Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Jews of Iran - thirty years after the revolution

It is almost exactly thirty years since a repressive theocratic regime took over in Iran and plunged the lives of millions of Iranians - and thousands of Iranian Jews - into turmoil. Three-quarters of the community fled for Israel or California, where many built successful new lives. But some were not so lucky: Karmel Melamed, whose family escaped Iran when he was a baby, tells the harrowing tale of the executed community leader Habib Elghanian in the first of a series of articles Melamed wrote for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal:

"The new theocratic regime eliminated practically overnight many of the freedoms and civil liberties once taken for granted by Iranians -- including the country's Jews, who under the shah's reign had experienced one of the greatest periods of peace and prosperity in their long history in the region.

"A day perhaps best remembered in the United States is Nov. 4, 1979, when regime operatives took over the American Embassy in Tehran and held captive 52 Americans in a reign of terror that would last for 444 days -- the rationale for this act, in part, was retaliation against the U.S. government, which had granted the exiled shah permission to be treated for cancer in America.

"The new regime's henchmen also quickly executed several prominent Jewish community leaders, accusing them of sympathizing with the fallen monarchy or "spying for Israel and America." For fear of what calamity might befall them, many Jewish families rushed to abandon their homes and businesses and fled the country -- often under cover of night. Others lost everything they owned, as millions of dollars in assets were confiscated by the new fundamentalist Islamist Iranian government.

"Under the shah's rule, Iran's Jews, as well as other religious minorities in Iran, had become accustomed to being treated with respect, albeit as separate, distinct cultures. Now they were second-class citizens, and the atmosphere of hostility led thousands of them to flee the country.

"Looking back, the trauma of that flight has left deep wounds within my community. Many Iranian Jews continue to live in disbelief at what transpired.

"It was unbelievable, unfathomable for us Jews to believe anything would happen to us in Iran because of the incredible power of shah and his government," Ebrahim Yahid, a local Iranian Jewish activist, now in his 80s, told me in a recent interview. "Nobody in our community believed of the calamity we would face under the new regime of Khoemini."

"Jewish flight from Iran began in earnest, most community members agree, in May 1979, when the new regime's revolutionary guard executed 66-year-old "Haji" Habib Elghanian, a philanthropist and the leader of Iran's Jewish community. Elghanian's younger brother, Sion, who now lives in Los Angeles, recently spoke to me about his brother's execution, the first time he has spoken publicly about it.

"Haji was in America, and 10 to 15 days before Khomeini returned to Iran, he returned to Iran," said Sion Elghanian, who is now retired and in his late 80s.

"The older Elghanian had been in the United States temporarily, hoping to weather the chaos of the early days of unrest, which had brought the country to a standstill through nationwide strikes.

It was expected that Habib Elghanian might become a target, because he was the wealthiest Jew in Iran and the leader of Iran's Jews.

"Everyone, including the late Israeli Prime Minister Begin, asked him not to return to Iran, but he said, 'I was born in Iran, I love my country, I have treated all Iranians -- Muslims and Jews alike -- with compassion, and I have not done anything illegal,'" his younger brother remembered.

The Islamic regime arrested Habib Elghanian on Feb. 17, 1979, and falsely charged him with being a Zionist spy, along with other trumped-up charges of treason against the state. He was executed on May 9, 1979, after a sham trial by the revolutionary Islamic court, which lasted just over an hour and consisted merely of a proclamation of the verdict, without presenting any real evidence. While he was in prison, family members and friends were able to get some messages to him and receive his replies.

"Haji knew that they were going to kill him," Sion Elghanian said. "Before he was executed, he requested that that he be given his tallit and kippah to wear. He recited the 'Shema' ... and then they shot him by a firing squad.

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