BEHIND THE HEADLINES Iranian Jews in the United States change tactics, raise their voices

LOS ANGELES, June 22 (JTA) — The plight of 13 Jews in Iran who could face execution as alleged “Zionist spies” has marked a turning point in the Iranian Jewish community in the United States. They will no longer keep silent. “From now on, you’ll see more activism and involvement,” said George Haroonian, a spokesman for the Council of Iranian Jewish Organizations. Traditionally, Iranian Jews living in the United States have refrained from making public statements about the situation inside Iran for fear of endangering family and friends in the Islamic republic. But during the present crisis the strategy of quiet diplomacy came into conflict with a desire for more active protest. These fissures were revealed in the 30,000-strong Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles, the largest such concentration in the United States. The split is basically between two groups, the more establishment Iranian American Jewish Federation, and the upstart council. During the three months between the arrests in March and the spy charges in June, the federation pursued a policy of quiet diplomacy as the most effective way to influence Tehran, as did major American Jewish organizations. The council, which includes organizations that split off from the Federation, advocated highly visible pressure tactics from the beginning. It was largely the council members, organized as the Committee for Religious Minority Rights in Iran, who flooded the office of Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) with calls and letters urging congressional action. Sherman was among the 600 men and women attending Shabbat services at the Eretz Cultural Center who stood for a minute’s silence as a man on the bimah slowly read the names of the 13 Jews. It was a quiet moment for the congregation of Iranian Jewish immigrants, who have been on an emotional roller coaster for the last three months, fearing and hoping for the fate of relatives and friends imprisoned in the city of Shiraz. The comments of Sherman, who has spearheaded a congressional resolution calling for national and international pressure on Iran to release the prisoners, reflected the anxiety. “A great atrocity may occur,” Sherman warned. “The government of Iran must be shown that it will pay a severe price for every day that the hostages are held.” Sherman’s voice joined that of practically every major Jewish organization, who have mobilized their contacts on behalf of the Iranian prisoners. An official with a Jewish organization took up the issue June 17 with six Iranian journalists visiting the United States. At the closed-door meeting, the Jewish group sought to convey the seriousness with which officials in the United States take the fate of the 13 Jews. The journalists, all loyal to Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, said they believe the arrests are an effort to thwart the president’s policies. No world pressure will lead to their release, the reporters said. “Once they’ve been charged, they have to be tried,” the journalists told a source at the Jewish organization. “Their only hope is to have an open trial, open to public scrutiny,” they said. Meanwhile, the House and Senate have scheduled votes later this week on resolutions calling on Iran to free the 13. On Sunday, some 300 people attended a prayer vigil on behalf of those arrested at the Iranian mission to the United Nations in New York sponsored by Amcha — the Coalition for Jewish Concerns. The U.S. State Department, key European nations and the Vatican have tried to intercede on behalf of the prisoners, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson has made a high-profile attempt to travel to Iran and negotiate for their release. In contrast to the active protests by the Iranian-Jewish community, the rest of the organized American Jewish community has decided to put its high-profile campaign on hold. An ad hoc task force formed to coordinate the Jewish community’s strategy agreed on Monday to “put in abeyance” their campaign in the hope that “the public outcry combined with the major dipomatic offensive will bring positive results,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “We can’t go back to quiet, private diplomacy. However, one can try to calibrate the amount of public activity,” Foxman said. Like the Iranian journalists, most observers believe that the prisoners are pawns in a power struggle between Iran’s fundamentalist hard-liners and the relatively moderate views of Khatami. The split was illustrated by two news items on Sunday. One story, citing senior British officials, reported that Khatami was seeking secret talks with Israel and had proposed a series of confidence-building steps between the two countries. The report has been denied by Iran’s foreign ministry. On the same day, a top Iranian cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, stated that the 13 Jews deserved to be hanged if they’re found guilty and dismissed any suggestion that Western governments might work out a deal for their release. Iran maintained Tuesday that it would not buckle to pressure from Western countries for the release of 13 Iranian Jews arrested earlier this year as alleged Israeli spies. “The pressure and propaganda by the West will have no effect on the court proceedings against the suspects,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman was quoted as saying by the state-run IRNA news agency. “This is an internal affair and the arrests of these people have nothing to do with their religion. They will be guaranteed justice as suspects in other cases.” The fight for their release, Haroonian said, finally has the entire Iranian Jewish community in the United States speaking with one voice. But the antagonism between the factions is of longer standing. The federation consists of 16 organizations, said Sam Kermanian, its secretary-general, while the council is made up of seven organizations. Each side claims to represent the larger part of the Iranian Jewish community. While Kermanian sought to minimize the friction between the groups, and deplored any “public fighting,” council leaders were more outspoken. Council spokesmen Pooya Dayanim and Haroonian both described the federation group as “elitist,” and mainly representing the wealthy Iranian enclave in Beverly Hills. “Our divergence with the federation goes deeper than the matter of the 13 prisoners, but the case highlights the failure of a philosophy of keeping silent,” said Dayanim, a 27-year-old lawyer. Support for the council’s activist stance was expressed by Si Frumkin of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews. “We went through the same struggles with the American Jewish establishment when we wanted to protest the Soviet Union’s oppression of its Jews,” he said. The UCSJ has launched a 100,000-name petitions drive on behalf of the Iranian prisoners, and through its offices in St. Petersburg and Moscow, has lobbied the Russian government to intercede with Tehran. (JTA Washington Bureau Chief Matthew Dorf also contributed to this report.)

NEXT STORY