Among the thousands who turned out in New York this week to show support for 10 imprisoned Iranian Jews was one woman who knows the true value of Jewish solidarity.
Sarah Benyaminova, a Jewish immigrant from the former Soviet Union, learned firsthand the importance of signaling to those who live in a totalitarian regime that they are not alone.
Benyaminova joined a number of other former Soviet refugees at a “solidarity gathering” Monday on behalf of the 10 Jews convicted of spying for Israel. They were sentenced July 1 to prison terms of four to 13 years.
This was the largest and loudest rally in the 18 months since the first Jews were arrested. Dozens of similar rallies were held Monday across North America and Europe.
But few protesters relate to such rallies as personally as Benyaminova, who was once on the other side, in need of international solidarity.
The American campaign for Soviet Jewry in the 1970s and 1980s indeed bolstered the morale of Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain, said Benyaminova, a 60- something Jew from the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan.
“I felt I had to be here, because I know what it’s like to live in a totalitarian regime,” she said during Monday’s demonstration, which took place a stone’s throw from the United Nations.
“People focus too much on whether five people or 10 people come out. When the Iranian Jews hear about this outpouring of support from around the world, it will help them emotionally and morally.
“It also puts pressure on the Iranians, that this issue cannot be ignored.”
Indeed, despite being billed as a “solidarity gathering” for the 10 prisoners and the rest of the 27,000 Iranian Jews, some Jewish officials conceded the aim was also to send powerful messages to both Tehran and Washington.
From Iran, they want justice and the verdict reversed.
Speaking on behalf of the Clinton administration, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke said, “We hope, we implore and we demand that there be a re-examination and a reopening of this process.”
Joining Holbrooke on stage was Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, half a dozen members of the U.S. Congress and a bevy of Jewish leaders, church officials and local politicians — both Jewish and non-Jewish.
Despite the outcry, Iran still seems far from backing down.
In fact, a judiciary spokesman announced Monday that an arrest warrant has been issued for Eshaq Belanas, an Iranian Jewish rabbi who settled in New York nine years ago. The fervently Orthodox of Iran view Belanas as their spiritual leader, while the Iranian spokesman painted him as the mastermind behind the alleged spy ring.
There is concern for Belanas’ safety, although he is not under police protection, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
As for Washington’s role, protesters expect the handling of the “Iran 10” to be a litmus test for future U.S.-Iran relations. There were many calls Monday for the repeal of the minor trade concessions on Iranian luxury goods made in March.
“Governments like ours respond when people take to the streets,” said Louise Stoll, executive vice president of the United Jewish Communities, a co-sponsor of the rallies.
“This is to put our government on notice, that we also expect them to respond to this injustice.”
None of this will be welcome news in Iran.
Even the lead defense lawyer for the 10 prisoners, Esmail Naseri — whose defense has drawn mixed reviews from American Jewish observers — complained that the lobbying of Jewish groups was exacerbating their plight.
“These pressures from abroad, which have taken the form of media onslaughts to incite public opinion, will have a negative effect on the case,” Naseri was quoted as saying last week.
“This is not in the interests of our clients.”
With the well-being of the prisoners and the rest of Iranian Jewry in mind, rally organizers were loathe to use the terms “demonstration” or “protest” – – to not antagonize Iran and further endanger its Jews.
“We’re not attacking the Iranian government,” said Martin Raffel, a top official with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
“We’re still responding in a moderate fashion, in hopes that Iran will show some modicum of fairness and overturn these verdicts.”
Nevertheless, speaker after speaker blasted the Iranian judiciary or regime, or both. Under a blazing sun and amid blaring sirens, the protesters — estimated at 5,000 to 10,000 by Jewish organizers, pegged at closer to 2,000 by police officials — chanted “Free the Iran 10!” and cheered as speakers railed against the “tyranny” of the “rogue nation,” Iran.
Wiesel — often described as the Jewish “voice of conscience” — cautioned the crowd to speak up, but to “speak without rage.”
“We believe they are innocent, and innocent they are,” Wiesel said. “Therefore, what happened to them is an offense to any person in the world with a sense of decency.”
He then proceeded to brand the devoutly religious prisoners as “hostages, hostages in the hands of the Iranian regime.”
Jewish activists vowed to step up the pressure — both in the streets and diplomatically — until Iran budges.
“Our purpose is not to overthrow the government,” said Hoenlein.
“It is to demonstrate that we will not be silent until these 10 men are back home with their families. If we need to raise our profile higher, we will raise our profile higher.”
Among the other rallies held around North America, a crowd of 300 people attended protest in downtown Toronto.
The crowd assembled in front of the Old City Hall, a late-19th-century building that now functions as a courthouse — a detail that speaker Eddie Greenspan said was “particularly appropriate.”
“It is ludicrous and farcical that the investigator, the prosecutor and the judge in this trial be all the same person,” said Greenspan, a criminal lawyer and vice-president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
“I know something about criminal trials, and this was no trial, it was a circus. It was mainly an expression of anti-Semitism. The conviction was a foregone conclusion.”
He called upon the Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, to recall Canada’s ambassador to Tehran and to expel Iran’s charge d’affaires from Canada “until the Shiraz 10 are freed.”
Nothing that President Clinton said he was “deeply disturbed” by the Iranian verdict, Greenspan said that “words are not enough.” The Iranian prisoners “must be released and they must be released now.
“No Spanish Inquisition, no tsar, no pogrom, no Nazis, no closed minds and no amount of anti-Semitism will ever destroy the Jewish people,” Greenspan said.
(JTA correspondent Bill Gladstone in Toronto contributed to this report.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.