On Rodeo Drive, Persian Jews are trying their hands at politics

LOS ANGELES (JTA) – Iranian Jews, who for centuries were denied full political participation in their native country, are making up for it in Beverly Hills.

Three of the six candidates to fill the two vacant spots on the affluent area’s City Council in a March 6 election are of IranianJewish heritage.

Their candidacies are part of an increased political involvement in recent years by Southern California’s nearly 30,000 Iranian Jews.

Not only are they running for public office, they’re holding fundraisers and campaigning for local, state and national candidates.

“This community truly appreciates the freedoms granted to it by the United States and it sincerely wishes to pay back for what it has received,” said Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the L.A.-based Iranian American Jewish Federation. “I have no doubt that in this area, too, members of our community will prove to be worthy citizens who can contribute to their environment in the most positive way.”

Beverly Hills, where an estimated 20 percent to 25 percent of residents are Iranian – predominately Jewish – has been the breeding ground for the increased political activity.

Public officials are noticing the increased interest, stopping in Persian synagogues and elsewhere in Iranian enclaves to speak about Iran and Israel, among other subjects.

While large Persian communities such as those in Long Island’s Great Neck campaign for candidates and advocate for causes like Israel, community members are not running for office.

The three Iranian Jewish City Council candidates in Beverly Hills – incumbent Vice Mayor Jimmy Delshad, attorney Maggie Soleimani and business consultant Shahram Melamed – have been jockeying since last summer to win voters.

Delshad is perhaps the best known after being elected in 2003, becoming what is believed to be the first Iranian Jew elected to public office in the United States. Four years after his successful grassroots campaign among Iranian Jews, Delshad again is looking to energize the community’s support.

“Persians Jews have come from Iran, where they’re been very uncomfortable about voting because they thought somebody knows who they’ll vote for or they were told who to vote for. Therefore they were hesitant to get involved,” Delshad said. “I’ll tell them that nobody will ever know who you voted for, so vote your conscience.”

Before becoming a city councilman, Delshad sold his private computer-related business and served full-time as president of Sinai Temple in West Los Angeles between 1999 and 2001. He could become the first Iranian Jew elected mayor of a U.S. city, since the mayor’s post in Beverly Hills rotates among City Council members.

Melamed has been trying to woo the Iranian community with his experience as a Beverly Hills City Planning commissioner dealing with new and often controversial development projects.

“As a planning commissioner my hands are tied,” Melamed said. “I’m only allowed to look at land use, so here I am trying to help the community, but I can only use part of my skills. Some of my best skills are from my business background, education in finance and my training on Wall Street that is left unused, so I?m hoping to put it to use on the council.”

Soleimani may be the first Iranian Jewish woman to run for a U.S. political office. Presenting herself as a government outsider, she has been trying to appeal to voters frustrated with city officials that have approved numerous development projects in Beverly Hills.

“I have not been a part of the nasty and angry battles of the past,” Soleimani said. “I want to be a voice of unity, professionalism, healing the community and ending the division that has occurred over every single development project.”

In March 2005, Iranian Jews voting in Beverly Hills were able to cast ballots containing Persian-language directions. Poll volunteers also spoke Persian.

Delshad is not the only political trailblazer among Iranian Jews. In 1996, businessman Joe Sushani became the first in the community to run for the City Council in Beverly Hills, but he lost.

“I did not believe I would win, but I thought it would be an opportunity to learn about the system and open the way for others,” Sushani said. “I’m very happy I did; it was one of the best decisions of my life.”

Jews have lived in Iran for 2,500 years but rarely have held positions in government or within the political realm. Since Iran’s Constitution was passed in 1909, Jews have been permitted to select one person from their community to serve in Parliament.

H. David Nahai, an Iranian Jewish attorney and political activist in Los Angeles, said Iranian Jews in Southern California have become more involved in politics only in recent years, after they established new roots and achieved financial success in America.

“Persian Jews are beginning to realize that they can wield influence by participating in political life,” Nahai said. “Many are also beginning to see that there is a unique sense of fulfillment in public service which private gain can never equal.”

In 2005, Nahai campaigned in the Iranian community for Los Angeles mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa. In April of that year, a fundraising event in Beverly Hills hosted by Iranian Jews helped raise nearly $40,000 for the Villaraigosa campaign.

After his victory, Villaraigosa appointed Nahai to serve on the L.A. Board of Water and Power Commissioners, and he was elected board president last year. In January 2005, Nahai was reappointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to serve an unprecedented third term as a member of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Kermanian, who campaigned in the Iranian community for President Bush in 2004, said state and national candidates increasingly have taken notice of the Iranian Jewish community living in Southern California. The community has been seen as an important voting bloc because of its shared values, financial strength and close ties to other voting groups, he said.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, met with the Persian Jewish community in Beverly Hills to discuss legislation regarding Iran and Israel. U.S. Reps. Henry Waxman, Brad Sherman and Howard Berman, all Jewish California Democrats, have spoken at Persian synagogues in the city. Sherman was out front in speaking out for the Shiraz 13, Iranian Jews who were held in prison in Iran for years on trumped-up charges that they were Israeli spies.

“The most appealing aspect of our community,” Kermanian said, “is the fact that it enjoys great relations and alliances with communities far larger than itself, and it has the ability to influence and to move a lot more voters than its own numbers would otherwise suggest.”