November 20, 2019

Iran: Politics Gone Wrong

There is not a reader of this newspaper who does not believe – does not know – that the conviction of the 10 Iranian Jews last Saturday was wrong. Wrong and unjust in its violation of due process. Wrong in its disregard of human rights. And wrong in its basic allegation that the 10 were spying for Israel.

The charge of spying on its face appeared so preposterous that it has drawn widespread condemnation – from an international community that has not often sided with Israel. Indeed, Iran’s antagonism towards Israel suggests that the 10 Jews have been chosen to serve (rather nakedly) as political pawns.The politics are actually twofold. The first has to do with Iran’s theocracy and its animus towards Israel. It is not certain whether what we are witnessing is paranoia in action, a belief in the demonization of Israel, or sheer cynical manipulation.

The second looks more internal, lending support to those who see this as pure manipulation. They contend that this is another move in the struggle between President Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s reformist leader, and the more rigid clerics who have been fighting a rearguard action against popular calls for change. The clerics still have the police and the military, as well as the fealty of fervent religious followers, many from outside Teheran. While they have been challenged successfully by reformists and moderate middle-class voters in the cities, they have ruled, when possible, with an iron fist: Censoring some newspapers; issuing warnings; and signaling President Khatami when he must not overstep.

There are many issues within Iran that draw the ire of middle-class reformers. But the fate of 10 Jews within the nation, and the abuse of their rights, is not one of them. The charges against 13 Jewish defendants (three were acquitted), their imprisonment for more than 15 months, their denial of counsel until this spring, shortly before the May trial – all of these were a civil-liberties cause dangled before President Khatami and the reformist leaders in Iran. None chose to react, to cross the ruling clerics or their faithful judges in the court.

Certainly there was cause: an absence of evidence and statements that were elicited from the defendants while in prison and without the presence or advice of counsel. It was, in fact, a closed court in which the Jews were said to have been spies working for Israel. The nature of the spying, the information passed along, the aid itself to Israel were never described or defined.

What becomes clear is that Iran’s courts function as a political arm of the fundamentalist clerics. Judges try the case, investigate the accused and hand down sentences. The parliamentary elections over the past year have shown that a majority of Iranians want to reform the system; want a more fair and just court, among other things. But they are not interested enough – or perhaps do not care enough – to fight for the rights of fellow Iranians who are Jews. They fail to understand that, the next time around, the knock on the door or the blow to the head will be directed against them.

The rage in our community is palpable, as is the sense of frustration. What can we do? Dov Fisher suggests some form of action (see here ). Demonstrate. Take to the streets. Make our anger heard and felt.I would urge as well some form of planning and strategizing. The goal is fairly straightforward. Free the Jews who have been unjustly convicted. Venting our fury against Iran, finding ways to boycott their products, ostracize their nation, isolate and reject their leaders – these are all political tactics we can use. It may impose some hardship on Iranians, but we should recognize that it will not necessarily free the 10 Jewish prisoners. At least, not soon.

In the short run, its effect may well reinforce the power of the clerics while converting some Iranian reformers into hard-line nationalists… Still, worth a try.

At the same time, we need some direction and coordination from leaders in Israel and here. First, setting aside the injustice, is there something we can trade for the freedom of the 10? Much in the way that we traded freedom for specific individuals who were imprisoned by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Second, is there some way to maximize the pressure – from Israel, the United States, and the world community – so that it can be felt most directly by Iran’s decision-makers?

Here Yuval Rotem, Israel’s Consul General in Los Angeles, can be of assistance. He can pass our concerns directly to the foreign office in Jerusalem and their specific suggestions back to us. Similarly, our communal leaders need to speak directly with the heads of major Jewish organizations and they, in turn, need to meet with Congressional and White House officials. Finally, we have the oportunity to reach outside our community for allies and assistance: To Catholics and Muslims, to Latinos and Blacks, to all those who are outraged by the injustice that has been paraded before us.

Usually dissension among Jewish groups – on Israel, on religious practices, on homosexuality – is a healthy reflection of the pluralistic lives Jews lead in the United States. That would be counterproductive here. The primary goal is shared by all of us: Find a way to free the 10 Iranian Jews.