February 22, 2020

Activists campaign against visit of anti-Semitic Iranian comedian

After local Iranian-Jewish community activists received information in February that Akbar Abdi, an Iranian Muslim comedian notorious for his anti-Semitism, would be traveling to the United States from Iran to perform Farsi language shows in Southern California, they launched a grass-roots campaign to have the U.S. Department of State revoke the comedian’s visa. 

“What I have learned of U.S. Jewish history is that the Jewish community has always steadfastly condemned any kind of anti-Semitism and xenophobia,” said George Haroonian, the L.A.-area Iranian-Jewish activist spearheading the campaign. 

Abdi, who is in his late 50s, is very popular in Iran for his roles in comedy films, some with direct anti-Semitic themes, which span nearly four decades. He is also well known outside of Iran because his films have been broadcast on Farsi-language satellite TV by the Iranian state-run television network.

Perhaps the most widely seen evidence of Abdi’s anti-Semitism can be found in a YouTube video from 2013 in which he is shown receiving a film award from Iran’s former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and praising Ahmadinejad for “his courageous United Nation’s speech in the Johood’s own house.”

The Farsi word Johood is a derogatory term for Jews, which has been used in Iran for centuries to humiliate and threaten people of the Jewish faith. 

“The term Johood is a painful reminder of persecution, beatings, looting, exiles and even massacres Jews faced throughout Iranian history,” said Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian-Jewish activist and head of the L.A.-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran. “The average Iranian Jew may even experience physical pain when hearing this term, which is akin to the N word [for] African-American people.”

In Abdi’s films, he frequently uses the term Johood, and in one he openly mocks persecuted Jews escaping from anti-Semites in Iran by saying “God didn’t even make me a lowly Johood, so I could get a visa to leave this country.”

The management of the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, which initially had agreed to host Abdi for a Los Angeles performance at the end of February, said it canceled his show after being notified by local Iranian-Jewish activists about the comedian’s strong anti-Semitic statements. Activists said they don’t know how many tickets were sold for Abdi’s performance, but they had sent out alerts to Iranian Jews through synagogues and emails as well as on social media imploring potential ticket-buyers to boycott his show.

The community activists contacted by the Journal also said they do not know what, if any, other Southern California venues had scheduled Abdi to perform, as the tour’s promoters stopped publicizing his events in the Persian-language media after the Ebell Theatre cancellation. 

It’s also unknown who was promoting the tour, although activists believe the backers could be someone or a government agency connected with the Iranian regime, which is known for actively promoting anti-Semitic films and television programs.  

A spokesperson at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., contacted by the Journal for comment about the status of Abdi’s entry visa, stated in an email that “because of visa confidentiality restrictions under section 222(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Department of State cannot discuss individual visa applications.”

Calls to members of Congress representing various Southern California districts regarding Abdi’s potential for obtaining a visa also went unreturned.

Several local Iranian-Jewish activists said they were shocked that Abdi might be allowed into the U.S. 

“Abdi’s hate speech has no place in America,” said Sam Yebri, president of the L.A.-based Iranian-Jewish group 30 Years After. “Such pure, unadulterated anti-Semitism is the reason why Jews escaped the bigotry of the Islamic Republic of Iran for the tolerance and diversity of America.”

Local Jewish groups, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center, have offered their support for Southern California Iranian Jews who have been pushing the Obama administration to bar Abdi from entering the country.

“Considering the anti-Semitic nature of the Iranian regime and the fact that it often uses cultural entities to further such policies, we would expect U.S. authorities to fully vet requests for visas from such individuals,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center. “Can a comedian actually do harm to an entire community through his words? Ask French Jewry about Dieudonné [M’Bala M’Bala].”

Leaders at the San Francisco-based nonprofit JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa), too, have joined forces with Iranian-Jewish activists in L.A. by posting an online petition calling for the U.S. State Department to revoke Abdi’s entry visa.

“Our organization was created to raise awareness to the consequences of anti-Semitism in North Africa and the Middle East, so we are concerned to see anti-Semitic elements supported by the Iranian regime given a public platform to enter and perform here in the USA,” JIMENA officials said in an email to the Journal. “Our goal is to raise [and] heighten awareness and mobilize the public to protest Akbar Abdi’s entry and potential performances in Los Angeles.”

Haroonian said his group, Concerned Jewish-Americans from the Middle East, was poised to reach as many outlets as possible to expose Abdi’s anti-Semitism because a large segment of Southern California’s non-Jewish Iranians often have been insensitive to the Farsi language hate speech targeted toward Jews. He added that some older Iranian Jews suggested ignoring Abdi altogether.

“There are a few Iranian Jews who have suggested it is best to ignore this man, so as not to ‘jeopardize the Jewish community in Iran,’ but I flatly reject that mentality,” Haroonian said. “If we came to this country, it was to have the freedom to defend our rights and not to be quiet.”

Nikbakht believes Abdi’s hatred of Jews is a byproduct of the Iranian regime’s openly anti-Semitic policies, and that the regime has encouraged others to help advance its message of hate.

“The Iranian Intelligence Ministry as well as the Ershad, or Ministry of Indoctrination [Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance], has been approaching many screenwriters, actors and others for years to produce anti-Semitic products,” Nikbakht said. “The ongoing case of the Iranian annual Holocaust Cartoons Contest on the [International} Holocaust Remembrance Day is just an example of the regime’s hatred of Jews.”

Representatives at the Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations did not return calls for comment.

To read more about the Iranian-Jewish
campaign against Akbar Abdi, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.