Waving large Iranian flags and signs, nearly 6,000 passionate Iranian Americans of various faiths gathered outside the Federal Building in Westwood on Jan. 7 for a rally in support of their countrymen who have been protesting and rallying for freedom in dozens of Iranian cities since late December.
Protests in Iran broke out almost spontaneously on Dec. 28 in a few cities in response to high food costs and a lack of economic opportunities. Outbreaks quickly spiraled into massive protests in major cities.
Iranian citizens called for “death to the supreme leader” and for the overthrow of Iran’s Islamic regime. Videos of protesters being shot, beaten and arrested in Iran have gone viral across social media sites. They caught the attention of many Iranian Americans in Southern California, including Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian-Jewish activist and head of the Los Angeles-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran.
“When we see the people of Iran demanding regime change, this is something we here have been demonstrating for the last 39 years,” Nikbakht said. “We feel we are one with them. We must use our voices here to support the downtrodden and the oppressed inside Iran.”
Nikbakht was among many L.A. Iranian Jews protesting at the rally. They were marching side by side with Iranian Muslims, Christians, Zoroastrians and Baha’is. Sharing a common language and culture, Iranians of various faiths, in Southern California and elsewhere in the United States, long have maintained close friendships and a mutual feeling of tolerance.
Chanting in unison in Farsi and English, the protesters referred to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a Shiite militant group as they waved signs and flags and shouted, “Death to Khamenei! Death to Hezbollah! We want human rights for Iran! We want democracy for Iran!”
Some Iranian protesters had come from as far as Orange County and Bakersfield for the Westwood rally.
Los Angeles police and Los Angeles County Sherriff’s officers were out in force. They closed off sections of Wilshire Boulevard between Westwood and Sepulveda boulevards, as well as sections of Westwood Boulevard and Veteran Avenue to allow the throngs to march safely in the streets.
Protesters in Iran say more than 20 people have been killed, including a 13-year-old boy. Hundreds have been injured, more than 1,000 arrested by Iranian police, militia forces and Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Access to the internet and social media sites has been shut down by the regime in an effort to discourage or halt protests, to block protesters from sending their footage out of the country and to prevent new protests from being organized.
On Jan. 4, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in West L.A. became one of the first national Jewish organizations announcing support for the protesters.
“We say to the Iranian people who are protesting, we stand with you,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founding leader of the Wiesenthal Center. “We wish you every success. We will do everything to bring your plight to the attention of the world.”
Local Iranian-Jewish activist George Haroonian, not representing any Iranian-Jewish groups, also spoke at the Wiesenthal Center press conference. He shared the sentiments of the protesters in Iran who have posted different messages on social media for help from the outside world.
“We must use our voices here to support the downtrodden and the oppressed inside Iran.” — Frank Nikbakht
“The protestors are very grateful for the support they’ve received from the Trump administration and from members of Congress,” Haroonian said. “What they are asking for is help with their communications to get the word out to the world about what the regime is doing to them in the country during the protests.”
Haroonian and other Iranian-Jewish activists are in the minority for being more vocal in their support of the protestors in Iran. While the vast majority of Southern California Iranian Jews oppose the regime in Iran, community leaders and organizations have remained quiet about any formal support of the protests. They fear what they say may be used as an excuse by the Iranian government to retaliate against the 5,000 to 8,000 Jews still living there.
Protests in Iran come at a sensitive time for Iranian Jewry, following a Dec. 24 incident in which two old synagogues in the Iranian city of Shiraz were vandalized. Five Torah scrolls and numerous prayer books were damaged or destroyed by unknown assailants.
The Iranian government still has not launched a formal investigation. No suspects have been arrested.
California is home to the largest population of Iranians outside of Iran, nearly 1 million. Forty thousand are Jews, primarily living in Southern California.
While the majority of the Iranian ex-pat community in the United States strongly opposes the Islamic regime that has ruled since 1979, in recent days, many have taken to the streets across the U.S. They have staged similar rallies in New York, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Dallas, San Diego, Boston and Dallas in support of protestors in Iran.
Khamenei denounced the protestors in Iran and blamed the civil unrest on “Zionist and American spies.” He said they were conspiring to cause chaos in the country. Likewise for publicity purposes, in recent weeks the Iranian government has sponsored smaller rallies with its “supporters” marching in the streets of Tehran.
Calls to the Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations in New York were not returned.