Jewish communities, whether they support right-wing or left-wing Israeli policies, are universally watching with baited breath at the developments in Iran. Since 1979, the regime in Iran has been a source of anxiety for Jews around the world, the same with Iran’s baby brother Hizbullah (a militia that was put together in 1982 with the help of Iranian intelligence). Additionally, many Jews and many Iranians have no mutual animosity; between them rest opportunities.
Jewish and Persian demonstrators hold Israeli and Iranian flags on Rome’s Campidoglio square during a protest against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s attendance at the United Nations food crisis summit held at the Food and Agriculture Organization on June 3, 2008.
But Jews seem anxious to be too vocal. There is this prevalent fear among Jews and American democracy advocates in general (which include numerous expatriate groups), that
1) speaking out will associate the protesters with Americans and/or Jews, inviting pressure from traditionally anti-American, anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic Iranian conservatives on those protesters, or
2) that it will discourage protests and instigate anti-Semitism or anti-Israeli sentiment among enough Iranians that a similar type of pressure could kill the demonstrations or
3) that any change produced would be minimal and provide a disguise for Iranian nuclear policies to hide behind, without a demonized figure like Ahmadinejad to remind the world of that nuclear issue.
I sincerely think the fears are unnecessary. Bigots and authoritarians like the rulers of Iran have an interest in inducing fear and uncertainty among potential political opponents or advocates. Jews in American and worldwide should not fear disingenuous or bigoted accusations of Jewish domination and global political power; they should deny such dictatorial bullies the satisfaction of disillusioned opponents, and advocates should stand up for what they believe in.
There is also an argument that Jews have no place to talk about Iranian domestic issues, and any outside commentary, Jewish or not, would hurt the cause. But Jews have plenty invested in Iran’s interior, socially. Iranian Jews numbering near 25,000 have been locked into political science over the last thirty years, under government pressure never to support the welfare of the State of Israel or its citizens. It was itself revolutionary, when the lone Jewish member of the Iranian parliament scolded Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for denying the Holocaust in front of that entire Iranian parliament. But even then, it was only because the previous president, Muhammad Khatami, had publicly condemned Ahmadinejad for the denials.
Jewish Iranians fled after the revolution, many of them settling in Israel and the United States, especially Los Angeles with thousands of non-Jewish Iranians. Jews in the United States should not feel reserved, to the contrary, they should feel obliged to support their Jewish brethren in Iran and push for the right to free speech and free assembly in Iran. Jews in the US have much to fight for in this cause, and have right to feel wronged by the existence of Iranian political pressure on the Jewish community.
Recently, New York Times reported Roger Cohen was invited to and shown a lavish presentation of the well being of Iranian Jews. His February 23rd article in the New York Times was challenged as naive and labeled propaganda by Iranian Jews at a Los Angeles forum challenging Cohen’s assertions. Over the weekend, Roger Cohen wrote “Iran’s Day of Anguish”, and admitted he’d “erred:”
“I’ve also argued that, although repressive, the Islamic Republic offers significant margins of freedom by regional standards. I erred in underestimating the brutality and cynicism of a regime that understands the uses of ruthlessness.”
If Jews who themselves have tried to think outside the box can not see the silver lining any longer, Iranian Jews in the US and Jews throughout the world should feel free to speak out and oppose government pressure on their communities anywhere in the world.
Iranian Jews in Los Angeles challenge Roger Cohen at a forum in March
The Future of the Middle East
I don’t see how Benyamin Netanyahu, at least in the position he is right now, could fully mend ties between Israel and Iran. I am afraid to be too naive in the goals the Jewish community should envision for the immediate future of Israeli-Iranian relations or a democratic government coming to power in Tehran. But, there is no doubt that the developments there affect nations far beyond the Iranian borders, far beyond Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and Lebanon. The several nationalist movements in Iran that have taken up arms could soon lay them down, and a source of immense tension and anxiety can finally be eliminated.
American Jews have with strength supported the rights of Israelis to exist free of external persecution for over a century. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is ugly and disturbing, but it does not contradict the activism of democratic Jews. Even Jews who know their own safety is paramount see value in the granting of Palestinian sovereignty, despite the difficulties of mutual hostility and conflict. Jews overwhelmingly, whether liberal or conservative, express a preference for co-existence and mutual democratic governance, rather than in an unresolved state of war.
American Jewish communities have been at the forefront of democratic movements, civil rights movements and human rights movements. The Darfur crisis has been kept in the public eye because of amazing public relations by the American Jewish World Service. Jewish groups walked side-by-side with Martin Luther King Jr. from Alabama to Washington D.C. They have joined the Democratic Party to push for the interests of the poor in the United States, and supported the Republican Party to aid the disenfranchised overseas. The overt bigotry and alienation thrust upon Jews worldwide by the Iranian government should not shut down the Jewish world. Jews, religious or not, have held up a spirit of advocacy stronger than most groups, and have activists pushing causes throughout the sociopolitical spectrum.
Former Israeli President Moshe Katzav (an Iranian Israeli) and former Iranian President Muhammad Khatami greeted each other and conversed at John Paul II’s funeral in 2004
They truly do embody the words of Moses,
who demanded, “!וקראתם דרור בארץ לכל ישביה”,
“Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants!” American Jews and their brothers around the world should be reaching out to Iranian expatriates. The potential to breach the divide caused by politics is more than existent. There is no reason to be anxious, and no reason to be afraid.