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Personal Revolution

Iranian, American, Jewish: Reflections on a complicated life

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Protesters hold a poster of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during a demonstration in Tehran against the shah, January 1979. (AFP/Getty Images)
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I am an Iranian-American Jew, an identity I have been proud of all of my life. I have been an American citizen since birth, and I have enjoyed the privileges of being part of the greatest, and freest country in the history of humankind. But my identity means that in addition to being intensely interested in what goes on in the United States, I am also intensely interested in what goes on in both Israel and Iran. All of these interests are part of who I am, as are the pain and the conflict that I experience because of my identity.

I have yet to visit Israel, but when I was young, my family made a number of trips to Iran even after immigrating to the United States. Those visits occurred before the Islamic revolution, when Iranian Jews were reasonably free and reasonably prosperous. Everyone in my family assumed that we would be able to visit Iran as we pleased.

But 1976 was the last time I visited Iran. After the Islamic revolution of 1979, the country of my mother and father became closed to them and to much of the rest of my family.

Plenty of Iranians abroad have made trips to and from Iran ever since the revolution, of course. But as Iranian Jews, we have had to endure a greater sense of insecurity and a relationship with the Islamic regime that has been fraught with tension. That tension has only increased in recent years, with the regime having become increasingly hardline, and with Muslim Iranian-Americans like Roxana Saberi, Haleh Esfandiari, Ali Shakeri, Kian Tajbakhsh, and Parnaz Azima having been imprisoned on trips to Iran, despite the fact that they did nothing to merit their sentences.

I watched the Iranian revolution unfold on American television. I saw the images of the demonstrations in the streets and the unforgiving mien of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as he declared that the monarchy must come to an end and a theocracy must take its place. From the very beginnings of the revolution, it was made clear to me that our family could not possibly visit Iran until a fundamental governmental change took place. In a phone call as a child, I once told my grandmother, who’d remained in Iran, that I probably would not be able to see her until there was a counterrevolution; an indiscretion that prompted my parents to quickly take the phone out of my hands, for fear the line was eavesdropped and I might get my family in trouble.

The images from Iran made me intensely political in 1978, at the tender age of 6. My family and I believed that something was happening in Iran that would be profoundly destructive to the country. Because of our religious identity, our concerns were heightened by the theocratic aspect of the revolution. Sadly, those concerns turned out to be justified; while Iran’s Jewish population has some rights, the Jews of Iran are forced to denounce Israel with great frequency and fervor.

Being an Iranian Jew is a great source of pride, but it is also a great burden. It meant a difficult life for family members who tried to leave Iran in the early 1980s, only to be caught, imprisoned, whipped, and threatened with execution unless they signed a statement acknowledging their “guilt” in relation to vague and nonsensical allegations. It meant a difficult life for a relative who did not want to go to the front to kill Iraqis—or be killed by them—and who was threatened with expulsion from the University of Tehran unless he dropped his resistance to being drafted for war. It meant difficulties for another family member, who went back to Iran to see my grandmother (for what turned out to be the last time) and was prevented from returning to the West for two weeks while various corrupt officials demanded bribes and threatened to take my grandmother’s home—where I remember playing as a child—away from her.

I try to be patient, waiting for change to come to Iran. But even as the regime gives observers every reason to be outraged at its actions, global indifference seems to outweigh any sense of justified indignation regarding the actions of the regime. I am impatient with an American society that would rather focus on Bristol Palin’s appearance on Dancing With the Stars than on Iran. I am impatient with the current U.S. administration, which has done little to speak up for the proposition that people should not be beaten up, that their votes should not be stolen, and that their political and human rights ought to be respected, for fear of appearing to be imperialist.

Of course, protesters in Iran are not likely to castigate the Obama Administration as imperialist in the event that the administration ever chooses to forcefully argue on behalf of human rights and political liberalization in Iran; indeed, if anything, the Iranian people have made clear that they want more American assistance in their effort to bring about political change. But for whatever reason, the Obama Administration chooses not to side with the Iranian people against their repressive leaders. From a realpolitik perspective, I am frustrated with the lack of pressure that has been put on Iran thus far, pressure that might have created divisions within the regime that might help the United States achieve crucial national security interests. (And, no, an ineffective sanctions regime does not count as “pressure on Iran.”)

It is obvious that a renewal in protests will result in more injuries and deaths to the many who brave the streets to demonstrate for things we in the West take for granted; free elections, free speech, basic political and human rights. The prospect of further bloodshed horrifies me. It certainly horrifies those living in Iran whose lives and well-being may be threatened by another flare-up of political violence. But ever since the revolution ousted one dictator—the shah—and put another far worse in his place, the need for political liberalization has become overwhelming and undeniable. Iran has had its chances for political liberalization, only to have seen them slip away. On June 29, 1981, an assassin just missed killing the father of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, with a bomb (the bomb blast ended up severely injuring the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose right arm is useless and withered as a result of the assassination attempt). I remember being angry and infuriated that a rare chance to kill Khomeini—and perhaps (at least to my 9-year-old mind) reverse the effects of the revolution—was missed. I thought that perhaps the regime would be toppled when the student revolts of 1999 began, only to watch in despair as the uprising was brutally put down by the thugs the regime employs to keep order. How many more missed chances can the country’s body politic afford?

And, finally, there is Iran’s conflict with Israel. It’s an issue that torments Iranian Jews, who care deeply about what happens to Iran but are not willing to see the Islamic regime harm Israel’s security interests or the lives of innocent Israelis—many of whom are émigrés from Iran. Were it a conflict with any other country antagonistic toward Israel, Iranian Jews would have significantly less hesitation—if any—in endorsing a military response to any threat to Israel. But in this case, the country antagonistic toward Israel is Iran, to which Iranian Jews naturally and obviously continue to feel a deep tie. As such, Iranian Jews are faced with a revolting choice: endorse military strikes against Iran that may—or may not—set back the nuclear program but may also kill scores of Iranians, or do nothing and gamble that Israel will not be consumed by a nuclear conflagration.

Thus the life of an Iranian-American Jew. It entails conflicted emotions, constant apprehension, intense frustration, the fear of being forgotten and ignored, and a sense of exile, a longing for what so many take for granted—the ability to visit home. The Iranian Jew is heir to a glorious legacy; our ancestors helped author the Babylonian Talmud. The Iranian Jew looks to an uncertain future; we do not know how long our exile will last, whether it will end in our lifetimes, or whether the various and distinct parts of our lives will ever stop being in conflict with one another. We only know how to persevere. We have had thousands of years of practice at persevering, and we do what we can to effect positive change where we are able, in the hopes that we will be able to build a life for ourselves that does not entail the sense of sorrow, fear, and disconnectedness that we have felt for so long.

Pejman Yousefzadeh is an attorney and writer in Illinois. He blogs at A Chequer-Board of Nights and Days.



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Like so many new immigrants to the US you show the problem with being a something else-American. Most immigrees to this country in prior genrations became simply Americans. Yes they mainatained family ties and a certain pride in their heritage, but they were Americans. For those of us who are just Americans those who are something else-Americans leave us doubting your commitment to this great nation that sustains you. Perhaps the best cure for your ills is to either become an American of Iranian descent or to return to Iran and fight for the changes you seek there.

A.L. Bell says:

Don – There are lots of different ways to be an American. You have one way. The author has another. And, the truth is, if we ever did get into a military conflict with Iran, the author’s Farsi skills would make her about a million times more useful to the military than you are. If she went to my kid’s school and she knew how to cook some fabulous Iranian casserole, her potluck dish would be a billion times more interesting than your unhyphenated American pot roast.

So, seriously, perhaps the best cure for your ills is for you to go to a site for nativists who have no idea whatsoever what your own immigrant ancestors really thought about the old country when they moved to these shores.

If Don read the second sentence of the first paragraph, he would have noted the part where I wrote that “I have been an American citizen since birth,” which make the rest of his statement silly.

Don, sometimes it’s not so simple. How do you think American Jews felt when the US closed its doors to Jewish refugees from Nazism condemning them to the gas chambers?

Rachel says:

Don forgets that his family too was once a something-else American…this country once belonged to the Native Americans with about 99% of the people who now live here being NOT Native American. I wonder if his family were called greenhorns or whatever else anyone who has immigrated to this country in the last 100 years, would he be so insensitive? Even if he’s PART Native American, the rest of him is something else. The problem with you, Don, is that you think there is something called American. And there is no such thing, and THAT IS WHY this country is great. Maybe you should also pay a visit to the Statue of Liberty and read the quote at the bottom which is a testament to our country’s greatness and beauty…”“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” or say the pledge of allegiance…”with liberty and justice for ALL…” not just for you.

You should have discussed this with people from Great Neck NY and Beverly Hills CA. Considering that both of those towns have the largest Iranian/Jewish population in America.. their viewpoint would be good to include on an article like this.

I find it interesting that people still speak of Jewishness and Judaism dying out in the Diaspora, and they usually focus on America. Jewish communities that unfortunately came to swift ends despite being around for millennia were located in Syria, Spain, Germany, Eastern Europe. It will be incalculably sad if the next community on this list is the place of Shushan and Ester.

It would also be important to figure out the connection between a non-Jewish theocracy and the socio-economic positions of Jews in that country. Why did Jews thrive in Islamic Morocco, but not Islamic or Catholic Spain? What makes America so different?

Wow, a lot of people hatin’ on Don. I do see his point of view. I cringed at the author’s statement: ” I am impatient with an American society that would rather focus on Bristol Palin’s appearance on Dancing With the Stars than on Iran. I am impatient with the current U.S. administration, which has done little to speak up for the proposition that people should not be beaten up, that their votes should not be stolen, and that their political and human rights ought to be respected, for fear of appearing to be imperialist.”
Why is America always expected to fight someone else’s battle?
To Rachel: America isn’t just a country, it’s an idea. To physically allow all of the tired, poor, and huddled masses, we will simply run out of room.

Don is being disingenuous. In the hypothetical situation that some part of Western Europe became a human rights disaster area, I think that the white people who are the “unhyphenated” Americans wouldn’t just be indifferent. Why do “we” celebrate St. Patrick’s Day? Or study European languages in school? Or study European history-as-world history? The personal connection to the Old Country is still there.. its just that the “hyphenated” Asian- African- Latin- Middle Eastern, etc. Americans are more upfront about it.

Pej, first I agree that Iran is more important than Bristol Palin. But in terms of why Obama wasn’t more forceful in terms of the post-election protests the (I think plausible) argument is the heavy-handed support of the protesters would give the regime rhetorical ammunition because they could say that protestors are being produced by outsiders. And given the past history of US invovlement in Iran, a softer touch is perhaps wiser.

April, I think you are right that the US shouldn’t be the world’s policeman and we should definitely scale back some of our involvement foreign nations, especially in the Middle East/Arab world / Muslim world. But we shouldn’t be totally isolationist either. If we can actually do good, without much trouble, then shouldn’t we?

Robin Margolis says:

Dear Pejman Yousefzadeh:

I share your dislike of the Iranian dictatorship. But I would respectfully submit that you are forgetting some key facts that may explain why the U.S. is not rushing to destabilize Iran or declare war on it:

1. We are already at war in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have not the time, money, troops or intelligence operatives available to destabilize or attack Iran.

2. The Iranians overthrew the heavy-handed and sometimes corrupt U.S.-backed government of the Shah in 1979 — but it was a relatively tolerant and modern government. The Iranians — mostly Muslim — replaced the Shah with the ruthless theocracy of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. They fastened the yoke around their own necks amid huge cheering crowds.

3. Older Americans have not forgotten Iranian mobs — one of whose leaders was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — attacking the U.S. Embassy in Tehran after the fall of the Shah, and imprisoning our embassy employees. Iranians then, in one of their last free elections in 2005, elected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as their President. Not a friendly message to the U.S.

4. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is well-known to come from a family of Jews who converted to Islam about two generations ago. Nothing will happen to the Jews of Iran during his lifetime. And I think it very unlikely, despite his bluster, that he will attack Israel, for the same reason.

5. You are concerned about the Iranian Jews in Israel and in Iran. Instead of living as a lawyer in the U.S., you could volunteer for the U.S. Armed Forces or the CIA and ask to serve near the Afghani-Iranian border where your knowledge of Farsi would be very helpful.

Or volunteer for the IDF or Mossad, if you wish to protect Israel’s Iranian Jewish community.

I grieve for the Iranian young people, as they are stuck with the theocracy that they did not install. But please don’t ask the over-burdened U.S. to free them. Can you honestly say that the Iraqis and Afghanis are thrilled to have U.S. troops around?

Don is naive in is historical revisionism. Any Midwestern town has a building that is or was the Sons of Norway or Poland or Greece or where-ever, or a Bund, and half a dozen churches that had services in a language that wasn’t English. Some immigrants may have embraced the idea of being fully American, but most had a much more complicated personal identity and were likely distraught when their children married out of the ethnic group. And the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII suggests that most people weren’t buying the “we’re all just Americans” then either.
I suspect that Mr. Yousefzadeh has a much more acute appreciation of “being part of the greatest, and freest country in the history of humankind” than does Don.

Dave Kimble says:

PY – I would be interested to know how you would feel if Israel attacked Iran with nuclear weapons, killing hundreds of thousands of people, only to find out later that the Iranians didn’t have a nuclear weapons program at all, just like in Iraq. After all, it is a matter of record (The National Intelligence Estimate, 2007) that they haven’t had a nuclear weapons program since 2003, if ever.

What is “fully American,” as some have asked above?

All Americans – unless they descend from native Americans – are immigrants from somewhere. The US is populated by citizens who identify with their immigrant ancestors as Italian-Americans, Greek-Americans, Polish-Americans, Mexican-Americans, name-any-country-Americans, Jewish-Americans (from wherever) and – yes – Iranian-Americans (of all religions: Jewish, Moslem, Christian and Bahai).

Family historians and genealogists find pride in investigating, embracing, preserving and transmitting their families’ unique personal histories, keeping family traditions alive through the generations following the arrival of their immigrant ancestors. At the same time, they understand and appreciate those freedoms found in the US that enable them to remain connected – in various ways – to their unique heritage.

your piece leaves out a lot of important information.

the vast majority of persian jews belonged to iran’s aristocratic class prior to the revolution; most were bankers, as you probably know; persian jews in america are incredibly wealthy. most (not all) persian jews were ardent supporters of the shah, a tyrant and despot kept in power by western governments. he imprisoned and tortured thousands of innocent people. and so the revolution.

the revolution, incidentally, did not begin as an islamic one. it actually began with the secular working class that lived in big cities (persepolis, tehran, shiraz) who were fed up with being ruled by a king (kinda like america in the 1700s, yeah?). the shah was overthrown. everyone was happy. then there was a democratic vote to determine what new government shoud be installed. HERE is where islam comes in.

iran at the time was split between secular city-dwellers and very religious country and farm-dwellers. the latter group vastly outnumbered the former, and they were also extremely uneducated (and more religious). but everyone’s vote was equal in this election, and the results were in favor of an islamic government. this was ENTIRELY due to the religious country people, not the people of big cities. shariah law was adopted, and the islamic revolution began in earnest.

anyway, iran has the second-largest jewish population in the middle east today, the first being israel of course. jews of iran are not forced to condemn israel. no one even asks them about israel. no one really cares. most iranian jews would completely disagree with your column. they still live in iran because they like it there. they ARE able to leave. and they are not treated any worse than anyone else in iran. the country is a human rights nightmare, but you are characterizing the reasons for that.

iran will not use a nuclear weapon against israel. let’s stop playing this game. they would be demolished in 0.5 seconds if they did and they know it.

I’ve said that least 1319018 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

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Iranian, American, Jewish: Reflections on a complicated life

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