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What Will Become of the Jews of Iran? Part II

Last week, I discussed the current state of Jewish life in Iran, particularly after Oct. 7, and anticipated that readers would have one question on their minds at the end of my column: Can Jews today leave Iran?
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January 23, 2024
Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images

There are two spaces outside of Israel that I consider hallowed ground: The first is the Jewish cemetery in Tehran. That is where my grandparents, great-grandparents and other loved ones are buried. I cannot return to this space. Nor can I currently return to the country where I was born. 

The second hallowed ground is in Washington, D.C., specifically, Room 2141 of the Rayburn House Office Building. 

Yes, Room 2141 is sacred to me, because it was there, on May 3, 1979, that the Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and International Law of the Committee on the Judiciary House of Representatives held the first of several hearings that changed my life and sealed my fate, years before I was even born.

That morning, House members heard from government officials as well as from activists about the critical need for America to revise its policies on refugees. One of those who testified before Congress was the late Bruce Leimsidor, who for 20 years from 1982 to 2002, served as director of HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) in Central Europe, and who helped save tens of thousands of Jews fleeing Iran and the former Soviet Union. 

I know the exact room where my life would be redeemed. I also know the words — eternal to me and many others — that began the process of my redemption in America, before I even entered the world. Subcommittee Chairwoman Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (D – N.Y.) began the hearing by stating: “Today we begin a series of hearings on comprehensive legislation to revise and rationalize our laws relating to the admission of refugees to the United States and to the provision of resettlement assistance after their arrival in this country. The primary focus of these hearings will be on the Refugee Act of 1979, H.R. 2816, which was introduced by Chairman [Peter W.] Rodino [D – N.J.] and me in March. 

“There is a broad consensus that our refugee policy up to this time has been haphazard and inadequate. Current programs are the result of ad hoc responses of our government to refugee crises that have existed throughout the world — in Hungary, Cuba, Eastern Europe, or Indochina. Current statutory provisions are outdated, unrealistic, and discriminatory. Even the definition of refugee — limited geographically and ideologically to persons fleeing from the Middle East or from the Communist countries — is a cold war relic.  In good measure, our country’s humanitarian tradition of extending a welcome to the world’s homeless has been accomplished in spite of, not because of, our laws relating to refugees.” 

I recently reread Rep. Holtzman’s words from 45 years ago — mere months after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 turned Iran into an official Shiite theocracy, endangering the lives of thousands of religious minorities — and I cried.

In hindsight, Representatives Holtzman and Rodino were prescient in fighting for the lives of refugees. Less than a week after the first hearing, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s new regime in Tehran executed the legendary Iranian Jewish philanthropist and industrialist, Habib Elghanian, on charges of Zionism. His death horrified thousands of Jews in Iran who were forced to gather their belongings and try to escape.

In hindsight, Representatives Holtzman and Rodino were prescient in fighting for the lives of refugees. Less than a week after the first hearing, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s new regime in Tehran executed the legendary Iranian Jewish philanthropist and industrialist, Habib Elghanian, on charges of Zionism. His death horrified thousands of Jews in Iran, who were forced to gather their belongings and try to escape.

Today, fewer than 10,000 Jews remain in Iran (compared to over 100,000 before the revolution). Last week, I discussed the current state of Jewish life in Iran, particularly after Oct. 7, and anticipated that readers would have one question on their minds at the end of my column: Can Jews today leave Iran?

We’ll get to that question, but first, some important background: There were a total of five hearings in May 1979 that, one year later, culminated with then-President Jimmy Carter signing the Refugee Act of 1980. That act established the pathway to safety and citizenship that would take my family to the United States ten years later, when HIAS enabled us to resettle in this wonderful country.

In 1989, The Lautenberg Amendment, proposed by the late Senator Frank Lautenberg (D – N.J.), was enacted to “address the arbitrarily high number of denials of refugee status by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service [INS, whose functions were subsumed into the Department of Homeland Security in 2002],” HIAS President and CEO Mark Hetfield told me. The amendment clarified the U.S. government’s standards for granting refugee status to Soviet Jews and certain other religious minorities, resulting in consistently higher approval rates. The Amendment allowed HIAS and other U.S. resettlement agencies to receive and resettle tens of thousands of refugees. Like my family and I, many Jews from the former Soviet Union were stuck in Italy in the late 1980s because it was a transit country.

Jews were leaving the former Soviet Union en masse, but over time, the number of Jews leaving Iran dwindled, according to Pooya Dayanim, whom I interviewed for my January 10 column, “We Need to Talk About Iran.” Dayanim, a Los Angeles-based activist who has advocated with U.S. governmental and nongovernmental entities, told me that in the decades after the revolution, many Jews in Iran had simply become so accustomed to life in a fanatic theocracy that they no longer even realized they were being persecuted. And if they did realize their own mistreatment, they often did not know how to articulate their experiences to those who wanted to help.

Over a decade after my family and I left Italy, Iranian Jews and Christian also found themselves stuck in Vienna, thanks to sudden and seemingly arbitrary denials by USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency within DHS which adjudicates refugee applications). Fortunately, in 2003, the late U.S. Senator Arlen Specter (D – Penn.) introduced legislation that expanded the Lautenberg Amendment to include Iranian religious minorities, extending to them the presumption of persecution which the Lautenberg Amendment had extended to Soviet Jews, according to Dayanim.

In recent years, I have metaphorically bitten my nails this time of year. That’s because the Lautenberg Amendment expires and must be extended each year, as part of annual Congressional appropriations legislation. 

In February 2017, under the Trump administration, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for Iranian Religious Minorities (the part of the Lautenberg Amendment that was expanded in 2003) was suspended, only to reopen late last year. That meant that from 2017 to 2023, HIAS was unable to help any religious minorities resettle from Iran. The resettlement program at Jewish Family Services was also closed under the Trump administration, but Hetfield assured me that HIAS has since “reopened refugee resettlement at JFCS [Jewish Family & Children’s Service] of Long Beach, and we are grateful that the Los Angeles Jewish Federation is working with the Jewish Family Service of L.A. to try to reopen a site in Los Angeles. In the meantime, in 2023, HIAS directly accepted applications from sponsors in L.A.” Hetfield said that HIAS is also “so grateful” that the U.S Refugee Admissions Program for Iranian Religious Minorities has restarted.

According to HIAS, over 12,000 people in Iran are registered for the program, and over 600 of them are Jewish. But HIAS faces a challenge: The Lautenberg Amendment lapsed on September 30, 2023, and no appropriation legislation has yet passed this year. 

According to HIAS, over 12,000 people in Iran are registered for the program, and over 600 of them are Jewish. But HIAS faces a challenge: The Lautenberg Amendment lapsed on September 30, 2023, and no appropriation legislation has yet passed this year. The original deadline for an extension of the amendment has been pushed back to March 8, since Congress voted to avert a shutdown. The Lautenberg Amendment is not a funding provision, but it still needs to be included in the final fiscal year 2024 State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs (SFOPs) appropriations bill. That’s due to the fact that it is “an authorizing provision that must be attached to a long-term appropriations vehicle,” according to Hetfield.

I am eternally grateful that this was not an issue when the fate of my family was decided in 1989. Still, I wonder whether the members of Congress who may prevent Lautenberg’s renewal truly understand what is at stake for thousands of applicants.

If the Lautenberg Amendment is not extended, those in the “pipeline” will still be protected, according to Hetfield, but there would be “urgent, new cases which we would not be able to get out of Iran, absent a renewal of the Amendment.” In the wake of Oct. 7 and the new challenges that Iranian Jewry has experienced (and which I detailed in last week’s column), I cannot think of a more urgent time for such a renewal, and for the Jews of Iran to at least know their options in a post-Oct. 7 reality. 

“The Lautenberg extension language was included in the necessary Senate appropriations bill, but not the House version,” Naomi Steinberg, HIAS’s vice president, U.S. policy & advocacy told me. “We are concerned that the Amendment is now held up by the House Judiciary Committee as part of a larger effort to influence larger border and immigration policy through the appropriations process, and in doing so have conflated those issues with other non-related topics, including the extension of the Lautenberg Amendment.” 

HIAS, Steinberg said, “is working very hard to make sure that the Amendment makes it into the final appropriations package for this fiscal year and is ultimately disentangled from policy debates that have nothing to do with allowing religious minorities from Iran and former Soviet Union countries to come to the U.S. and reunite with their loved ones.”

Since summer 2023, fewer than 200 applicants from Iran have been admitted. “More than half of the program are Christians, the rest is a mixture of four other religious minorities, with the Jews being the smallest of the four groups, consisting of Jews (a little over 5% of the caseload), Zoroastrians, Baha’i and Sabaean Mandeans,” said Hetfield. “Right now, we have a total of over 12,000 individuals pending in Iran.”

For his part, Dayanim believes that America’s current program for helping Iranian religious minorities is “ill-equipped for the chance of war [between Iran and other countries] or a change of treatment of the Jews in Iran.” 

For his part, Dayanim believes that America’s current program for helping Iranian religious minorities is “ill-equipped for the chance of war [between Iran and other countries] or a change of treatment of the Jews in Iran.” 

His words remind me of one moment during those May 3, 1979 hearings, during which Leo Cherne, the legendary, four-decade head of the International Rescue Committee (from 1951 to 1991), was asked whether there would be a “foreseeable flow” of refugees from Iran the following year. 

Cherne answered, “I can only answer that personally. To me, a flow from Iran is not only foreseeable, but I personally regard it as virtually certain.” It was then that Peter Bell, then deputy undersecretary for the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, responded, “We saw one last weekend, last Friday. We admitted five Russian citizens to this country. I guess we could let them in under provisions of the law, but they could be refugees. We could have taken some people from Iran. We might have saved some lives.”

For more information on efforts to rescue Jews from the Soviet Union, watch the documentary, “Stateless” (www.stateless.us).


Tabby Refael is an award-winning writer, speaker and weekly columnist for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. Follow her on X and Instagram @TabbyRefael 

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