The successful movement to save Soviet Jewry offers some valuable lessons for Iranian Americans seeking democracy in the Islamic Republic
Still, there were heated debates about, among other things, the use of Persian-language slogans. While the younger organizers called for an English-only affair, we ultimately had to acquiesce to our communal elders. Needless to say, awkwardness ensued when non-Iranian attendees were asked to chant âKhamenei qaateleh, velaayatesh baateleh!â (Khamenei is a murderer, his guardianship null and voided!) Near the end of the rally, the older Iranians treated attendees to an impromptu rendition of Iranâs beloved pre-revolutionary national anthem. âWhatâs that song?â a passerbyâprecisely the sort of Bostonian who should have been inspired by our message of free elections and human rightsâasked me. âWhy donât you sing the American anthem?â he asked. My insistence that we had in fact sung the American anthem, and my efforts to bring him to our side, were in vain; he had already written us off as yet another bunch of angry Middle Easterners chanting in a harsh-sounding, alien tongue. (It didnât help that a small group of keffiyeh-clad, pro-Hamas counter-demonstrators had decided to share Bostonâs Copley Square with us that day.)
Personalize the Plight of Dissidents
One of the most powerful aspects of the movement to save Soviet Jewry was the organizersâ insistence on personalizing the issue. They put the suffering of individual Soviet Jews and imprisoned dissidentsâchief among them Anatoly Sharanskyâat the forefront and made sure they became household names. âIts ability to personalize the problem was really the great success of the Soviet Jewry movement,â Klein Halevi told me. âWe promoted the names of prisoners of conscience, and people in the community began to know not just Soviet Jewry but Ruth Alexandrovich and Boris Kochubievsky. American Jews took those personal stories and brought them to Congress, and congresspeople adopted Soviet Jewish prisoners, or refuseniks.â During the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan and members of his administration prefaced meetings with their Soviet counterparts by inquiring about the status of individual Soviet Jews.
The Iranian pro-democracy cause has its own Sharanskys, Alexandroviches, and Kochubievskys. In the brutal crackdown that followed the stolen 2009 election, the Iranian pro-democracy movement found its first young martyr in Neda Agha Soltan, the beautiful young woman gunned down by security forces on the streets of Tehran. The heart-wrenching last few seconds of Nedaâs lifeâcaptured on a cell-phone camera and seen by millions of YouTube viewersâbecame the Iranian movementâs rallying cry.
But Iranians and their compatriots in the diaspora need more than martyrs. Much more can be done to spotlight the plight of individual prisoners currently confined in Iranâs nightmarish political prisons. The human-rights lawyer Nasrin Sotudeh, who has represented prominent dissidents, the Ayatollah Hossein Kazemeyni Boroujerdi, an outspoken advocate of the separation of mosque and state, and the labor organizer Reza Shahabi, who co-founded Iranâs first independent labor union, are just a few latter-day Sharanskys. All three are serving long, unjust sentences on bogus charges; all are at constant risk of torture. Why donât Americans know their names?
Play Congress Against the White House When Necessary
To force a reluctant Nixon Administrationâs hand, the Soviet Jewry movement turned to Congress. âThe movement was forced upon the administration by Congress, which is a more populist institution.â Beckerman explained to me. âFor many members of Congress, the thinking went, âI have nothing to gain by listening but I have something to lose if I donât listen.â They projected an image of greater strength than they actually had. You were talking about five housewives in Cleveland who are just calling their congressmanâs office every day, but it worked.â
Iranian American advocacy on Capitol Hill, however, is comprised of numerous individuals and organizations, each more unprofessional than the next, clamoring for a self-contradictory gamut of Iranian causes. The two most coherent voices on Iran issues also happen to be the most odious: the National Iranian American Council, often accused of unofficially lobbying for the clerical regime, and the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, the Islamo-Marxist cult that helped the regime come to power but then was viciously crushed by the Khomeinists as they consolidated power in the aftermath of the revolution. The first group was notoriously reticent about addressing human rights issues prior to the 2009 uprising, advancing instead an uncannily mullah-friendly agenda that has discredited it among most Iranian Americans, whoâfor all their differencesâviscerally despise the regime. Meanwhile, having allied itself with Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war, the second group enjoys little support beyond its dogmatic adherents. In other words, the time has come for Iranian Americans to develop a credible alternative voice in Washington that truly reflects their values.
Set Aside the Politics of Nostalgia and Establish the Communal Bottom-Line
Beyond these practical steps, there is the sensitive question of ideology. Iranians often imagine American Jews forming a monolithicâand supernaturally powerfulâideological bloc. But as the history of the Soviet Jewry movement demonstrates, the Jewish community was, as it is today, deeply divided on both tactical and ideological questions. For one thing, the grassroots nature of the movement frequently irritated the Jewish establishment. The establishmentâcarefully attuned to the needs of successive American administrationsâfeared that the bold, rambunctious grassroots might alienate the White House and jeopardize the entire range of Jewish causes. But from the perspective of the grassroots, said Beckerman, âany opportunity to make noise was an opportunity to make noise. So, when the Bolshoi Ballet would come to your town in Ohio, you would organize a picket of one thousand people outside and activists inside throwing stuff at the dancersâyou were just as loud as possible.â
A more substantive disagreement arose over the final destination of Ă©migrĂ©s streaming out of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Jewsâ first waypoint was in Vienna, where they were processed and sent onward to Israel, helping boost the Jewish stateâs population. But by the late 1970s, the vast majority of the Ă©migrĂ©s were choosing to stay in the West with the help of Jewish refugee agencies, causing friction with the Israeli government. âFor the Israelis, the movement was an entirely Zionist one,â Beckerman said. âBut American Jews were torn: On the one hand, they wanted to help Israel, and on the other, to respect the principle that if someone is fleeing a totalitarian regime, you shouldnât tell them where to go.â
Neverthelessâand hereâs the lesson for Iraniansâthe community as a whole found a way to transcend this dispute, to establish a bottom-line objective: freeing Jews from Communist tyranny. At the end of the day, that was shared by everyone from Los Angeles to Washington to Jerusalem.
So far, Iranian Americans have been unable to establish a similar bottom line. The generation exiled by the revolution is hopelessly trapped by a politics of nostalgia: Fierce debates still rage among old-school leftists and liberals, monarchists, secular-nationalists, and reformists. Far too much energy is spent settling old scores rather than focusing on the threat at hand: theocratic misrule.
But, above all, it is the ruthlessness of the regime in crushing dissent that has driven many Iranian exiles to abandon politics altogether or else to seek comfort in yesterdayâs imagined utopias. âWhat weâre seeing among the Iranian-American opposition is a reflection of the weakness of the Iranian opposition in general,â Hadi Ghaemi, who heads the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, told me. âThat weakness can be attributed to the brutal repression inside and campaign of assassinations abroad, which has deprived the opposition of an effective leadership.â
Overcoming these challenges will no doubt take time and the emergence of a new generation of Iranian Americans comfortable with the language and spirit of American activism. Time, however, is something Iranians do not have. As the Iranian regime becomes ever more repressive at home and threatens to spark a regional war, the Iranian diaspora in the United States needs to get organized.
Newt Gingrich says the Palestinians are an âinvented people.â They are, like many others in the Middle East. Itâs a useful myth the U.S. must support.