Middle Eastern Jews Respond to Former Miss Iraq’s Support for Israel

July 24, 2019
Rabbi Reif Melhado, Rabbi at Kahal Joseph Congregation, an Iraqi synagogue pictured with Sarah Idan, right, Miss Iraq 2017

Former Miss Iraq Sarah Idan found herself embroiled in controversy when she posted a photo of herself and Miss Israel  — Adar Gandelsman  — on Instagram during the November 2017 Miss Universe Pageant in Las Vegas. The caption read: “Peace and Love from Miss Iraq and Miss Israel.”  

Idan subsequently fled her home in Iraq after receiving death threats. A dual American-Iraqi citizen, Idan currently resides in the United States. However, now the Iraqi government is considering rescinding her Iraqi citizenship after Idan spoke last month at the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, advocating Iraq make peace with Israel. 

In the 1950s, the Iraqi government stripped 150,000 Iraqi Jews of their citizenship, which forced virtually all of them to flee. In Los Angeles, it’s difficult to walk three steps without crossing paths with some of the most active and loyal Israel advocates, and many of them, like Idan, hail from the Middle East. So how do these locals feel about Idan’s pronouncements?

Jimmy Delshad, former mayor of Beverly Hills, who was born in Iran, was surprised that Idan put her life in jeopardy to show her support for peace with Israel. “I am very proud of her. I commend her [for having] so much courage to do what she did,” he said. “It’s not easy … I salute her.” 

He added, “It’s really not surprising that [the Iraqi government] wants to punish her because they want to punish anyone that shows closeness to Israel.” 

Delshad, who lived in Israel for a year when he was 16, and whose wife, Lonnie, was born in Israel, said that he visits frequently and has a lot of family there. “I loved Israel, I still do.”

He said people should encourage non-Israelis and non-Jews to be vocal because of organizations like J Street, which, he said, “pretend to be friends of Israel.”  He added that having non-Jewish advocates for Israel shows more credibility and creates more “noise.” 

Isaac Dayan, a first-generation American whose father was born in Iran and whose mother was born in Israel to Iranian parents, is the former vice president of Students Supporting Israel (SSI) at Santa Monica College (SMC), and the former internal vice president of SSI at UCLA. He said, “No matter how much noise we make — and we can make noise — we could never reach the ears of the international community and make as deep of an impact [without them].” 

He also spoke of the importance of having non-Jewish and even Muslim advocates for Israel. At UCLA, his committee had to handle an altercation at a joint SMC and UCLA event titled “Indigenous People Unite.” Dayan said Students for Justice in Palestine members stormed the event forcing the SSI students to shut down the gathering.

“As a Persian Jew, I feel it is important for our community to get more involved with advocacy in the pro-Israel movement,” he said.  “We are one of the most recent examples of what happens to us when our host country turns its back against us.” 

Hirmand Daniel Sarafian, a Persian-Kurdish Jew, was also surprised by Idan’s advocacy for peace with Israel. Sarafian, who was the National SSI Activist of the Year in 2018 and the former SSI president at UCLA, said, “To have someone on the global stage acting as a face for a country that doesn’t even recognize the existence of Israel advocate for peace with Israel isn’t exactly a normal occurrence.” 

“Israel was founded on the basis of people needing a safe place to go where they would not be persecuted, imprisoned and killed based on their identity. Granting Ms. Idan asylum [there] would certainly bring things full circle.” — Isaac Dayan

YULA Girls High School graduate Devorah Balakhaneh is an ardent Israel advocate, having studied Israel advocacy in high school and then spent a year in Israel after her graduation volunteering at Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem. While studying at Santa Monica College, she kick-started the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, where she said the students are predominately Sephardic/Persian.  

While Balakhaneh was born here, her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Iran with her two older sisters. “I’m floored when I hear anti-Semitic rhetoric coming from governmental bodies but I also grew up hearing stories of the anti-Semitism my parents faced while living in Iran,” she said. “My parents were forced to leave their home country because of their religion and beliefs but [they] carry the tradition and language.” 

Rabbi Raif Melhado of the majority-Iraqi congregation at Kahal Joseph Congregation in Westwood said he was not surprised by Idan’s advocacy for peace with Israel. “Despite what the naysayers argue … who wouldn’t be moved by the joyful return of an oppressed people to their ancestral homeland?” he said.

The Illinois-born rabbi is of Portuguese descent, but he stressed the similarity between his ancestors and the Iraqi Jews that came to the U.S. Although Melhado’s children are seventh-generation Americans, he has strong connections to the history of the Jewish people, specifically Sephardic Jews. 

Melhado met Idan at an event called “The Untold Stories: Jewish Refugees From Arab Lands and Iran” at the Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in December, a tribute to the Nov. 30 date established in 2014 by the Israeli government to commemorate the exile of Sephardic Jews from Arab countries and Iran. Melhado introduced his Baghdadi congregants to Idan and said they spoke to one another peacefully in Arabic. “This is what most people want to be able to do,” Melhado said.

Although Idan currently lives in California, Dayan said Israel should provide her with a safe haven if she so desired. “Israel was founded on the basis of people needing a safe place to go where they would not be persecuted, imprisoned and killed based on their identity,” he said. “Granting Ms. Idan asylum would certainly bring things full circle.”

Michelle Naim is a senior studying English with a concentration in journalism at Stern College for Women in Manhattan and a Jewish Journal summer intern.

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