Tears and prayers among L.A.’s Iranian Jews

LOS ANGELES, July 2 (JTA) — Throughout Los Angeles, Iranian Jews stood nervously by their phones and radios at 1 a.m. Saturday to hear the first news on the sentences imposed on the 13 Jews charged with spying for Israel.

“My wife has been crying ever since,” said Cyrus Javaherian some 15 hours later. His wife, Nezrim, is the sister of Nasser Levi Haim, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

“We never expected that Nasser would get such a long sentence,” said Javaherian. “He worked for a power company and taught Torah. That’s what he did all his life, he only did good.”

Nasser was one of 10 suspects who received sentences ranging from four to 13 years.

Three of the suspects were acquitted.

Within a couple of hours of the verdict, Sam Kermanian, secretary-general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, had put together a two-hour broadcast beamed via a Farsi-language station in Los Angeles to Iran and Iranian communities in the Diaspora.

It took Pooya Dayanim, George Haroonian and Frank Nikbaht even less time to draft and distribute a statement by the Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations pledging a relentless struggle to free the prisoners and safeguard the remaining Jews of Iran.

At 10 a.m., many members of the 35,000-strong Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles, by now exceeding the 25,000 Jews left in Iran itself, assembled in their synagogues in Los Angeles, Santa Monica and the San Fernando Valley.

At the Eretz Cultural Center in Reseda, Calif., Rabbi Nooralah Yazdi led 350 worshipers in prayers, invoking God’s blessing for the redemption of the prisoners. He then asked the congregation to stand for a minute’s silence.

In more than a dozen conversations with Iranian Jews, anger at the harsh prison sentences imposed on 10 of the Iran 13 far outweighed any sense of relief that they had been spared death sentences.

Marjan Keypour, an associate director of the Anti-Defamation League, said she was outraged by the verdicts. “Every day they have to stay in prison is too much,” she said.

A 21-year-old student at the University of California at Los Angeles, who asked that his name be withheld because his parents still live in Iran, grew up in Shiraz. “I know the 13 who were arrested,” he said. “They were my teachers and the friends with whom I played soccer. I know they did nothing wrong.”

Avi Davidi, a doctoral student in political science at the University of Southern California, judged the validity of the charges brought against the Iran 13 by his own experiences.

“Back in 1982, my family tried to leave Iran by crossing the border into Pakistan,” he said. “Before we could make it, we were arrested. When the police found out that we were Jews, they immediately accused us of being Zionist spies. My father, mother, brother and myself had to spend some time in jail.”

Dr. Pejman Salimpour, a pediatrician, said he was disappointed but not surprised by the verdicts. “Over several millennia in Iran, whenever there was a problem, the Jews were scapegoated.”

He expressed little faith that the sentences would be reduced on appeal. “The only chance would be a massive reaction by Iran’s main trading partners, such as Germany, France and Japan,” he said.

Some of those interviewed predicted that the verdicts would trigger a final exodus of Iranian Jews, whose number once stood at 100,000. Others were skeptical, noting that most Jews still in Iran had neither the money nor skills to make it in a new country.

Kermanian and Dayanim, who had both been involved in backroom contacts with Iranian authorities since the Iran 13 were jailed 18 months ago, said they were taken aback by the lengths of the sentences.

“We have been deceived,” said Dayanim. “We were given to understand that except for Dani Tefileen,” who got 13 years, “all others would receive no more than two to three years.”

Kermanian said he expected that two or three among the defendants would get a maximum of 10 years in prison, with the rest receiving much lighter sentences.

The long battle to save the Iran 13 has had at least one positive byproduct, said Dayanim.

“We never expected that the American Jewish community and its major organizations would work so hard on this cause,” he said. “We have formed many friendships, which will help to integrate the Iranian Jewish community into the general Jewish community.”

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