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Focus on Issues: Iranian’s Testimony Reveals Plight of the Jews Left Behind

March 18, 1996
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They questioned him for hours under blinding lights. They hit him in the face to get him to talk. They boxed him into a tiny cell where he could not stand up straight, lie down or sit. They frequently threatened to kill him.

Suspected of being a Zionist and a spy, Shahin Abkazian was held for two years in an Iranian prison until suddenly, without explanation, authorities released him.

“All this happened to me simply because I was Jewish,” Abkazian – a pseudonym used to protect his identity – said in recent testimony submitted to Congress.

“I had no more contracts with Israel or the United States than any other Jew in Iran. I had no contacts with foreigners,” he said in his testimony.

“There was no reason to believe that I was a spy, except for the general atmosphere of hate and suspicion generated by the government in Iran against Jews.”

Although others have suffered even worse at the hands of Iranian authorities, Abkazian’s story presents some of the most startling and harrowing testimony ever brought to light about current conditions for Jews in Iran.

Extreme cases of Jews being murdered in prison, suffering permanent physical damage or simply disappearing have not been widespread.

But such incidents, Abkazian said, have nonetheless occurred with regularity and have served to terrorize the estimated 18,000 to 25,000 Jews remaining in Iran.

Abkazian initially agreed to present his own testimony at a congressional hearing on the persecution of worldwide Jewry last month. Fearing reprisals against relatives remaining in Iran, he was to use a pseudonym.

Abkazian, who immigrated to Los Angeles this year, traveled to Washington last month to give his testimony, but backed out at the last minute when he learned it would not be a closed hearing.

“His reluctance to testify because it was in public spoke volumes about his great fears,” said Norman Tilles, president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, who read Abkazian’s testimony before the House International Relations Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights.

Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), who chairs the committee, convened the hearing as Congress continues to weigh sweeping reforms in the nation’s immigration laws.

The plight of Iranian Jews, while less publicized than the exigencies facing Jews in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere around the globe, remains no less acute.

Their situation is reminiscent of the plight of the Jews of Syria and Ethiopia, who also lived under the grip of repressive regimes until rescue campaigns liberated them.

Those operations freed nearly all of Syria’s 4,000 Jews between 1990 and 1994, and more than 28,000 Ethiopian Jews since 1984.

“I think that most of us are not aware of the situation of Iranian Jews,” Tilles said. He said most Americans are not aware of the numbers of Jews still there and “don’t have any understanding of the difficulty of their life or of their almost total inability to get out.”

Since the exodus of Iranian Jews began in 1983, after the Iranian revolution, between 70 percent and 80 percent of Iran’s population of an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 Jews has left the country.

When the Shah of Iran fell in 1979, the regime shifted from a pro-Western, pro- Israel government to a fiercely anti-Western, Islamic state.

Those who remain are desperately trying to find a way out, according to HIAS officials.

“The Arab-Israeli peace process is being taken out on the hides of Iranian Jews,” said Bruce Leimsidor, director of HIAS’ Vienna office, which handles the flow of Iranian refugees to the United States and Canada.

“Every Jewish family in Iran has been persecuted in some way – they’ve lost property, spent time in prison or have roughted up by police,” Leimsidor said in a telephone interview from Vienna.

Other Jewish officials disputed that degree of persecution, but said nonetheless that a majority of Jews are treated unfairly.

Since 1983, HIAS has brought more than 10,000 Iranian Jewish refugees to the United States, including 226 in 1995. The vast majority of the refugees have gone to Israel.

Leimsidor said the HIAS Vienna office facilitates the immigration of between 20 and 30 Iranian refugees to the United States and Canada each month.

Fearing for the safety of the Jews still in Iran and for the continuation of the program, HIAS would not discuss its refugee operation in any more detail.

In his testimony, Abkazian – who declined to be interviewed or to provide more specifics about his case – described the degenerating economic situation “where Jews are being blamed for the destruction of Iran” and where the “government- sponsored anti-Semitic propaganda campaign” has “intensified in the past several years.”

“The anti-Semitic diatribes broadcast during the Friday sermons on television no longer just talk about the Israelis or the Zionists,” Abkazian said. “They talk about the Jews in general, about the worldwide Jewish plot and how the Jews in Iran are all agents of his conspiracy.”

Moreover, he said Jews are frequently forced out of their jobs, pressed to convert to Islam and are unable to find protection in Iran’s judicial system.

Abkazian blames the climate of suspicion and hatred of Jews for his imprisonment.

“I was probably denounced by a fanatic co-worker, and it was simply assumed that the accusation was valid because of this general atmosphere of hatred.”

His nightmare did not end with his release from prison, Authorities warned him against any contact with the Jewish community, the synagogue or foreigners. They told him not to leave Tehran and kept him under constant surveillance, tapping his phone and opening his mail.

“I lived in constant terror,” he said.

For Jews attempting to leave, the obstacles remain formidable, according to Leimsidor.

While Muslims can generally obtain passports within 24 hours, Jews must go through a separate passport office where they are met by complex forms and delaying tactics, as well as a blacklist.

“If they have even suspected contact with Israel, too much contact with the States, if they’re administering property for people who have left, they’re on the blacklist,” Leimsidor said.

Passports are rarely issued to all members of a family, he said. Immediate relatives are frequently forced to surrender passports to assure the return of another family member.

In Abkazian’s case, it took his wife nearly a decade to obtain her passport.

Moreover, the sheer cost of immigration is often prohibitive.

“It takes a large amount of money to get out,” Leimsidor said. “People do try to liquidate some of their assets, but it’s extremely difficult and dangerous to do so. If the government feels you’re selling your property for purposes of immigration, it’s immediately confiscated.”

Through a combination of bribes and luck, Abkazian got himself and his family out of Iran.

Others have not been so fortunate, and it was with them in mind that Abkazian chose to publicize both his story and the plight of Iran’s Jewish community, declaring in no uncertain terms that “the Jewish community is being gradually excluded from any possibility of further existence in Iran.”

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