Jews Aid in Quake Despite Iran Rebuff


Beggars apparently can be choosers — or so the Iranian
government seems to believe.

The Islamic fundamentalist regime in Iran, which is
struggling to recover from the Dec. 26 earthquake that killed at least 20,000
people and damaged an entire region, has announced that it will not accept
humanitarian aid from the “Zionist entity.”

However, U.S. Jews and Israelis still are finding ways to
help the victims. And one of the few U.S. nongovernmental organizations running
relief on the ground is led by an Iranian American Jew.

Farshad Rastegar formed the Los Angeles-based nonsectarian
Relief International 14 years ago to aid victims of an earlier earthquake in Iran.
As an Iranian American Jew working in his native country, it’s “very
emotional,” he said.

Rastegar, who is planning to leave for Iran soon, said his
group has raised more than $150,000 for relief work in Iran, $65,000 of which
already has been routed to a bank there.

Like other Jewish humanitarians working in Iran, Rastegar
tries to keep politics out of the picture.

“Pain is the same everywhere, whether you’re in Bosnia in Sarajevo
and somebody’s shooting at you, or whether you’re in Chechnya,” he said. “A
bullet is a bullet, a child is a child and pain is pain. The religion, the
ethnicities, the national differences really dissipate in the face of these
kinds of tragedies.”

Rastegar’s religion is known to Iranian government
officials, and his group, which worked with professionals in Iran before the
earthquake, continues to be well received, he said. Despite the Iranian
government’s hostile attitude toward Israel and Jews, there should be no
problem in routing Jewish funds to those in distress, Haroun Yeshaya, head of Iran’s
Jewish community, said in a phone interview from Tehran.

“All Iranian people are going to be glad” to receive funding
from anyone in the world, Yeshaya said through Kamram Broukim, a translator in California.

Through his organization — the Fariborz “Fred” Matloob unit
of B’nai B’rith, named in memory of an Iranian Jewish boy — Broukim has raised
more than $50,000 since Dec. 28 for earthquake victims. The funds will be
directed to Iran’s Jewish community, which plans to use the money to set up a medical
clinic in Bam, the center of the disaster. Broukim is working with Iranian Jews
in New York and London to raise additional funds. About 18,000 of Iran’s 30,000
Jews live in Tehran; another 8,000 live in Shiraz. There are no known Jewish
earthquake casualties.

Despite Iran’s rebuff to Israel, at least one Israeli
nongovernmental organization is addressing the tragedy.

“I have a direct and open line to Iranians,” said Ra’anan
Amir, project manager of Latet, an Israeli humanitarian group that provides
domestic and international relief. Latet has sent “tens of thousands of
dollars” to earthquake victims, Amir said.

“We are welcomed, and we have the routes to come and work in
Iran,” he said.

Amir wouldn’t say whether Latet has people or equipment on the
ground in Iran, and he admitted that he has encountered patches of anti-Israeli
resistance along the way. However, he said, such resistance in Iran and
elsewhere comes from politicians or government officials, not from individual
citizens.

According to the New York Sun, Iranian citizens criticized
their government’s refusal to accept aid from Israel, which has highly trained
disaster relief teams that have assisted victims around the globe.

Asked if he thinks humanitarian good will will help bridge political
or religious divides, Amir said he doesn’t “fool with idealism.”

“In the first few days of every disaster like this one,
nobody thinks about any of these topics,” he said. “People are just looking for
a place to put their head at night, to get covers, to get something to eat, to
get something to drink and to find their relatives.”

If his presence happens to change some Iranians’ views of
Israelis or Jews, that’s great, he said. But he doesn’t know whether Latet’s
clients even know of the group’s origins — or what effect, if any, such
knowledge would have.

“I’m not going and carrying the flag with me,” he said.

Like other Jewish humanitarians, Rastegar said he is driven
by his faith.

“We’re the chosen people not for privilege; we’re the chosen
people to serve,” he said.

Ronni Strongin, spokeswoman for American Jewish World
Service, agreed, saying, “The Jewish people are compelled to step above hatred,
and we cannot stoop to the level of others. Jews must provide humanitarian need
to those that are in deep distress.”

The agency raised approximately $7,000 last weekend for
quake victims. The money will be used to purchase medical supplies, which will
be dispersed through Direct Relief International (DRI). DRI, which is not
related to Rastegar’s group, is seeking an Iranian partner to handle efforts on
the ground.

Strongin said her group received several angry e-mails from
Jews who believed that Iran, which is implacably opposed to Israel and has
persecuted its Jews, doesn’t deserve humanitarian aid from Jewish groups.

For its part, the American Jewish Joint Distribution
Committee (JDC), the largest U.S.-based Jewish relief and welfare organization,
has not begun a fund for the earthquake victims.

“We haven’t been active and don’t have a presence to be able
to extend any kind of direct assistance, so we would have to work through
outside NGOs [nongovernmental organizations],” said Will Recant, the JDC’s
assistant executive vice president.

In any case, he noted, “we haven’t had a response from the
American Jewish community” inquiring about the earthquake or asking if the
group was accepting funds.

Contributions can be sent to Relief International at “>www.ajws.org;
Latet,