Roger Cohen’s Dialogue with the Iran Jewish Community


For video footage of the dialogue, click here.

There was no clean knockout when New York Times columnist Roger Cohen faced off against some 400 members of the local Iranian Jewish and Bahai communities last week, but spectators were treated to some vigorous rhetorical sparring and nimble footwork.

Last month, Cohen, a British-born Jewish journalist, returned from a reportorial visit to Iran and wrote a column for the Times headlined “What Iran’s Jews Say.”

In the city of Esfahan, in central Iran, Cohen talked to a handful of Jews, who are among the 25,000 remaining in Iran out of a one-time community of 100,000. Cohen reported that the Jews were “living, working and worshipping in relative tranquility.”

Despite the Holocaust denials and rants by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about wiping Israel off the map, “as a Jew, I have seldom been treated with such consistent warmth as in Iran,” Cohen wrote.

To some 30,000 Iranian Jews living in Los Angeles who had uprooted themselves from their ancient homeland, Cohen’s evaluation was dangerously naïve at best and a mockery of their own experiences at worst.

They inundated Cohen and the New York Times with letters and e-mails, and the columnist agreed to fly to Los Angeles to address his critics at Sinai Temple, which has a large proportion of Iranian congregants.

What could have been a highly emotional face-off went well, thanks largely to the audience’s restraint during Cohen’s lengthy presentation and Rabbi David Wolpe’s insistence on decorum during the more emotional question-and-answer period.

Cohen started by expanding on the main points of his earlier column:

* Labeling Iran a totalitarian regime ready to destroy Israel and then the West’s infidels is a “grotesque caricature.”
* Iranians are a proud people, but pay little attention to the regime’s propaganda and incitements. To compare the situation in Iran to an impending holocaust “dishonors the memory of six million victims.”
* Iran’s leadership is mainly pragmatic and primarily concerned with assuring its own survival.
* Iran is the most democratic state in the Middle East, outside Israel, and is against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
* An attack on Iran by Israel or the United States would be a global disaster. “Force is the unthinkable option,” Cohen said, and mutually respectful negotiations are the only answer.
* Although he counts himself as “a strong supporter of Israel,” Cohen believes that Israel “overplayed its hand in Lebanon and Gaza” and that Hamas and Hizbollah are “established political forces,” that cannot be eliminated by military means.

The audience politely applauded Cohen at the end of the talk, but when Wolpe opened the dialogue, some sparks – leavened by humor – were ignited.

Wolpe to Cohen: “You draw a distinction between the Iranian people and their rulers, but Iran has a long history of anti-Semitism…the Iranian government has republished the notorious anti-Semitic forgery ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’ and your New York Times column ran in the Teheran Post.

Cohen: “Then they stole my column.”

Wolpe: “That shows that it was worth stealing.”

Finally, it was the audience’s turn to confront Cohen directly, and the questions ranged from thoughtful to bitter.

“Were you paid by the Iranian government for your trip?” asked one audience member. “No,” said Cohen, though he paid an Iranian “agency” $150 a day for the services of a translator, who acknowledged that he would have to file a report on Cohen’s doings with the authorities.

Wolpe interjected that Cohen had paid for his own trip to speak at Sinai Temple.

Several questioners wondered how Cohen could take the answers of fearful Iranian Jews at face value, especially with a government translator at his side.

Cohen responded that he recognized the possibility of self-censorship by those he talked to, “but that doesn’t mean that nothing they said is of any value.”

Some of the sharpest questions came from the Bahai community, seven of whose leaders in Iran were recently imprisoned as alleged Israeli spies.

Cohen said he had not spoken to the Bahais, but was aware of their plight.

Despite his stout defense, it became obvious that Cohen was affected by the direct or implied criticism of his views by a knowledgeable audience.

“I feel your anger, indignation and pain,” he said. “I think that at some level you retain a love of country [Iran]. But I hope you will give some thought to what I have said.”

A sampling of audience reactions after the talk revealed little indication that Cohen’s request was acceptable.

“He didn’t understand the geopolitical situation, and he doesn’t know what he is talking about,” commented Jasmin Niku, a 22-year old law student.

Two veteran community leaders, who rarely see eye-to-eye but have excellent contacts inside Iran, also expressed strong reservations.

“In Iran, Jews are pawns of the regime, which will go to great lengths to persuade outsiders, like Cohen, who know little about the history of the Jewish community, that everything is just fine,” said George Haroonian.

Sam Kermanian was particularly disappointed, after spending two hours one-on-one with Cohen earlier in the day, trying to explain the real situation in Iran.

Kermanian, who is active in the Center for the Promotion of Democracy, based in Iran, said that the Teheran government is adamantly anti-American, whatever the sentiments of its people.

“If Cohen has come to a different conclusion, after talking to four or five Jews through an interpreter,” added Kermanian, “then he has been deceived.”

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Rabbi Gary Greenebaum takes national leadership position; Survival of Jews in Iran is a paradox, pan


Rabbi Gary Greenebaum takes national leadership position

Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, a key figure in Los Angeles civic and ecumenical relations for the last 16 years, has been appointed national director for interreligious affairs by the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

As director of AJC’s Los Angeles chapter and Western region since 1990, Greenebaum has worked closely with leaders of the city’s varied ethnic and religious communities to further mutual respect and understanding.

He plans to project the same skills and goals on the national scene in his new post, succeeding David Elcott, who has joined the Israel Policy Forum as executive director.

“I realize now more than ever how strongly religion affects American society,” Greenebaum said.

Greenebaum played another crucial role when Mayor Richard Riordan appointed him president of the Los Angeles Police Commission in 1993, in the wake of the previous year’s riots, sparked by the acquittal of police officers involved in the Rodney King beating.

“I think that my appointment to the Police Commission and my work there helped alleviate a sense among African Americans that Jews didn’t care any longer about their community,” he said. “I also believe that we have established a tremendous relationship with the Latino community over the years.”

In a different arena, Greenebaum and his chapter have spearheaded Jewish communal relations with some 45 countries represented by consulates in Los Angeles. In recognition of this work, he was recently awarded the National Order of Merit by the French government.

Greenebaum, 57, will retain his family residence in Los Angeles and expects to spend one week each month in New York.

Among highlights of his California tenure, Greenebaum recalled taking several delegations of Protestant and Catholic leaders to Israel and the 2003 AJC mission to Salt Lake City to meet with top Mormon leaders.

“Gary is a wonderful judge of people,” said Sherry A. Weinman, president of the Los Angeles AJC chapter. “He knows exactly when to lead with his rabbinical side and when with his statesman side.”

Debbie Smith Saidoff, who serves on the national AJC board of governors, praised Greenebaum’s sensitivity in dealing with representatives of other faiths.

“Gary is a multidimensional leader of great insight, but he is never afraid to speak truth to power,” she said.

In his new position, Greenebaum will work closely with Jerusalem-based Rabbi David Rosen, AJC’s international director of interreligious affairs.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Survival of Jews in Iran is a paradox, panel shows

On Oct. 20, the Women of Vision chapter of the Iranian Jewish Women’s Organization, presented a panel discussion on “The Jews of Iran: Will This 2,700-Year-Old Community Survive?” to a standing-room-only crowd at the Museum of Tolerance.

At present, 25,000 Jews live in Iran, 15,000 of them in Tehran, making Iran’s Jewish population the second largest in the Middle East, outside of Israel. In the years following the 1979 revolution, approximately 75 percent of the Iranian Jewish population fled the country, some to New York but many more to Los Angeles, which now boasts the largest Iranian Jewish population in the world.

Speakers at the conference included Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, as well as Hamid Sabi, former chairman of the Iranian Jewish Centre in London. They were joined by Tel Aviv University professors Meir Litvak, an expert in Shi’ii and radical Islamic movements, and David Menashri, director of the Tel Aviv University’s Center for Iranian Studies; television producer and poet Roya Hakakian, author of “Journey From the Land of No” (Crown), about growing up as a Jewish teenager in post-revolutionary Iran; Shirin Taleh, a relatively recent immigrant to Los Angeles from Tehran, where she was a Jewish preschool and kindergarten schoolteacher; and Israel Radio personality Menashe Amir, who hosts a regular program listened to by Iranians the world over. The panel was moderated by Sharon Baradaran, a professor in UCLA’s Israel studies department.

The conference presented a complex look at the recent history of Jews in Iran. Amir made clear that over the last century, the condition of Jews in Iran had gone from bad to better (under the shah) to worse, prompting Baradaran to ask whether the better times under the shah were more of an aberration than had been thought.

Hakakian and Sabi both spoke of the role of Jews in the revolution and post-revolutionary period, time of great intellectual ferment and hope. Hakakian, in particular, still hopes a democracy will emerge in Iran, and she is encouraged by reports that average Iranians are losing interest in Iranian government-produced Palestinian propaganda and are showing interest in Israel.

By contrast, Litvak was vocal in pointing out that Iran only tolerates Jews living under Muslim rule — not as people living in an independent state. Iran has become the world leader in Holocaust denial, Litvak explained, as part of a political strategy to undermine support for Israel’s existence.

The panelists agreed that today’s Iran presents a paradox. In many ways, as Hakakian, Sabi and Taleh made clear, life for Jews in some ways has never been better. They are a “protected minority,” allowed to drink wine for their rituals, while Muslims are not allowed alcohol; Jews may allow men and women to mix, while Muslims cannot.Nonetheless, Jews are barred from government jobs, and under Muslim laws, their rights in criminal and civil courts are not equal to other Iranian citizens.

Iranian Muslims consider Jews “filthy” and impure. Yet Jews in Iran have the right to passports and to travel abroad and could leave if they choose.

Litvak suggested that Iran’s Jews have little future living as a minority in Iran and will not likely be able to improve their place in society. Kermanian recommended that the remaining Jews of Iran leave as soon as possible, in case conditions should change.

Menashri suggested that all Iranian Jews should move to Israel, while Hakakian argued that Iran’s Jews should remain and will flourish under a future regime. Taleh believes that there always will be a Jewish Iran, as long as parents teach their children about Judaism.

— Tom Teicholz, Contributing Writer

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