April 21, 2019

Homeland vs. Homeland

How does an Iranian-American Jew who was born in post-revolutionary Iran, granted refugee asylum in the United States at the age of 7, and now remains unabashedly supportive of Israel, process the possibility of a hideous war between her former homeland and her eternal homeland?

She has a stiff drink every time Israel strikes an Iranian military base or arms shipment in Syria (to celebrate Israel’s miraculous might), and a stiffer drink every time an Iranian leader vows to “level Tel Aviv to the ground” (to aid with sleep).

Anxiety over Iran-Israel tensions is nothing new to Iranian-American Jews, many of whom struggle with the complexity of their triple identity as Iranians who lost their homeland, Jews who embrace Israel as their beloved, and fiercely patriotic Americans who can watch the horrible conflict between Iran and Israel unfold from the comfort of their patio chairs.

My final goodbyes — to my family, home, school and, basically, to everything — when we escaped Iran in the late 1980s have left me traumatized, and I am often confused over my own feelings toward Iran.

I was born after the revolution, into the murderous country we’ve known for 39 years as the Islamic Republic of Iran. I also was born into the mandatory headscarf, the reign of the Ayatollah Khomeini, and the heinous air raids of the Iran-Iraq War. It was truly a special time to be alive.

Even my grandmother’s first name was Iran. The irony was not lost on us when she escaped to Israel.

I should hate Iran, but like many who fled there, I compartmentalize the country. There’s the regime, which evokes my hateful repulsion; the people, most of whom are just looking to live free, normal lives filled with family, work and reasonable inflation rates. And then, there are my memories and my heritage; the fact that nearly every one of my ancestors was born and buried in the land; the romanticizing of the space that held my childhood flights and fears. Even my grandmother’s first name was Iran. The irony was not lost on us when Iran escaped to Israel.

It makes me sick to my stomach that the land of my birth poses the most violent threat to the land of my soul.

Do I miss Iran? Sometimes, although it often feels like missing your first tattoo (if your first tattoo ended up being a horrible disaster). The nostalgia that stems from the fact that it was your first always will remain, but so will the seemingly irreparable emotional pain and physical damage that it caused you, especially if you got your first tattoo on your posterior. Then, it forever remains … a pain in the ass. I guess that about sums up my relationship with Iran.

For me, Israel encompasses unparalleled pride over its might and morality, and palpable despair over anyone attacking the Jewish state. As an Iranian-American Jew, I also experience my share of guilt over Israel, because the closest that my community comes to sending its children into a war zone is when we drop them off at a kosher Persian market on a Friday morning.

For Iranian Jews in America, Israel is also tied to our past trauma, when we consider whether our safety in the U.S. would ever deteriorate so much that we would have to flee to Israel. We know exactly what it was like to have fled home because home was no longer habitable. The possibility that we would again have to flee (if the U.S. took a turn for the worse) after several decades here makes us cringe with pain as we wonder: How many times can one person flee “home” in a lifetime?! Cashing in on our miraculous insurance policy through Israel’s exquisite promise of protection for global Jewry isn’t something most Iranian-American Jews might want to do, because it means that America will have failed us. I hope that if I ever make aliyah, it will be through a joyful choice, and not persecution or war. I can’t take that again.

Of course, America’s miraculous embrace comes at a price: My community has everything it needs here, whether in Beverly Hills or Baltimore, which makes me wonder when exactly former homeland and eternal homeland will be replaced in our hearts and memories with the glorious country that took us in and gave us everything, including the Bill of Rights, UCLA and Costco.

I’m giving it two more generations.

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer.