Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Jews of Persia

From: Los Angeles Daily News

They live in the United States, loved Iran and refer to Israel as the motherland.

They are Iranian-American Jews, some 50,000 immigrants and their children, most living in Los Angeles - Encino, Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Tarzana and Woodland Hills.

And they are pained by what they have seen recently in the Middle East: Israel fighting in Lebanon against an Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim militia; an Iranian president who has called the Holocaust a myth and Israel a "disgraceful stain" on Muslim countries; and Iran's fervency in continuing a nuclear program.

"I am not torn," said Farzaneh, a 44-year-old Encino mother of three who asked that her last name not be used because she fears retribution against her family in Iran.

"There is a definite distinction between Israel and Iran. I feel connected to Iran culturally. That is where I was born and picked up good, rich, ancient culture. But what Iran's regime has been doing for the last 20 years, I have nothing to identify with.

"I despise them."

Though the Hezbollah militia and Israel both accepted a U.N.-imposed cease-fire that began Monday, the sentiments behind the Middle East conflict remain salient.

Many Iranian-American Jews see the conflict as a clash of their identities - their native culture versus Western values. They vehemently support Israel, where an estimated 200,000 Iranian Jews live, and recently sent millions of dollars in support.

"Persian Jews, better than most, realize that what is happening in Lebanon today is a small part of a potential strategic confrontation between radical Islam and Western values," said Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the L.A.-based Iranian American Jewish Federation. "We understand the cultures and the ideologies that drive both."

For half of the 20th century, Iran was a hospitable place for Jews. They had been there for 2,700 years, longer than Jews had remained in any one country. Much of that time was oppressive, but they always stayed.

After Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi came to power in 1941, Jews began to prosper. He gave them their best treatment since the 5th century B.C., when ruler Cyrus the Great freed Jews from captivity in Babylon and allowed them to return to Israel.

But then came the Islamic Revolution. The shah was deposed in 1979, and an estimated 70,000 Jews left.

"The younger generation of Persian Jews do not have an allegiance, so to say, to Iran. We have been living in the United States. We consider ourselves Americans first, then Jewish," said Karmel Melamed, whose family fled Iran after his father's cousin was executed for being a "Zionist collaborator."

Still, nearly 30 years after the revolution, Iranian-American Jews temper what they say about Iran, fearing retaliation against the 20,000 Jews remaining in Iran.

"All it takes is one crazy and irrational cleric to issue a fatwa, and people go and take Iranian Jews as hostages," said Ira Farnoush, 61, of Woodland Hills. "God forbid it happens."

There is also the concern that, if angered enough, the Iranian government might seize Jewish assets and businesses. Some local Iranian Jews still operate businesses there.

"They're not going to go on the record," said Melamed, who writes for the Iranian Jewish Chronicle. "Their lives will be jeopardized when they go back."

And in the past year tensions have escalated even further as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for Israel to be "wiped off the map." He claimed the Holocaust did not occur. And he said the road to peace begins with the obliteration of Israel.

Muslim-American organizations have denounced Ahmadinejad's rhetoric as "reprehensible."

"I like all the comments he makes," said Tina Donay, a Jew who left Tehran in early 1979 when she was 19. "I feel like he is digging a bigger hole for himself."

Donay, who like many local Iranian Jews attends Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, dreams of the day Christians and Jews and Muslims focus on their commonalities instead of their differences. She notes that the three religions - known as the Abrahamic faiths - all descended from the patriarch Abraham.

"There is always hope," she said.

While some Iranian Jews keep a foot in Iran, more have completely cut ties. Their families have moved to Israel and the United States. And they long more for visiting the native land they haven't seen in almost three decades than for returning permanently.

"We are already Americanized. We can't live there the way we live here," said Janet Djalilmand, 45, of Encino, whose parents were raised in Hamadan, birthplace of Esther, the great biblical woman and Persian-Jewish matriarch. "But for my father and his generation, it is a big hope."

Scholars see a cause for optimism in Iran.

"The overwhelming majority of youths disapprove of this regime," said Eliz Sanasarian, a University of Southern California political science professor and author of "Religious Minorities in Iran."

"You cannot have this kind of a regime going for another 10 years with this group of young people growing up."

Dariush Fakheri, who was in graduate school in New Mexico when the revolution began, can't return to Iran until there is a change.

"I'm on the list. I'm one of those people who are not welcome in Iran," said Fakheri, editor-in-chief of the Iranian Jewish Chronicle and co-founder of an Iranian-Jewish cultural center in Tarzana.

Even if he were welcomed back, Fakheri said, he wouldn't stay long.

"I am an American citizen by choice. I pledge to the flag of America," he said. "Iran has some nostalgic value for me, and that's it. That is about it. I like the music. I like the food. I like to read the poetry. But that is about it."