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Sunday, July 5, 2020

The Mensch List: Unflinching voice for Jews in Iran

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Nearly 13 years ago, 13 Jews living in the Iranian city of Shiraz were arrested on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel and were facing execution by the clerics who ruled Iran. At the time, many of the leaders of Southern California’s Iranian-Jewish community asked their fellow activists to keep a low profile as they attempted secure the Jews’ release through back-channel communication with the regime. Yet, as months passed with no apparent hope of release for the imprisoned Jews, Frank Nikbakht stepped up as one of a small but brave group of local Iranian Jews who decided they could no longer remain silent. 

Nikbakht and his comrades, with the help of many American-Jewish organizations, launched a volunteer round-the-clock campaign to publicize the case and lobby for U.S. and European officials to pressure the regime to release the “Shiraz 13.” As a result, the Shiraz Jews escaped execution and were eventually released. Nevertheless, Iran’s regime continues to erratically persecute Jews and other religious minorities, so Nikbakht’s volunteer efforts to advocate for them continues in countless ways.

Now in his late 50s, Nikbakht spends up to 20 hours each week as the volunteer head of the Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, a Los Angeles-based group he established to raise public awareness about the ongoing discrimination and persecution religious minorities face in Iran. 

“It’s more important for me to speak out because those people who have been assigned to lead the Iranian-Jewish community, as well as other Iranian religious minorities communities, have always refrained to speak out against the discriminations and the atrocities of the Iranian regime,” said Nikbakht, who also works full time as a real estate broker.

Story continues after the video.

In addition, for nearly two decades, Nikbakht has also volunteered alongside Iranians from the Baha’i, Christian, Zoroastrian, Shiite Sufi and Sunni Muslim faiths to expose cases of human rights violations in Iran to U.S. media outlets, members of the U.S. Congress, the U.S. State Department, HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), international human rights groups and U.S.-based Iranian media outlets that broadcast into Iran via radio and television stations.

“I believe in advocacy of equality of rights of all Iranians regardless of their religion,” Nikbakht said. “A fanatic religious regime in Iran has taken away our country — they have taken away our civil rights by demoting me and people I knew into second- and third-class citizens. By not opposing the policies and practices of this regime in Iran, we are only encouraging them to continue and to even export the same policies abroad to the Iranian émigré communities.”

Several years ago, Nikbakht was among a small group of Iranian-Jewish activists who lobbied Congress to pass the Lautenberg Amendment, legislation that allows Jews and other religious minorities fleeing Iran to gain asylum more easily in the United States.

While the older leadership of the Iranian-Jewish community traditionally has avoided public criticism of the Iranian regime out of fear of reprisals on the approximately 10,000 to 20,000 Jews still living in Iran, Nikbakht is admired among individual Iranian-Jewish activists for his efforts and for never seeking the limelight for himself, but rather seeking to help others.

“Frank does not create superficial relationships,” said Dariush Fakheri, head of the Iranian-Jewish L.A.-based SIAMAK organization. “Therefore, his life reflects a deeper commitment and aspirations — he has connected to causes that benefit everyone, no matter what their religious beliefs are.”

For the past 30 years, Nikbakht has also translated from Farsi, as well as documented and archived, thousands of religious edicts, discriminatory laws and anti-Semitic propaganda put out by the Iranian regime. He is the first researcher to publish material in Farsi on the surge of Iranian anti-Semitism in the late 1990s, along with a brief version in English. These documents are still being used by scholars, journalists and human-rights advocates worldwide. He has also provided his Farsi translation services to nonprofits, U.S. media outlets and other human-rights groups for a small fee.

“Frank is a political mastermind, an overflowing source of history and politics, and, unequivocally, the Iranian community’s most valuable asset in understanding these complicated underpinnings,” said Lisa Daftari, a Middle East news analyst and Fox News contributor. 

Nikbakht said that although his volunteer efforts can sometimes overwhelm his ability to earn a living, he will not stop: “I believe that silence would only encourage the persecutors in Iran, because we all know what silence has done before, during the Holocaust, to the Jews in the previous decades — so we wanted to break that cycle,” he said. “In order to save the lives and the dignity of all the religious minorities as a whole in Iran, we must continue to speak up and speak out against the Iranian regime.”

For more information on Frank Nikbakht and his volunteer work on behalf of Iranian religious minorities, contact Karmel Melamed at the Jewish Journal: jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.

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