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Despite Cold Shoulder from Iran, Jews and Israelis Aid Quake Victims

December 31, 2003
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Beggars apparently can be choosers — or so the Iranian government seems to believe.

The Islamic fundamentalist regime in Iran, which is struggling to recover from a Dec. 26 earthquake that killed at least 20,000 people and wrecked an entire region, has announced that it will not accept humanitarian aid from the “Zionist entity.”

But American Jews and Israelis still are finding ways to help the victims.

And one of the few U.S. non-governmental organizations running relief on the ground is led by an Iranian- American Jew.

Farshad Rastegar formed the Los Angeles-based non-sectarian Relief International 14 years ago to aid victims of an earlier earthquake in Iran.

As an Iranian-American Jew working in his native country, it’s “very emotional,” he told JTA from Los Angeles.

Rastegar, who was planning to leave for Iran in the coming days, said his group has raised more than $150,000 for relief work in Iran, $65,000 of which already has been routed to a bank there.

Like other Jewish humanitarians working in Iran, Rastegar tries to keep politics out of the picture.

“Pain is the same everywhere, whether you’re in Bosnia in Sarajevo and somebody’s shooting at you or whether you’re in Chechnya,” he said. “A bullet is a bullet, a child is a child and pain is pain.” He added, “The religion, the ethnicities, the national differences really dissipate in the face of these kinds of tragedies.”

Rastegar’s religion is known to Iranian government officials, and his group, which worked with professionals in Iran before the earthquake, continues to be well received, he said.

Despite the Iranian government’s hostile attitude toward Israel and Jews, there should be no problem in routing Jewish funds to those in distress, Haroun Yeshaya, head of Iran’s Jewish community, said Tuesday in a phone interview from Tehran.

“All Iranian people are going to be glad” to receive funding from anyone in the world, Yeshaya said through Kamram Broukim, a translator in California.

Through his organization — the Fariborz “Fred” Matloob unit of B’nai B’rith, named in memory of an Iranian Jewish boy — Broukim has raised more than $50,000 since Friday for earthquake victims.

The funds will be directed to Iran’s Jewish community, which plans to use the money to set up a medical clinic in Bam, the center of the disaster. Broukim is working with Iranian Jews in New York and London to raise additional funds.

About 18,000 of Iran’s 30,000 Jews live in Tehran; another 8,000 live in Shiraz. There are no known Jewish casualties of the earthquake.

Despite Iran’s rebuff to Israel, at least one Israeli NGO is addressing the tragedy.

“I have a direct and open line to Iranians,”said Ra’anan Amir, project manager of Latet, an Israeli humanitarian group that provides domestic and international relief. Latet has sent “tens of thousands of dollars” to earthquake victims, Amir said.

“We are welcomed, and we have the routes to come and work in Iran,” he said.

Amir wouldn’t say whether Latet has people or equipment on the ground in Iran, and he admitted he has encountered patches of anti-Israeli resistance along the way. However, he said, such resistance in Iran and elsewhere comes from politicians or government officials, not individual citizens.

According to the New York Sun, Iranian citizens criticized their government’s refusal to accept aid from Israel, which has highly trained disaster relief teams that have assisted victims around the globe.

Asked if he thinks humanitarian goodwill will help bridge political or religious divides, Amir said he doesn’t “fool with idealism.”

“In the first few days of every disaster like this one, nobody thinks about any of these topics. People are just looking for a place to put their head at night, to get covers, to get something to eat, to get something to drink and to find their relatives,” he said.

If his presence happens to change some Iranians’ views of Israelis or Jews, that’s great, he said. But he doesn’t know whether Latet’s clients even know of the group’s origins — or what effect, if any, such knowledge would have.

“I’m not going and carrying the flag with me,” he said.

Rastegar expresses similar sentiments. “The agenda is the humanity of it,” he said.

Like other Jewish humanitarians, he said he is driven by his faith. “We’re the chosen people not for privilege; we’re the chosen people to serve,” Rastegar said.

Ronni Strongin, spokeswoman for American Jewish World Service, agreed.

“The Jewish people are compelled to step above hatred, and we cannot stoop to the level of others,” she said. Jews must “provide humanitarian need to those that are in deep distress.”

The agency raised some $7,000 over the weekend for quake victims. The money will be used to purchase medical supplies, which will be dispersed through Direct Relief International.

Direct Relief International, which is not related to Rastegar’s group, is seeking an Iranian partner to handle efforts on the ground.

Strongin said her group received several angry e-mails from Jews who felt that Iran, which is implacably opposed to Israel and has persecuted its Jews, doesn’t deserve humanitarian aid from Jewish groups.

For its part, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the largest U.S.-based Jewish relief and welfare organization, has not begun a fund for the earthquake victims.

“We haven’t been active and don’t have a presence to be able to extend any kind of direct assistance, so we would have to work through outside NGOs,” said Will Recant, the JDC’s assistant executive vice president.

In any case, he noted, “we haven’t had a response from the American Jewish community” inquiring about the earthquake or asking if the group was accepting funds.

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