Shiraz Spiritual Leader Off Limits


The United States will not honor an Iranian arrest warrant for the former spiritual leader of the Jews of Shiraz, who the Iranians claim was the mastermind of an Israeli spy ring, according to the State Department.

"We have seen the reports of the arrest warrant but we have not seen any supporting documentation," said a department spokesman. "We also have no diplomatic relations with Iran and no extradition treaty. Therefore this is not something we are going to honor."

An Iranian official announced Monday that a Revolutionary Court in Shiraz had issued an international arrest warrant for Eshaq Belanas, who the official said fled nine years ago, possibly to the United States. The official was quoted as saying other unidentified individuals were also being sought in the spy case, which earlier this month led to the conviction of 10 Jews on charges of providing secret information to Israel. The Jews were sentenced to prison terms of from 4 to 13 years. Three other Jews were acquitted.

Malcolm Hoenlein, vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said an appeal of the convictions is planned.

He said the arrest warrant for Belanas "only underscores that the Iranians are not motivated by fear of espionage but rather want to attack the Jewish community."

"He is a religious man who many will tell you revitalized Jewish life [in Shiraz], who left to go to the United States in 1991. He did not leave illegally," Hoenlein said. "If he had been a spy master for 10 years, would they have let him leave?"

Although Iranian President Mohammed Khatami did not publicly refer to the Iran 10 on the first day of an official trip to Germany Monday, his foreign minister, Kamal Kharazzi, vowed to resist pressure to reduce the prison terms. An Iranian newspaper quoted him as saying that Iran would not "pay any price" to normalize relations with the U.S.

The fate of the Iran 10 was on the minds of several thousand people who rallied in solidarity with them Monday along 42nd Street in Manhattan, near the Isaiah Wall and across the street from the United Nations. Jews (and several non-Jews) participated in the 90-minute afternoon gathering.

Among them was Gitelle Meyers, 84, of Flatbush, who said she traveled more than an hour by subway and bus to get there. She said that when she saw an ad for event, she was determined to attend.

"I didn’t do a thing to save the Jews in Germany: and I was an adult at the time," she explained.

Of the Iran 10, Meyers said: "I think it’s an outrage that they haven’t all been freed."

As she spoke, the crowd around her chanted, "Free Them Now."

Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman, director of the Department of Religious Living at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said this was a "radical change" from other events in support of the Iranian Jews. The others, she said, were prayer sessions.

"This is the first time there has been a political rally for them," Rabbi Wasserman said, adding that the prayer sessions were attended largely by day school students but that this event attracted demonstrators of all ages.The Jewish Community Relations Council, in conjunction with the Conference of Presidents, UJA-Federation of New York, the United Jewish Communities and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, coordinated the event.

On a portable stage provided by the city, a parade of community leaders, including political and elected officials and clergy from many faiths, condemned the convictions.

"These 10 Jews have been tortured physically and mentally," said Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel (see Opinion piece by Wiesel on page 6). "The last outrage was that the sentence came on Shabbat. Couldn’t they have waited a day or two? They did it because they know that the Jews of Iran observe the Sabbath, and it is because they are Jews that they were arrested."

The president of UJA-Federation, James Tisch, addressed his remarks to the Iranians, telling them: "You perverted truth and you perverted justice. Until you right this terrible wrong, you will have no peace."

Rep. Rick Lazio of Long Island, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate from New York, told the crowd: "We stand here together across religious, ethnic, political lines to say we will not look away, we will not go away, but demand an opportunity to speak out against this injustice. We will be looking very carefully to see how the judicial process goes and see if any justice is left in Iran."

Among those listening was Atara Tampor, 11, who came with about 40 other youngsters from the Young Israel of Staten Island Day Camp. She said the campers had been given the choice of going to the movies or attending the rally.

"We all picked to come here because it’s more important to save people," she said. "They might die in jail. By coming out here today, maybe we can help get them free."

Noah Aronin, 16, of Forest Hills came with 13 others from Camp Ramah in the Berkshires who won a lottery for the right to come. He was impressed that "so many important people got [on the stage] to say free the Iranian Jews. They told us about [this issue] in camp and we have been saying prayers for them."

Rabbi Joshua Finkelstein, the Ramah teacher who accompanied the youngsters, said it was important to make the two-hour trip to the event because "we wanted them to know what it means to fight for Jews. We wanted them to understand that they can’t take Jewish freedom for granted."

He pointed out that when the campers were told about the rally, "they looked quizzical because they didn’t know what it was. This rally brings back memories [of Soviet Jewry rallies]. We had hoped that by now we would be beyond this, but I guess we never are."