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The successful movement to save Soviet Jewry offers some valuable lessons for Iranian Americans seeking democracy in the Islamic Republic

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Planting trees in support of Soviet Jews, 1975; demonstrating against the Iranian regime, 2009. (Collage: Tablet Magazine; ceremony: Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest; anti-Iran signs: Ramin Talaie/Getty Images and Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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 “Khamenei qaateleh, velaayatesh baateleh!” (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 Iran’s beloved pre-revolutionary national anthem. “What’s that song?” a passerby—precisely the sort of Bostonian who should have been inspired by our message of free elections and human rights—asked me. “Why don’t you sing the American anthem?” 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 didn’t help that a small group of keffiyeh-clad, pro-Hamas counter-demonstrators had decided to share Boston’s 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 organizers’ insistence on personalizing the issue. They put the suffering of individual Soviet Jews and imprisoned dissidents—chief among them Anatoly Sharansky—at the forefront and made sure they became household names. “Its ability to personalize the problem was really the great success of the Soviet Jewry movement,” Klein Halevi told me. “We 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.” 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 Neda’s life—captured on a cell-phone camera and seen by millions of YouTube viewers—became the Iranian movement’s 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 Iran’s 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 Iran’s 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 don’t Americans know their names?

Play Congress Against the White House When Necessary

To force a reluctant Nixon Administration’s hand, the Soviet Jewry movement turned to Congress. “The movement was forced upon the administration by Congress, which is a more populist institution.” Beckerman explained to me. “For many members of Congress, the thinking went, ‘I have nothing to gain by listening but I have something to lose if I don’t listen.’ They projected an image of greater strength than they actually had. You were talking about five housewives in Cleveland who are just calling their congressman’s office every day, but it worked.”

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, who—for all their differences—viscerally 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 monolithic—and supernaturally powerful—ideological 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 establishment—carefully attuned to the needs of successive American administrations—feared 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, “any 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 dancers—you were just as loud as possible.”

A more substantive disagreement arose over the final destination of Ă©migrĂ©s streaming out of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Jews’ first waypoint was in Vienna, where they were processed and sent onward to Israel, helping boost the Jewish state’s 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. “For the Israelis, the movement was an entirely Zionist one,” Beckerman said. “But 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 shouldn’t tell them where to go.”

Nevertheless—and here’s the lesson for Iranians—the 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 yesterday’s imagined utopias. “What we’re seeing among the Iranian-American opposition is a reflection of the weakness of the Iranian opposition in general,” Hadi Ghaemi, who heads the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, told me. “That weakness can be attributed to the brutal repression inside and campaign of assassinations abroad, which has deprived the opposition of an effective leadership.”

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.

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This is a great piece, Sohrab, and points not only to some analogies between the two movements but to some real and potential affinities.

Maybe you could direct interested readers here to opportunities for working to promote the broad goal of bringing, or re-establishing, democratic government in Iran.

Sohrab Ahmari says:

Hi Roy:

Many thanks for your kind words. I rarely comment on pieces I publish but I was moved by your interest in helping the cause. There are any number of things that you can do to help dissidents trapped in Iran and other prison-states: from calling your representatives (or MEPs if you’re Europe-based) to submitting letters to the editor speaking up for individual prisoners of conscience.

Depending on where you live, you can also reach out to your local Iranian-American community. Attending anti-regime rallies held by the exiles gives a huge moral boost; they need non-Iranian allies. (Though be warned of course that there are paranoid cranks in these communities who harbor abhorrent views about any number of issues. Iranians can also be very insular, so it might take some effort on your part.)

Wonderful piece Sohrab, thank you for exposing the fact that both groups that profess to speak for Iranian-Americans–NIAC and the MKO–are in fact only representative of a few thousands fanatics!

I wonder whether some prominent Iranian American figures might be positioned as spokespersons–in the way that Solzhenitsyn in this country served as a potent critic of the Soviet system. I don’t know whether that would imperil any family they had that remained in Iran, but it wouldn’t be difficult to come up with a shortlist of individuals whose personal achievements in the arts and scientists lent them the intellectual and moral heft to draw attention to the cause.

Additionally, given the entangled strands of Persian and Jewish history, it seems tragic to allow the official estrangement between Israel and Iran inhibit the building of ties at the individual and community level–beyond what already exists. The status quo won’t last forever, and I would think the richness of our shared heritage would provide a basis for a renewed relationship at some point in the future.

Incidentally, I have a facebook connection with Iranian American Youth, having some friends involved with them, but it’s DC based, and I’m in New York.

Great piece. Inspiring if frustrating. Iranians are capable of better. They deserve our support and trust that whatever comes after the Mullahs will be an improvement.

Dietz Ziechmann says:

This is a valuable insight into Iranian dissident politics. I wish your movement well. Don’t forget repression of the Ba’hai. A big distraction is the Iranian nuclear program. The government wants nuclear power (lacking an efficient petroleum-refining and utilization industry)and may or may not want a small nuclear arsenal for prestige and/or deterrence purposes against the West and the state of Israel. But measures taken against the regime must not be projected as anti-Iranian, as I think Obama has tried to do. It’s something of a balancing act.


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The successful movement to save Soviet Jewry offers some valuable lessons for Iranian Americans seeking democracy in the Islamic Republic

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