Published in The Jerusalem Post on June 27, 1999
Khameni, Khatami, Kahrazzi, Jannati, Yazdi and Yunsi. I’ve lost track of all the feuding, power-struggling Ayatollah’s over there in Iran.
One thing I know: the Iranian holy men and Shiite statesmen are holding over 20 innocent Iranian Jews — very old men, teachers, a cemetery caretaker, a butcher and several children — on outrageously trumped-up charges of “espionage” and threatening them with hanging.
And I feel horribly powerless to help my brethren.
Psychologically, the arrests are a throw-back to the bad old days of Soviet dictatorship, when Russian Jews were vulnerable to despotic vicissitudes and regularly were persecuted for “Jewish and Zionist activities”.
Back then, Jews all around the world took to the streets and halls of parliament to demonstrate and lobby on behalf of Soviet Jewry. We possessed a powerful urge, not so long ago, to do something for our imprisoned brethren; not to sit idly and weakly by, not to remain silent. The biblical question “hashomer achi anochi” – are we our brother’s keeper? – was answered with a resounding, yes!
It worked. And since then the State of Israel has gone on to rescue Ethiopian Jewry. It’s been very comfortable to live as a Jew in this world feeling secure in the knowledge that Jewish influence globally, and Israel’s power specifically, would protect Jews everywhere.
That is why the arrests in Iran are so unnerving. It has been a long while since, as a Jew, I felt this helpless, this naked.
There are anywhere from 17,000 to 30,000 Jews left in Iran. We all know that Western and Israeli influence on Iran — especially on Iranian domestic politics which is probably the root cause here — is extremely limited. Indeed, quiet diplomatic efforts to secure the release of the imprisoned Jews *were* underway for several months – but apparently failed.
What makes me even more uncomfortable is that our avenues of access to Teheran run through Europe and Russia. It is the French, Germans and Russians — Persia’s self-centered business partners who have been happily and freely selling military technology and weapon systems to the Iranians – upon whom we now have to rely for assistance.
Not that I won’t be very appreciative of any assistance rendered. Germany deserves top kudos for its decision last week to postpone a visit to Berlin by Iranian President Mohammed Khatemi in protest against the arrests. And the French Foreign Minister publicly called the arrests “intolerable”. Strong language for the French.
That is more, unfortunately, than the Pope could bring himself to say. The Cardinal in charge of relations with the Jewish community released a feeble statement saying that “this is of course a matter of concern… and you may be sure that the Holy See is following the matter closely”. Gee.
The Unites States, no doubt, will do everything in its power to help, but few people in Isfahan and Shiraz owe political favors to Bill Clinton and the US Congress, or are terribly influenced by editorials in The New York Times. Washington has some economic leverage, and last week demonstratively blocked a move at the World Bank to approve 200 million dollars in funding for health and sewage projects in Iran.
Then there is Russia, which by all accounts is deeply involved in Iran’s non-conventional weapons and missile development programs. This ought to buy Moscow some influence in Teheran — but why should it bother?
Kind of hard to expect Moscow to be all that responsive to Washington after all the Kosovo bitterness. And Congress has a plethora of “anti-Russian” bills on its table, many generated by the pro-Israel lobby, threatening sanctions unless Moscow ends its military and missile cooperation with Iran.
Which leaves us with God – and ourselves. Time for Jews the world over to speak up and put the pressure on.
International protest activity aimed at embarrassing Teheran may or may not impact favorably on Iranian decision-making – the experts simply don’t know. But no-one can definitively rule out its usefulness, either. Remember that early on people doubted the efficacy of the movement to free Soviet Jewry.
The “trials” in Iran could be held soon so there is no time to waste. Whenever Iranian leaders travel and wherever an Iranian embassy exists human rights demonstrators should be out there chanting “Let My People Go!”
French Jews have been the first to mobilize in this fashion, with street protests that the French press and harassed Iranian diplomats haven’t been able to ignore. Perhaps the activity will strengthen President Khatemi’s hand in combating his radical clerical opponents.
And finally, brotherhood begins at home. When is the big Israeli rally for the freedom of Iranian Jewry? Complete with the usual singing artists and perhaps some prayers too. A rally attended by a million Israelis and widely covered by the international press. How about next Saturday night in Rabin Square?