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For Iranian-american Jews, Standoff on Nukes Raises Questions of Identity

May 18, 2006
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As an American citizen, Sam Kermanian would like to mitigate Iran’s threat to the United States. As a Jew, he wants to ensure Israel’s safety. And as an Iranian, he’d like to see these changes brought about in a peaceful way, so as not to disrupt the homeland he loves dearly.

Kermanian, secretary general of the Los Angeles-based Iranian Jewish Federation, epitomizes the precarious situation in which Iranian-American Jews find themselves today.

As Iran continues to make hostile overtures toward Israel and the United States, Iranian-American Jews feel themselves pulled in opposing directions by their three identities — and three homelands.

Along with the rest of the West, many Iranian Jews view President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s fundamentalist leadership with trepidation.

Homa Sarshar, a prominent L.A.-based journalist who founded the Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History, described the regime as “a threat to the whole world,” citing Iran’s aid to terrorist organizations and its nuclear ambitions.

Fellow journalist Roya Hakakian, who lives in Connecticut, expressed concern over the “ultra-conservative Islamic fundamentalists” running the government.

Ahmadinejad “sees himself as a catalyst for a doomsday scenario,” she said. “One can assume there’s nothing he would relent from doing.”

Community members say they worry Ahmadinejad’s goals might include an attack on Israel. He has talked repeatedly in recent months about destroying the Jewish state, just as Iran is believed to be close to mastering the technology to develop nuclear weapons.

Lida Tabibian, a Persian Jew who chairs an American Israel Public Affairs Committee young leadership group, described the prospect of a nuclear Iran as frightening.

“As an Iranian Jew, I see myself first and foremost as a Jewish person,” said Tabibian, whose family moved to Israel after fleeing Iran in 1978, shortly before the Islamists took over. “The threat to Israel, and Iran’s relationship to Israel, is my No. 1 concern.”

Jimmy Delshad — who, as vice mayor of Beverly Hills, is believed to be the first Iranian Jew elected to public office in the United States — reiterated that sentiment.

“One of the biggest connections Persian Jews have is Israel,” he said. “Israel is always on their radar screen.”

Delshad has been involved in a $3.5 million fund-raising drive in the local Persian Jewish community to help victims of terrorism in Israel. He previously served as president of both the heavily Persian Sinai Temple and a philanthropic organization started by Persian Jews to fund Israeli students.

Roughly 300,000 Persian Jews — the largest concentration of Iranian Jews anywhere in the world — live in Israel. This community keeps Iranian-American Jews connected to what happens in the Jewish state.

Their loyalty to Israel doesn’t imply any disloyalty toward Iran, however. Despite a history of on-again, off-again persecution at the hands of Iranian Muslims, many Iranian Jews cling tightly to Persian culture.

They teach their children Farsi, cook traditional dishes and visit family and friends back home. Jews trace their legacy in Iran back 2,700 years, far longer than Islam has been there.

“Iran has yet to become history for most of us,” Hakakian explained. “If we don’t have relatives remaining in Iran, we have places we have loved, neighbors we care about. There are a lot of Iranian Jews who even go back and forth for summers and keep an Iranian passport. If for no other reason but sentimental ones, what happens in Iran continues to affect us.”

Reconciling these cultural ties to Iran with their American and Jewish identities is not always an easy task. For one thing, there are family members back home to consider: Roughly 25,000 Jews live in Iran today. Occasional and seemingly arbitrary jailing by the regime has kept the Jewish community cowed and fearful.

“The community has gone through tormenting debates on the subject of what to do,” Hakakian said. “The majority of the Iranian Jewish community here in the U.S. believes that we should lay low, let the Iranian Jewish community do what it needs to survive, to exit from Iran. There’s a belief that openly advocating for the cause of Iranian Jews would be damaging to their well-being and the progress of their case.”

But Iranian-American Jews know that their religious identity does not necessarily make them enemies of the Iranian government.

“The lines that have been drawn in Iran have not been ethnic or religious lines,” Hakakian explained. “They’ve been lines between fundamentalists and secular. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Jew, Christian or Muslim, if you’re not fundamentalist, you’re on the other side.”

Others stress that in many countries around the world, the government does not necessarily speak for the general population.

“Naturally I would distinguish between Iranians and the people who rule them,” said George Haroonian, a community activist in Los Angeles who runs a magazine for Persian Jews. “The aspirations of the Iranian people are being misrepresented at this time.”

For this reason, many Iranian Jews are pinning their hopes on a peaceful resolution to the standoff with the West over Iran’s presumed nuclear weapons program. Sarshar said the majority of Iranian Jews she knows in the United States favor diplomacy over force toward Iran.

Conversely, Dariush Fakheri, cofounder of the Eretz-Siamak Cultural Center in Los Angeles, said the majority of Iranian Jews he has spoken to favor a military approach.

But even among these hardliners, Fakheri said, there are divisions about who should take the offensive.

“One camp believes that Israel should do it,” he said. “But others believe that this is the exact agenda of the Iranian government: Iran could retaliate toward Israel and this would seem acceptable in the eyes of the world, a defensive act on their part.”

How exactly these viewpoints will be reconciled remains to be seen.

“I see a huge split in the community,” Sarshar said. “Taking military action has divided the community in two.”

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