Escape, Exile, Rebirth: Iranian Jewish Diaspora Alive and Well in Los Angeles
Thirty years have passed since the massive and violent demonstrations against the Shah of Iran that began in September 1978, and for many, the start of that country’s bloody revolution might seem a faded memory. Yet I have carried those shattering events with me all of my life: I was born on in Tehran on Sept. 11, 1978, as chaos unfolded on the streets outside.
For Americans, Sept. 11 has its own painful history, but for me, that day each year has always been, as well, a reminder of another horrific tragedy: Sept. 9 to Sept. 11, 1978, were among the first and most brutal days of a revolution in Iran that would result, among many upheavals, in the uprooting of the country’s ancient and once-thriving Jewish population.
My family’s story is no different from that of thousands of other Jews who fled Iran during and after the revolution, many of whom now live in Southern California, New York, Israel and elsewhere worldwide — the Iranian Jewish diaspora.
While scholars have since debated the true cause of the revolution, it is well known that the massive public protests for “greater freedoms” and strikes crippled Iran’s economy. Violence between the protesters and police erupted in Iran’s capital in January 1978 and intensified later in the year.
These activities eventually resulted in the collapse of the government led by the shah, who fled Iran on Jan. 20, 1979. On Feb. 1, 1979, the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran, quickly dissolved the monarchy and shortly thereafter established a new fundamentalist Islamic state government.
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.
“Afterward, Iran’s Jews were in total shock and grief,” his brother told me. “We told him [Elghanian] that we wanted to arrange to have him sprung from jail in an escape, but he told us not to go forward with it, as the move might motivate the Islamic leaders of Iran to retaliate by executing thousands of Jews living in the country.”
Sion Elghanian said that he respects his brother’s wishes not to be sprung from jail and feels that the family did all that they could to rescue and save him. He views his brother as a hero who sacrificed himself for the good of the community.
Word of Elghanian’s execution quickly spread on television and radio and by word of mouth. Immediately afterward, a huge wave of Iran’s Jews decided to sell their assets at whatever bargain prices they could get and flee the country. They clearly understood then the brutality of the regime and feared that they, too, might face the same fate. Some Jews had left earlier, in late 1978 and early 1979, but a huge wave left after Elghanian’s execution, and even more fled as other Jews were executed by the regime.
Since that emotional time, many Iranian Jews living in the United States have preferred to remain mostly silent about their experiences during the revolution because of several factors. They include fear of retaliation against relatives who chose to remain in Iran, a belief that perhaps one day they might return to Iran and reclaim their lost assets and a persistent sense of great shame — albeit unwarranted — at having lost their fortunes and a painful unwillingness to admit that they now have less money than before.
Yet today, even as memories of those days during the revolution’s upheaval remain as fresh as ever in my community, what we learned then seems increasingly relevant today, as relations between the U.S. government and Iran continue to deteriorate. These days, the topic of how to deal with Iran’s current regime are a prominent issue in the U.S. presidential race, and that new relevance has caused many Iranian Jews who did not want to talk about their hardship — who wanted to look forward, not back — to finally begin to reveal personal details of the horrors they faced in Iran during the revolution.
Last summer, at a Sinai Temple Men’s Club meeting, my cousin, Abe Berookhim, a 60-year-old Los Angeles businessman, publicly shared the story of his escape from Iran for the first time, as well as the story of the execution in July 1980 of his Uncle Ebrahim by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. My cousin recalled an emotional exchange he had had with an Iranian ayatollah, pleading for the release of his 31-year-old uncle, who had been arrested and imprisoned on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel and the United States.
“With tears streaming down my face, I told him [the judge] about my uncle’s innocence, but he rejected my pleas,” Berookhim said. “They did not have any answer for killing him and [after the execution] said it was a mistake — it was a mistake that my family and I have been haunted by ever since.”
Jews were not killed en masse; the harassment, arrests and executions seemed random, which was equally terrifying for the community.
Asher Aramnia, who serves as the events director at the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana, a center for Iranian Jews, said his family, too, remains haunted by painful memories of his cousin, Nosrat Goel, who was executed in 1979. Goel, then 38, was killed under the direct orders of the notorious Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali, head of Iran’s then revolutionary courts, Aramnia said.
“She was imprisoned, held overnight in jail for operating her beauty salon in Tehran, which was illegal under the new Islamic laws,” Aramnia said. “That very night, Khalkhali came into the prison and ordered all the prisoners be executed immediately — her family didn’t know of the execution until the next day, when they heard the news on the radio.”
The violence has not ended. According to a 2004 report prepared by L.A. Iranian Jewish activist Frank Nikbakht, since 1979, at least 14 Jews have been murdered or assassinated by the regime’s agents; two more Jews have died while in custody and 11 others have been officially executed. In 2000, 13 Jews from the Iranian city of Shiraz were arrested on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel and faced execution, but as a result of protests by Iranian Jewish groups, many of them here in Los Angeles, as well as activism and support from the larger Jewish community, they were imprisoned but not executed and later were released.
Most Southern California Iranian Jews believe that money was the primary motivation behind the executions of Jews by Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic regime.
“The Iranian regime executed Jews just for the sole purpose of repossessing their assets, frightening some into abandoning millions of dollars in their assets and scaring off others from fighting back against the regime,” Yahid told me.
The Jewish community had prospered under the reign of the shah’s family. Author Habib Levy’s “A Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran” (Mazda Publishers, 1999) describes how during the reign of the Pahlavi dynasty, Jews and other religious minorities experienced unprecedented tolerance, allowing them to build successful businesses. After the revolution, the new Iranian Constitution proclaimed all non-Muslims inferior to Muslims and that non-Muslims must be humiliated and confined to prevent them from gaining any advantage over Muslims, according to Nikbakht.
“One of the first signals to all non-Muslims [in Iran] that they should give up their rights and status came about when new specific Islamic laws in Tehran stated that non-Muslims should not build buildings higher than the Muslim ones,” Nikbakht said. “Elghanian had built the first high-rise building in the city — 15 floors high, and it was blasphemy.”
Iran’s Jews and other religious minorities saw their lives paralyzed as a result of the new discriminatory Shiite Islamic laws. Fahrokh Askari, a 60-something Iranian Jewish grandmother who now lives in Tarzana, recalled her husband’s depression after the revolution.
“My husband worked as a government-employed civil engineer for many years, but after the revolution, he was fired for being Jewish and also prohibited by the government from working in the private sector,” Askari said. “As a result of not being able to earn money for our family, he went into a deep depression and shortly thereafter died of cancer — I blame all of this on the revolution.”
Eventually, Askari fled illegally, like thousands of other Jews who initially stayed on in their homeland during the early years of the revolution — during the 1980s and 1990s, most escaped across the borders of Pakistan or Turkey. These Jews typically paid smugglers to transport them out of the country, a risky move because the punishment for illegally leaving Iran was imprisonment. After escaping, many of the Iranian Jewish refugees were helped by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and given safe haven in Austria while waiting for visas to immigrate to Israel or the United States.
The terror Jews experienced in Iran had a ripple effect on family members living in the United States during the revolution. In the spring of 1980, Kaveh Lahijani was a high school student living in Orange County when he learned that his father, Isaac Lahijani, who was still in Iran, had been kidnapped and held for ransom by unknown armed government thugs.
For the next 26 years, the family heard nothing of Isaac Lahijani’s fate. Kaveh Lahijani’s mother, Farzaneh, and her three children wept for months, unable to hold a memorial because they had no information on whether Isaac was dead or alive. The family continued living in grief until September 2007, when Farzaneh Lahijani finally received an official letter from the Iranian government informing her of her husband’s death.
“After agonizing searching and denials from the Iranian authorities telling my mother to go and come [from Iran] for 26 years, she found out from a two-sentence letter that they indeed had killed my father and that they wanted to pay restitution for his blood,” said Kaveh Lahijani, who, out of a sense of family privacy, would not reveal further details of the resolution.
As sometimes happen during a revolution, not everyone initially believed that the new government would be as destructive and hostile as it turned out to be. While the vast majority of Iranian Jews in Southern California say they opposed the Iranian revolutionaries at the outset, a small minority admit that they initially supported the overriding objectives of greater freedom that were promised at the beginning of the revolution.
Said Banayan, now a Los Angeles accountant in his late 60s, was among the minority. He co-founded the Enlightened Thinkers, a Jewish group that initially advocated support for the revolution against what he saw as an oppressive monarchy.
“We formed this group in order to show the rest of the people in Iran that we Jews were not woven from a different fabric of society than other Iranians, but that we also supported [the new government’s professed] goals for democracy and freedom,” Banayan said. “We hoped that we may be able to enjoy new freedoms under the new regime, but at that time, we could not foresee how the new government, run by the mullahs, would mistreat the people of Iran for their own economic gain.”
Banayan said the Enlightened Thinkers was not popular among the majority of Iran’s Jewish community at first but later received wide support within the community, faced with the fact that Iran’s majority Muslim population had felt oppressed by the shah’s reign and largely supported the revolution.
“This was a movement that we supported because we honestly believed in its principles of greater freedom and democracy,” Banayan remembered.
The conflicted feelings among older Iranian Jews here also include a great deal of nostalgia and love for their former homeland, despite the difficulties and pain they endured as a result of the revolution.
“I miss Iran very much,” said professor Nahid Pirnazar, who teaches Judeo-Persian studies at UCLA. “I miss my college days there. I enjoyed Iran very much, and I never personally experienced any persecutions, but I don’t think they didn’t exist.”
According to various estimates, today somewhere between 40,000 and 45,000 Iranian Jews live in Southern California and between 10,000 and 15,000 in New York. Roughly 20,000 Jews are believed to be living in Iran, and 150,000 Jews of direct or mixed Iranian descent live in Israel. Approximately 3,000 to 5,000 Iranian Jews live elsewhere in the United States and 5,000 in Canada.
Some local Iranian Jews say the long-term impact of the Iranian revolution has proven beneficial for them. Despite their losses, many community members who resettled in Southern California and New York have regained their prosperity, benefited from greater educational opportunity and enjoyed far more religious freedom, while still retaining their sense of a tight-knit community that upholds many of the ancient Iranian Jewish traditions.
“After 30 years, I think we’re doing very well as far as keeping our identity, and there is no reason we should lose our identity as Iranian Jews while we are becoming acculturated here,” Pirnazar said. “For an immigrant community that has only been here for a short time, we have done very well, and I’m very proud to say that I’m an Iranian Jew.”
So where are we today?
Some — a very small minority — of Iranian Jews were able to extract their wealth from Iran before the revolution, but the majority were forced to rebuild their lives and new businesses in the United States, Israel and Europe. During the last 30 years, the community in Los Angeles has established more than two dozen Jewish schools and synagogues. In 2002, one of the most prominent community organizations, Nessah Synagogue, acquired a location in Beverly Hills for more than $10 million.
As a result of their hard work, savvy business sense and their valuing higher education, a number of families in the community today have become very successful. Specifically, members of the Nazarian family are major shareholders in the telecommunications giant Qualcomm, along with ownership in hotels and nightclubs in the L.A. area. Other local Iranian Jewish families, including the Namvars and Delijanis, generated their substantial wealth as a result of their extensive real estate holdings in downtown Los Angeles and elsewhere.
In 2002, the Iranian Jewish Merage family sold their privately held corporation, Chef America, which manufactured the popular Hot Pockets frozen foods, for $2.6 billion to Nestle. Iranian Jewish businessman Isaac Larian heads MGA Entertainment, producers of the popular Bratz dolls, which since their introduction in June 2001 have grown into a billion-dollar franchise.
Iranian Jews in Southern California have also ventured into politics and fully embraced America’s democracy since their exile. Most notable is Jimmy Delshad, a businessman in the computer products industry, who was elected a Beverly Hills councilman and then made national news when he became mayor of the city for one term in 2007.
Last January, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa named Iranian Jewish attorney H. David Nahai general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, overseeing one of the largest public utilities in the country.
Local Iranian Jewish leaders are optimistic about the community’s future, despite having encountered difficulties in acculturation in America during the 30 years since the revolution.
“I believe a healthy integration, in which we are an active part of the American Jewry, will not eradicate a 2,500-year-old identity,” said Dr. Morgan Hakimi, president of Nessah Synagogue. “On the contrary, I believe this will enable our younger generation to develop a stronger Jewish identity, as well as self esteem.”