Jews stood up to the U.S. government 40 years ago, and should again on Iran

These days, like many Israelis and American Jews, I find myself in a precarious and painful situation. Those of us who believe that the nuclear agreement just signed between world powers and Iran is dangerously misguided are now compelled to criticize Israel’s best friend and ally, the government of the United States. In standing up for what we think is right, for both our people and the world, we find ourselves at odds with the power best able to protect us and promote stability. And instead of joining the hopeful chorus of those who believe peace is on the horizon, we must risk giving the impression that we somehow prefer war.

As difficult as this situation is, however, it is not unprecedented. Jews have been here before, 40 years ago, at a historic juncture no less frightening or fateful than today’s.

In the early 1970s, Republican President Richard Nixon inaugurated his policy of detente with the Soviet Union with an extremely ambitious aim: to end the Cold War by normalizing relations between the two superpowers.

Among the obstacles Nixon faced was the USSR’s refusal to allow on-site inspections of its weapons facilities. Moscow did not want to give up its main advantage, a closed political system that prevented information and people from escaping and prevented prying eyes from looking in.

Yet the Soviet Union, with its very rigid and atrophied economy, badly needed cooperation with the free world, which Nixon was prepared to offer. The problem was that he was not prepared to demand nearly enough from Moscow in return. And so as Nixon moved to grant the Soviet Union most-favored-nation status, and with it the same trade benefits as U.S. allies, Democratic Sen. Henry Jackson of Washington proposed what became a historic amendment, conditioning the removal of sanctions on the Soviet Union’s allowing free emigration for its citizens.

By that time, tens of thousands of Soviet Jews had asked permission to leave for Israel. Jackson’s amendment sought not only to help these people but also and more fundamentally to change the character of detente, linking improved economic relations to behavioral change by the USSR. Without the free movement of people, the senator insisted, there should be no free movement of goods.

The Republican administration in the White House objected furiously. It also claimed that by improving relations with Moscow it would be better able to protect us personally and to ensure that some Jews could emigrate each year. This put Jewish activists inside the USSR in a difficult position. We feared opposing our greatest benefactor, yet we wanted freedom for all Soviet Jews, and we believed that would result only from unrelenting pressure to bring down the Iron Curtain. This is why, despite the clear risks and KGB threats, we chose to publicly support the amendment.

American Jewish organizations also faced a difficult choice. They were reluctant to speak out against the U.S. government and appear to put the “narrow” Jewish interest above the cause of peace. Yet they also realized that the freedom of all Soviet Jews was at stake, and they actively supported the policy of linkage.

Now all that was needed for the amendment to become law was enough principled congressional Republicans willing to take a stand against their own party in the White House. It was a Republican senator from New York, Jacob Javits, who, spurred by a sense of responsibility for the Jewish future, helped put together the bipartisan group that ensured passage.

Later, when Javits traveled to Moscow as part of a delegation of U.S. senators, he met with a group of Jewish refuseniks and asked us whether the policy of linkage truly helped our cause. Although we knew that we were speaking directly into KGB listening devices, all 14 of us confirmed that Jackson’s amendment was our only hope.

The Soviet authorities were infuriated by the law and did everything in their power to prove that the Americans had made a mistake. Jewish emigration was virtually halted, and the repression of Jewish activists increased. In 1977, I was arrested and accused of high treason, allegedly as a spy for the CIA; in the indictment, Jackson was listed as my main accomplice. Yet far from discouraging me or discrediting the senator, the many mentions of his name in my sentence gave me hope — hope that the free world would not permit Soviet dictators to continue denying their citizens basic rights and that in the end our cause would be victorious.

Natan Sharansky, a human rights activist and former political prisoner in the Soviet Union, is chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

John and Paul, still alive

Last week, I started writing a column about John Sullivan, a former drug and alcohol addict who restarted his life, thanks to Beit T’Shuvah. But then I got interrupted by another great story, in a documentary called “Paul Williams: Still Alive,” directed by my friend Steve Kessler. I wasn’t planning to write about the film — until I saw a packed house at the Nuart on Saturday night give it a standing ovation.

What were those filmgoers so crazy about?

My simple theory is that they fell in love with the story of a singer-songwriter, a star of the 1970s and early 1980s whose life unraveled through drugs and alcohol and who is now sober and taking gigs wherever he can, at local Holiday Inns or even music halls in the Philippines.

I found both men’s stories irresistible, so I decided to combine them. What caught my attention in particular is that both Williams and Sullivan hate looking backward.

In the film, Kessler is constantly nudging Williams to look back. As they wander through hotel lobbies and small-town gigs, Kessler tries to get Williams to talk about his glory days, when he was one of the most revered entertainers in the country — picking up Oscars and Grammys and being a regular fixture on “The Tonight Show.”

This is the emotional core of the film: Williams wants to look forward, while Kessler wants to look back. Williams grudgingly humors Kessler, until a breaking point happens at the end (I won’t spoil it by telling you).

Sullivan also humored me and talked about his past (I didn’t give him much choice). He spoke about dropping out of high school at age 16 and spending the next 17 years of his life caught in a downward spiral of drugs, alcohol and petty crimes that often landed him in jail.

There was one episode especially that stood out. It happened about four years ago, while he was in a holding cell at a local courthouse. He had agreed to a deal from the prosecutor to do 16 months for a theft charge. But unbeknownst to him, his brother had appealed to the judge to send Sullivan to a rehabilitation center. The judge gave the brother 10 minutes to find a place that would take Sullivan.

The brother immediately called a friend, who put him in touch with Beit T’Shuvah, a faith-based residential treatment center and full-service congregation that has grown quickly over the past few years.

Beit T’Shuvah took him in, helped him get sober and, eventually, helped him enroll in a graphic design program. Today, Sullivan runs a marketing and design firm, under the auspices of Beit T’Shuvah, called BTS Communications.

Maybe that’s why his eyes light up when he talks about the future. “I have something to look forward to now when I get up,” he told me.

But what on earth could Williams have to look forward to, considering he fell so far from the top of the Hollywood food chain?

This is where Kessler’s film touches a nerve. Williams hates looking back, not because he loves and misses the old Paul Williams who was on top of the world, but because he’s repulsed by that person.

“Look at that guy, so smug and arrogant,” he tells Kessler in the film.

And also, as we learn, so phony. The old Williams, short, chubby and insecure, was obsessed with being “special” and with pleasing others, especially that elite club of Hollywood players, where he was never sure he belonged.

But body language doesn’t lie. The extraordinary thing about Williams today is that he looks genuinely happy. Not just sober and at peace, but happy.

He doesn’t miss the old days. He’s quite happy signing autographs in hotel lobbies and eating his favorite food, squid, with an order of Diet Coke instead of gin. His voice is raspy, but he still gives his all playing to tiny crowds, who adore him. He loves his wife and kids, and he still writes pretty songs (he wrote the song that plays at the end of the film, titled, appropriately, “Still Alive”).

Needless to say, Sullivan doesn’t miss the old days, either. All he wants to talk about now are the new design campaigns he and his team are working on. He’s especially excited about the possibility of creating a branding campaign for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to promote its education-based incarceration programs.

“We’re perfect for this assignment,” Sullivan told me. “Everyone who works at BTS has had a troubled past. We know the value of rehab. We understand the mentality of the convict.”

Williams and Sullivan both abandoned their pasts, although those pasts were sharply different. Sullivan left behind the lost, unproductive life of a small-time criminal addicted to booze and drugs; Williams abandoned the hyper-productive but empty life of a high-flying Hollywood star who filled his emptiness by seeking the approval of others.

In the end, though, they followed a similar journey back to personal redemption: Instead of looking backward or forward, they looked inward.

Sullivan looked inward and discovered he had a talent for art.

Williams looked inward and discovered he had a talent for being human.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

Being a light unto the Jews

My father-in-law, Yaghoub Shofet, is a Persian Jew who was born and raised in Iran. He is from a rabbinic family. His father, and all his ancestors on his father’s side, were rabbis. His older brother, Chacham Yedidia Shofet, was the Chief Rabbi of Iran during the reign of the shah.

Throughout his adult life, my father-in-law was a “loan broker.” He would introduce individuals who needed to borrow money to those who had money to lend, and would make a commission in the process. His clients included Jews and Muslims, both as lenders and as borrowers.

In 1978, a prominent Muslim merchant in the Tehran bazaar named Haji Agha Reza Aminiha needed a loan for his business, so he asked my father-in-law for help. My father-in-law, who had known Haji Aminiha for decades and had faith in his integrity, introduced him to two Jews who agreed to lend him money. My father-in-law also lent some of his own money to Haji Aminiha. Haji Aminiha executed a proper promissory note, and the money exchanged hands. The note had a due date of mid-1980, with an interest rate of 16 percent per annum.

By early 1979, however, the Islamic Revolution in Iran was in full swing. Jews started leaving the country in large numbers. They left behind untold numbers of properties and assets, certain in their belief that soon they would go back and reclaim everything when things calmed down. Among these Jews were the individuals who had lent money to Haji Aminiha.

In early 1980, my father-in-law planned to take a “short vacation” and go to Israel for a few weeks. He wrote a letter to Haji Aminiha informing him of his upcoming trip. He also reminded Haji Aminiha that upon his return, the promissory note would become due, and included in his letter the amounts he would owe to himself and the two other Jews. He dated and signed the letter, and had it delivered to Haji Aminiha.

However, my father-in-law and the other two Jews never returned to Iran, and no one ever bothered to contact Haji Aminiha about the loan. Relative to all other assets left behind, the amount of money loaned to Haji Aminiha was insignificant. My father-in-law finally settled in Los Angeles, the other two Jews moved to Israel and New York, and the loan was quickly forgotten.

Thirty-three years passed. Then, in November 2011, my father-in-law received a phone call at his home in Los Angeles. Someone from Iran was calling him. The caller introduced himself as Mohammad, the son of Haji Agha Reza Aminiha. Mohammad explained that his father had recently passed away, and going through the files and papers in his father’s desk, he had come across a letter from 1980, signed by my father-in-law. He now was calling to find out if his late father had paid off his debt to his three Jewish debtors before passing away.

My father-in-law told him that the loan was not paid off, but that there was no longer anyone to claim the loan — the other two Jews had been deceased, and my father-in-law did not expect any payment. He gave his condolences to Mohammad and wished him well.

But Mohammad would not give up. He insisted that his father’s soul would not rest unless this loan was paid back. He assured my father-in-law that this was simply an oversight by his late father and accepted full responsibility for paying back the money. He asked my father-in-law to contact the children of the other two Jews and explain the circumstances, in the hopes that they would accept payment on their deceased fathers’ behalves. He also insisted on paying 33 years’ worth of interest, as required by the promissory note. In return, Mohammad asked that all three families “forgive” his father’s soul for this infraction.

The son asked for one last favor from my father-in-law: He explained that he is an employee in an office with an average income. He is married with three children, and also supports his divorced sister with four kids. He asked my father-in-law if he would be kind enough to allow him to pay back this debt in several installments.

We Jews have always been proud of being a “light unto the nations.” The prophet Isaiah comforted the people of Israel as they were being exiled from the Holy Land, promising them that their descendants — that is to say, us — would be a standard of ethical behavior for those of other faiths and creeds to emulate.

But there are times when the tables are turned, and those of other religions act as examples for us. It has become an unfortunate symptom of our duty to “enlighten” other nations that we are sometimes blind to being enlightened. Mohammad is a Muslim man deeply rooted in his faith and his belief in God. Even though he was born and raised in a country steeped in anti-Semitism, somehow Mohammad has found the strength to rise above his cultural norms and upbringing, and sanctify the name of God. That single quality is one we can all learn from, regardless of the form or function of our religion.

Being a decent human being is something that transcends religions and geographies. My father-in-law once told me a story of his childhood. He explained that as a 12-year-old boy growing up in Kashan, Iran, he was responsible for manning the cash register at the shop of a local Muslim merchant. The merchant not only trusted him with the money, but asked him to empty the cash register each evening and take all the cash home so that the money would be safe overnight. The merchant chose this 12-year-old not because he was skilled with money, but because he was the son of a holy man and an honest boy. The Muslim man chose a Jewish child for his honesty, because that is a value we all recognize as universal. It is a lesson we can all learn, and not only from Jews.

Behrouz Soroudi was born in Iran and attended the USC School of Architecture. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and children, and constantly struggles to teach his kids that decency transcends religion.