September 23, 2019

A Persian tragedy

Few things in life are as tragic as the death of a child. Bianca Khalili died on Memorial Day when she fell off a balcony on the 15th floor of an apartmentbuilding in Century City. Bianca was 17 and was in her senior year at Beverly Hills High School. The tragedy occurred late at night. The only other person with her was Dora Afrahim, 18, who lived in the apartment.

Bianca and Dora were close friends. Dora told me that Bianca was like a “sister” to her. In the moments after the tragic fall, Dora went into a state of shock.

In their investigation, the police found no evidence of foul play. There were no signs of a struggle. Dora was never held, arrested or charged. The police released a statement saying that Dora was not a suspect.

Karmel Melamed’s latest article reports on discussions in the Iranian Jewish community about violence.

This, however, did not stop the beginning of a second nightmare. This was the nightmare of a community acting out its grief through anger and accusations.

Immediately after the tragedy, rumors started to spread that Dora was responsible for Bianca’s death. Dora and her family were asked not to show up at the funeral or the shiva. People in the Persian community were saying that Dora had been arrested and was in jail. Wild speculation and angry messages started flying around the Internet.

Within days, Dora received a death threat.

Dora and her family have been holed up in their homes, afraid to face the wrath of many members of their community. On the few occasions that some family members have ventured out, they have been subjected to hostile stares and accusatory remarks.

For security reasons, Dora has moved into a gated community. She has stopped going to school and rarely goes out. The day I met her, she had a dazed look on her face. She was obviously still traumatized by everything that was happening.

I came to this story and met Dora and her family through my friend Rabbi David Wolpe. We had set up a lunch last week to discuss his upcoming book, but when we sat down he immediately brought up the Bianca Khalili tragedy.

The rabbi was quite shaken by the death and its ugly aftermath in the Persian community. He had met with Dora and her family and had read the police statement and other reports. He had no reason to doubt Dora’s innocence. In his Shabbat sermon, he had urged the community to resist the temptation to engage in lashon hara, which was deepening an already tragic situation.

He asked if I would meet with the family, and then see if I might write something for the Persian community to help calm things down. Stopping a campaign of wild rumors is like trying to unring a bell, but I agreed to write.

The first thing I should say is that on the basis of the police statement alone — which absolves Dora Afrahim of any guilt — people should stop making spurious accusations against Dora and harassing her family. This is putting an unfair stain not just on the Afrahim family, but on the whole Persian community.

Jewish law goes even further: Even if there is suspicion as to someone’s guilt, it is a grave sin to bear false witness and spread slanderous rumors about that person.

In fact, slander is so serious that the Torah considers it like murder.

Of course, it’s easy for me to talk. I didn’t know Bianca Khalili. She wasn’t my friend or my sister. I never laughed or cried with her. Losing someone you are close to — especially a young girl in the prime of her life — can make anyone lose their head.

Also, the notion of someone possibly taking their own life (which hasn’t been determined in this case), is not only taboo, but hard to fathom. So I can understand how some people might want to point fingers and find someone to blame. It’s human nature. It helps us cope. It gives us a safe place to detonate our grief and anger.

And it’s profoundly un-Jewish.

The Jewish way is not to be slaves to our emotions. We’ve survived for millennia as the People of the Book by leading with our heads; our sages have taught us the importance of controlling our passions.

I am a Jew from the Middle East (Morocco); I know how easily human emotions can explode in that part of the world.

But before I am from the Middle East, I am a Jew. That means I have an obligation to follow the Jewish way, even if it goes against my nature.

When someone dies, there is a dignified Jewish way to honor the passing. No matter how angry we might be, we channel our emotions toward the solemn rites of grieving that our ancestors have followed for generations, from the souks of Persia to the shtetls of Poland.

The most important thing I can say to all my Persian friends is that before we are anything, we are all Jews. What binds us together is not just our humanity, but the collective Jewish identity we forged at Sinai some 3,300 years ago. It’s from that painful birth that we gained the Jewish values that have sustained us to this day.

One of the greatest of those values is to be extremely careful when we talk about other people. Our words can honor, but they can also destroy.

We should honor Bianca Khalili’s memory not by spreading rumors and destroying someone else, but by spreading her goodness and praying to God — the same God who made us a people at Sinai.

The Khalili tragedy is one of those times that begs all of us to be quiet and respectful.

That’s not just Jewish — it’s human.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at