Amid Messy Rape Scandal, Persian Jews Back Katsav

With Moshe Katsav facing accusations of rape and sexual misconduct, Iranian American Jews are lining up to provide moral and financial support for Israel’s Iranian-born president.

Even as critics call for Katsav’s impeachment, Iranian Jews in Los Angeles and New York are citing community honor and faith in backing him.

“President Katsav upgraded the image of Persians in Israel, and for that we should be supportive of efforts now to make sure the truth comes out about his case rather than judging him and jumping to conclusions,” said Jimmy Delshad, a Jew who became the top Iranian-American official in the United States when he was elected mayor of Beverly Hills in March

Katsav stepped aside temporarily in January after Attorney General Menachem Mazuz said it was likely he would charge him with sexual misconduct, including rape, as well as fraud, harassing a witness and obstructing justice.

Katsav has not been formally indicted, and has said he will resign if charged. If convicted of rape, Katsav faces up to 16 years in prison.

Katsav has lashed out bitterly against his critics in politics and the media.

Though few formal activities have been planned, Iranian Jewish leaders in Southern California

have been meeting regularly behind closed doors since the end of Passover to discuss how to support Katsav.

“Many in the community here know President Katsav on a personal basis,” said Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Los Angeles-based Iranian American Jewish Federation. “The feeling is that he is not the type of person who is capable of committing the sorts of crimes attributed to him.”

Ebrahim Yahid, a Los Angeles resident and a friend of Katsav for 40 years, said the allegations do not seem to match the man they know.

“The news was a major shock for our community, and many of us who know him personally cannot believe the accusations,” Yahid said. “Our community must support President Katsav because the prestige of the community is at stake.”

That support appears to be financial as well. In March, the Ma’ariv newspaper in Israel reported that Katsav had created a nonprofit organization to lobby Iranian-American Jews to help finance his legal defense fund. Iranian Jewish leaders in Los Angeles confirmed that a nonprofit group was set up on Katsav’s behalf, but said no lobbying had taken place.

Kermanian said Iranian Jewish groups in the United States and members of Katsav’s camp in Israel came together almost simultaneously to discuss efforts to raise money for his attorneys’ fees.

“The Iranian-American Jewish community feels very strongly that President Katsav must have the opportunity to mount a comprehensive investigation,” Kermanian said. “As such, many of his friends within the [U.S.] community have been urging him to establish such a legal defense fund.”

The scandal began in July, when Katsav told Mazuz he was being blackmailed by a woman accusing him of sexual assault. Since then, government investigations turned up 11 other women accusing Katsav of sexual misconduct.

In March, a Knesset committee voted against impeaching Katsav. Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik is filling in as president during his suspension, which is to end April 23.

On April 18, Katsav asked the Knesset House Committee to indefinitely extend his suspension. Mazuz is expected to decide whether to indict the president following a May 2 hearing on the matter.

Katsav’s term ends in July. Calls made to his attorneys in Israel were not returned.

Katsav’s election nearly seven years ago was a source of pride for many Iranian Jews, as he became the first from the community to be elected Israeli president, a position determined by secret Knesset vote. Iranian Jews have served as senior Cabinet ministers and military chief of staff.

Iranian Jewish leaders in the United States said they were disturbed by the backlash against Kastav in Israel, even though no trial has taken place.

“Mr. Kastav was not judged, not taken to court and the accusations have not been substantiated — so how can a whole country consider him guilty?” asked Rabbi David Shofet of the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills.

Some Iranian Jewish legal experts said that while Katsav may be receiving support, the scandal has tainted his reputation and sparked rumors in certain community circles.

“The notion that you are innocent until proven guilty is a very new and alien concept in the Iranian Jewish community,” said Nazila Shokrian-Barlva, an attorney with the L.A. County Alternate Public Defender’s office. “The whole idea of gossip is to assume the reverse and, even if you’re never proven guilty, the cloud never goes away.”

Ironically, the Iranian Jewish Woman’s Organization, a Los Angeles-based social group, honored Katsav’s mother, Goher, last year for raising Kastav to become a source of pride for Iranian Jews worldwide.

Community leaders said they were confident the scandal would not harm the community’s image.

“Why should one scandal tarnish the whole community?” asked Dariush Fakheri, co-founder of the Eretz-Siamak Cultural Center in Tarzana, Calif.

Katsav has called himself the victim of a “witch hunt,” suggesting that his critics are motivated by racism and have been trying to discredit him since his controversial victory over Shimon Peres for president in 2000.

“If it turns out that Mr. Katsav was innocent, then the scope of the allegations against him would suggest that there might have been a conspiracy of massive scale in play,” Kermanian said. “This would mean that a healthy dose of housecleaning could follow in the Israeli political establishment.”

David Menashri, chairman of the Modern Iranian Studies program at Tel Aviv University, said that Israelis of Iranian descent have been sympathetic to Katsav despite the negative press he has received.

“Some prominent figures in the Iranian Jewish community expressed public support for Katsav, blaming the media for blowing the issue out of proportion and coming out with a verdict even before President Katsav has been brought to trial,” Menashri said.

Iranian Jewish leaders in New York said they have urged the larger Jewish community to avoid passing judgment on Katsav until he has a fair trial.

“At this stage we are only talking about allegations and not necessarily facts,” said Shahram Yaghoubzadeh, president of the Iranian American Jewish Federation of New York. “I trust that the truth will come out through due process of law, and until then we should reserve our judgment.”

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