It is generally admitted that anti-Semitism is on the increase, that it has been greatly exacerbated by the war, and that humane and enlightened people are not immune to it. —George Orwell, 1945
On a pleasant afternoon in early September of 1987, I was among a group of Iranians gathered under the overpass on the southeast corner of 42nd Street and First Avenue in New York City to protest President Ali Khamenei’s visit to the United Nations for the annual meeting of the General Assembly. Those were the good old days when the opposition spoke out, when their fury with the regime surpassed self-pity, nostalgia, and empty patriotism. Back then I was a welcome anomaly in the midst of activists whose politics ranged from moderate socialism to radical Maoism. I was the youngest and a new arrival in their group, most of whom had come to America as students in the mid-1970s. To their botched hope of a revolution, I had been a witness, a promising poet to serenade the lost cause. That I was a Jew went unmentioned. We were above such banalities. We were revolutionaries.
As we began the rituals of protest, our leader picked up a bullhorn and began shouting slogans, and the rest of us circled him, holding our shabby placards, chanting in refrain. Quickly amassing across the street on the north side of 42nd was a much larger crowd, there to demonstrate for the freedom of Soviet Jewry. We were all of 40 at best, equipped with only a bullhorn—they were hundreds who sounded like thousands because they had a truck loaded with loudspeakers and a marching band complete with drums and cymbals. Within minutes after they began, our voices became inaudible to ourselves, and we had to stop. Leaning against the police barricade, we lingered awhile to watch the competition. Then a fellow protester took his eyes off them and said wistfully: “Hitler should have killed all of them when he’d the chance.”
Standing beside me, Kambiz, whose impressive mustache was no second to Stalin’s, said, “Don’t say such things! You’ll upset Roya here. She’ s a Jew.”
Over the years, there have been other less chilling, but equally telling, incidents. Often, I have merely listened and watched each unfold, more as their spectator than a subject. My sense of identity has always been so grounded in how I’d defined myself—a secular Iranian writer—that I hardly ever paused to take offense. When others remarked that most Iranian Jews lived on Long Island or in Los Angeles, I never failed to say, “Well, that’s why I’m not there!”—hoping for my poor humor to do the reasoning my intellect had not yet done.
On that September day, I said nothing to the fellow protester, nor did I criticize Kambiz for his anemic objection. Because I did not see myself first and foremost as a Jew, I assumed others shared my vision of myself. I was also doing what I’d seen other Jews, perhaps all minorities in undemocratic communities, including Jews elsewhere throughout history, intuitively do: I got along. I wanted to be the “good one.” The loyal one. The one so well-adjusted that she was indistinguishable from their very own. Among non-Jewish Iranians, in order to “pass” seamlessly, accomplished Jews dispensed with Jewish diction, dialect, and mannerisms; they limited their use of Hebrew names to the inner circle and instead put on chic Persian names for the public. Upon coming to America, I instantly felt at ease among black Americans, as if we both knew how to dial our personas up or down just so to blend in the wavelength of the powerful. Time and time again, I’d hear myself or other fellow Jews be praised for being so “Iranian” that “one would never know [you] were a Jew.” A good Jew was an undetectable Jew. To be that, one would maneuver, but not confront.
When I bothered, I would convey my offense by picking on semantics. I would mention that the proper term to refer to a Jewish person in Persian was Yahoudi or Kalimi and not the derogatory “Johoud,” which most of my friends used and which maybe psychologically approximates the term “nigger” in the American vernacular. In return, I was occasionally told that the real trouble was not with the word, but with my sensitivity toward it. It was I who needed to correct my perspective, see a word as just a word. “Enteghad va Enteghad az khod”—“to see critically and to exercise self-criticism,” I was reminded. Without those traits, one could not be a true member of the vanguard. Thus I chalked up my visceral displeasure to mere unpreparedness for the trials of a true socialist.
In the darkest hour of Iran’s post-revolutionary era, and later in my early years of tortured transition to life in America, my leftist compatriots were my self-fashioned raft. Some belonged to the old Communist Party of Iran, the Tudeh Party, others shunned the Tudeh for its strong allegiance to the Soviet Union or were simply more radical in their approach to political change. But all, pro-Soviet and not, were obliterated soon after the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran in November of 1979. Once the world’s eyes were fixed on the 52 hostages, the regime declared open season on the left and went about annihilating them systematically by arresting, torturing, executing, or conducting extra-judicial assassinations on those who had fled the country.
Still, it was they who took the teenager seriously, showed me the redemptive value of literature, especially modern Persian poetry, and got me to see beyond my “self” by demanding empathy from me. In a country where austerity had instantly become a most celebrated virtue, they lavishly furnished my hungry mind with the tunes of pan-flutes of Latin American bands, the writings of Roman Roland, the poetry of Mayakovsky.
These friends got me to replace my petty anxieties with much grander ones. I was to preoccupy myself with the plight of the mineworkers of Bolivia, pray for the struggling Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the Northern Ireland nationalists, keep alive the memory of Native Americans, and march on behalf of the displaced Palestinians. Somehow this proved the best antidote for the discontented adolescent at the time.
But even at the time, it puzzled me why the dwindling community of Iran’s own Jews never fell within the otherwise generous purview of their concerns. In 1977, that ancient community had more than 100,000 members. Today fewer than 10,000 remain. Such drastic diminishment of any population in the West would surely place that community on the endangered list, warranting the issuing of buttons and stickers, pasted on car bumpers and the binders of idealistic freshmen in colleges. But somehow Bolivia was closer to the hearts of my compatriots than Ju-bareh, the Jewish district of their own Isfahan, where, as it happens, Jews had, indeed, built underground tunnels to alert each other when pogroms broke out.
The extinction of a community to which Iran owes so much of its distinction as a non-Arab nation, a distinction so important to the Iranian sense of self, has never been recognized by Iran’s elite, nor eulogized, for with the loss of the Jewish community Iran’s claim to tolerance and Persian-ness will be harder to sustain. And so a nearly 3,000-year history is ending in silence. The Jews who had aspired to anonymity throughout their life in Iran are becoming extinct in anonymity now. If Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not manage to wipe Israel off the map of the world, his revolution surely has just about wiped the Jewish community off the map of Iran.
Of the 90,000 Iranian Jews who have been displaced since 1979, possibly half emigrated to Israel. These were the less-well-off Jews, the “proletariat” of the community who could not afford to go elsewhere. My aunt and her family were among them. In January 1979, in a town called Khonssar, an angry mob of anti-Shah demonstrators set fire to the fabric shop the family ran. In the rolls of fabric they kept in the store, they had tucked their life’s savings in cash. When the shop burned, so did their future. And so did their home, for they lived on the story above.
In the thousands of posts that avid secular Iranians have placed on social media since the start of the recent war in Gaza, as in the numerous articles they penned, statements they signed and speeches they gave over the years, there has never been a mention of their own uprooted Jews. Palestine, they have consistently demanded, must be returned to the Palestinians. But not once a contemplation on what was to become of those who made their home there because the revolution they helped usher into the country drove them out of their ancient homeland. Reams of translations and invocations of the literature of wronged communities—of poetry of Langston Hughes, for instance, and of the suffering of African Americans under slavery—but not a word about the gas chambers of the Nazis. In what they have not done, this so-called Iranian leftist vanguard is denying the Holocaust just as much as the president they opposed did.
In the thousands of posts on the “apartheid” in Israel, there has been none about the apartheid in Iran, the one where Jews (like other non-Muslims) cannot testify in a criminal trial against a Muslim. Thousands of posts on the alleged genocide committed against the Gazans, not a word about disappearance of Iranian Jews from Hamedan, for instance, where of the rule of the Jewish Queen Esther, only an abandoned tomb remains. The wrongs done to the Jews of Iran do not wash away the wrongs done against the Palestinians. But how can the necessity of Israel as a Jewish homeland be so readily dismissed by those who have been the culprits of the displacement and extinction of a community of their own?
It is far too easy to resort to “anti-Semitism” as the explanation for what is ailing my compatriots, though it cannot be ruled out. Having observed them for as long as I have known them and myself, I have come to see their profound loss as the single most formative, and tragic, force of their lives. Once the Young Turks of their own era, they are now reaching the end of their lives in Iran or in diaspora, their destinies determined and ruled by a lesser sort—less educated, less erudite, less debonair, less sophisticated: mullahs who outwitted them in a Trojan moment. The innocuously turbaned giant they allowed into the country in February of 1979 proved to be their archenemy. They lost Iran, then they lost their hope in the Soviet Union as a utopia. Of all the things that used to define, bind and unify them, nothing is left today.
Nothing, that is, but their antagonism to Israel. Israel is the one cause around which their disarrayed lot can still unify, to reclaim a modicum of their old revolutionary glory. And it is cost-free, too. So many of these aging and ailing opposition figures, who had sworn off traveling to Iran until the mullahs were gone, are now dual citizens, returning to the bosom of families and communities after decades of separation. To keep their travel privileges, there is much that they keep silent about. But bashing Israel and the Jews, where their convictions miraculously overlap with those of the archenemy—well, that gets their passports renewed. Besides, for the more visible figures, it may even land them an interview or two on national television.
In the meantime, several promising signs point to a different attitude emerging among average Iranians, as documented in the latest ADL’s report on the state of anti-Semitism globally. A far more pragmatic generation, disenchanted with the regime and even more so with their “enlightened” predecessors, is rising throughout Iran.
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