Iran’s growing nuclear threat has activated members of Los Angeles’ Iranian Jewish community to participate in this year’s presidential campaigns and make their voices heard.
Political activism is a unique phenomenon for Iranian Jews, who, for 2,500 years in Iran, had been barred from taking part in political activities and had been denied certain civil rights.
"It took a while for us [Iranian Jews] to take care of our immediate needs in the U.S.," said Sam Kermanian, one of the co-vice chairs for the George Bush/Dick Cheney 2004 campaign in California. "This is a community that came here as refugees and had to put its foundations in place — so getting involved in politics in the last few years only became a priority after all these other issues were taken care of."
Kermanian recently stepped down as chair of the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles in order to join the Bush campaign full-time. He said many of California’s 30,000-35,000 Iranian Jews support Bush’s re-election bid.
But the main challenge, he said, is not to convince Iranians Jews to vote but "to make sure that a community that traditionally does not have a culture of voting, to actually come out and cast its vote."
Since the beginning of the summer, Kermanian has collaborated with the Iranian Republican Coalition and the Republican Jewish Coalition in order to reach Iranian Jewish voters who favor the president’s strong alliance with Israel and unwavering stance against negotiations with Iran.
In August, Beverly Hills Jewish Republican Voters for Bush, a group consisting primarily of Iranian Jews, placed a one-page ad in Chashm Andaaz, the local Iranian Jewish magazine, asking for Iranian Jewish campaign volunteers. According to the group’s representatives, they have helped register roughly 200 Iranian Jews in the last two months.
"Because of Iraq, the situation in the Middle East and in Israel, a lot of people on an individual basis have expressed interest in getting involved, because they believe there is a lot at stake in that part of the world," said Solomon Meskin, a volunteer for Beverly Hills Jewish Republican Voters for Bush.
While support for President Bush is prevalent among many Iranian Jews, there are still many in the community that are equally engaged in campaigning on behalf of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.
"The Iranian American Jewish community is not homogeneous and should not be regarded as a monolithic body with one political mindset," said David Nahai, a volunteer co-chair of Jews and Friends for Kerry who co-chaired a June fundraiser for Kerry in Brentwood featuring the Democratic nominee’s Jewish brother, Cameron Kerry.
Nahai, a Century City attorney and board member of The Jewish Federation, said he is trying to educate many Iranian Jews who are not yet fully aware of Kerry’s long-standing pro-Israel voting record.
"I believe that our community is now coming to recognize John Kerry’s rock-solid, 20-year, proven pro-Israel record which dwarfs that of George W. Bush in comparison," Nahai said. "I believe that as Iranian-American Jews learn more about Sen. Kerry, his support in the community can only grow."
Aside from Kerry’s pro-Israel voting record, Nahai said Iranian Jews are just discovering that Kerry has also expressed resolve against Iran’s nuclear program.
"Clearly Sen. Kerry is no dove where Iran is concerned and he has stated unequivocally that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable," Nahai said. "Sen. Kerry supports bringing the matter of Iran’s nuclear program before the U.N. Security Council if Iran does not verifiably foreswear its nuclear ambitions."
Nahai said some younger Iranian Jews he has spoken with have also expressed their backing for Kerry and other Democratic candidates in the upcoming election.
"I believe that younger Iranians are more likely to lean toward the Democrats," Nahai said. "The Republican leadership’s ultra-Christian, neo-conservative, big business ethos is backward-looking and simply does not resonate with the young who are looking for a more hopeful… and progressive vision."
Other Kerry supporters in the Iranian Jewish community said they were backing Kerry because of his domestic policies, including proposals to boost the economy.
"I support Kerry because I think his ideas are different from Bush’s as far as being better for our society, from the economy, environment and other areas," said Zhila Ross, an Iranian Jew who lives Brentwood.
In addition to acquiring volunteers, Kermanian said he has also helped start grass-roots campaigns with other Iranian religious and ethnic groups, namely Armenian Christians, Zoroastrians, Caledonians, Muslims and Bahais in California to support Bush.
"There has been absolute harmony among the Iranian groups behind the president," said Kermanian, who has spoken on Persian language radio and TV programs, as well as at many community events.
According to Kermanian’s election demographic records, approximately 80 percent of Iranian Jews in the state are U.S. citizens and 70 percent are of voting age.
Likewise, Nahai said he has also tried to stir up support for Kerry among local Iranians by appearing on KIRN 670 AM, a popular local Persian-language radio station, as well as on the Voice of America television program.
This past July, both Kermanian and Nahai spoke to an Iranian Jewish congregation at the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana during Shabbat morning services, said Shohreh Nowfar, the volunteer chair for the center’s events committee.
More recently, Kermanian and Nahai said they have been approached by the leadership of the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills to engage in an open debate about both presidential candidates, but no time has been set for the event.
As the election intensifies, so do emotions for many Iranian Americans — regardless of their religion. Many say they still harbor a deep dislike for former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Iranian Americans in general continue to blame Carter for not supporting the regime of the late shah of Iran during the Islamic revolution in the late 1970s that ultimately forced thousands of Iranians, including Iranian Jews, to flee their former homeland and lose their livelihoods.
"Most Iranian Americans of all religions believe Carter had a policy that didn’t support the Pahlavi dynasty and his administration convinced military officials in Iran to step aside while the revolution took over the country," said Dr. Shirzad Abrams, co-founder of the Graduate Society Foundation, a local organization promoting the continuity of Iranian Jewish history and Judaism among young Jews.
Abrams and other Iranian Jewish leaders said that despite the resentment some in the community have for Carter, Iranian Jews by in large still continued to support Democratic candidates and politicians, including former President Bill Clinton and U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (Sherman Oaks).
Others in the Iranian Jewish leadership said that while the Democratic and Republican parties have reached out to Iranian Jews for fundraising purposes, the parties have overlooked the true political potential of the community.
"Iranian Jews have a great authority to mobilize the Iranian American community, which numbers around 1 million people," said Pooya Dayanim, president of the Iranian Jewish Public Affairs Committee. "In the years ahead, they need to become involved in non-Israel and non-Iranian causes to become fully integrated in the fabric of the American Jewish community".
For more information on the Bush campaign, call Sam Kermanian at (310) 854-1199. For more information on the Kerry campaign, call (310) 556-9172