Thirty years ago this week, philanthropist Habib Elghanian became the first Jew executed by Iran’s radical Islamic regime after he was falsely charged and convicted of spying for Israel. Karmel Melamed interviews friends and relatives who recall the trauma of this event in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles:
His death by firing squad on May 9, 1979, sent shockwaves through Iran’s tight-knit Jewish community, which once lived in relative peace under the Shah. It prompted scores of Iran’s nearly 80,000 Jews to immediately sell off or abandon their assets and flee the country.
At least 13 Jews have been executed in Iran since Elghanian.
This week, as local Iranian Jews commemorate Elghanian’s death, The Journal spoke with family members, close friends and community activists who knew him affectionately as Haji Habib, a 66-year-old industrialist and community leader.
“My father wanted to return to Iran despite the turbulence there, even though we all implored him to stay in the U.S. He wanted to continue helping the Jewish community that had still remained in Iran and he also wanted to attend to his businesses there.
“After he was arrested I remember going to Washington, D.C., with my uncle seeking help from politicians on behalf of my father. We met with Sen. Ted Kennedy and he expressed his support for us but said he was unable to really help us.
“His own employees and people in the business community who were not Jewish even came out in protest after the government in Iran arrested him. Our family still remembers him and so does the community after so many years because of the tremendous impact he had on our lives.“
—Karmel Elghanian, Habib Elghanian’s son
“He was in America, and 10 to 15 days before Khomeini returned to Iran, he returned to Iran. Everyone asked him not to go, but he said ‘I was born in Iran and I love my country. I have treated Muslims and Jews alike, everyone knows me, and I have not done anything that was illegal.‘ Despite what people told him, Haji said, ‘Iran is my homeland, I love it and what is most important to me is that the Jews in Iran’s eyes are upon me. I, therefore, must be protective of them and if I leave they will be in danger.‘
“Haji knew, in the end, that they were going to execute him. Through friends and family members we relayed messages to him while he was imprisoned and even offered to find a way to have him sprung from jail. He flatly refused these suggestions and said the lives of the Jews of Iran would be at risk if he had escaped from prison. He sacrificed his life for the good of [the] country’s Jews.
“Before he was executed, he asked that he be given his tallit and kippah to wear and then be executed. He recited the ‘Shema Israel’ prayer and then they executed him.
“The Iranian government repossessed every single penny we as members of the Elghanian family owned and passed laws that even the smallest belongings of the Elghanian family were to be seized by the regime. With force and great difficulty they got his body and buried him in the Jewish cemetery. When they buried him there were not more than two or four people, and there were not enough people to even say Kaddish for him because everyone was so frightened to come to the burial.
—Sion Elghanian, Habib Elghanian’s brother