of growing pains within the community after three decades in America.

“We need to begin an open and ongoing dialogue among the different groups in our community to resolve our issues,” Fakheri said. “Maybe some of the leaders from the American Jewish community could help us accomplish this.”