Jews who fled Iran after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 have still not come to terms with the calamity of their uprooting, although many have done well in the US. Karmel Melamed reviews their story forty years on in The Times of Israel.
LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Asher Aramnia, an 83-year-old Iranian Jewish businessman living in Los Angeles, fought back tears recently when recalling his beloved cousin, who was randomly executed by Iran’s Islamic regime 40 years ago for the crime of operating a women’s beauty parlor there.
Aramnia is among the thousands of local Iranian Jews who are recalling the painful memories of the violence, imprisonment, anti-Semitism and total chaos they encountered 40 years ago after the Iranian regime’s late dictator, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, took power in Iran.
“We grew up together. I was devastated when hearing the news of her execution because she was supposed to be released from prison that very day,” said Aramnia, who arrived in the US only a few years before the revolution. He asked that his late cousin’s name be withheld because family members living in America still fear potential reprisals from the Iranian regime.
Soldiers carrying posters of Ayatollah Khomeini during the 1979 Islamic Revolution (Photo: Keystone/ Getty images)
The nightmare for Iran’s Jews began on February 1, 1979, when the exiled Khomeini returned to Iran, quickly dissolved the monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and shortly after established a new fundamentalist Islamic state. Practically overnight, the new theocratic regime eliminated 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.
The new regime also quickly executed several prominent Jews in the country, 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 the new government confiscated millions of dollars in assets.
“The Islamic Revolution was a horrific calamity for Iran’s Jews since our lives were suddenly turned upside down when Khomeini took power,” said Joe Shooshani, a businessman and Beverly Hills city planning commissioner who arrived prior to the revolution.
“Those of us who were able to adapt to our new lives in America have done well, and those who were unable to do so have suffered a lot.”
Under the late 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 third-class citizens, and the atmosphere of hostility led thousands of them to flee the country after 2,700 years of living there.
Looking back, the trauma of that flight has left deep wounds within the Iranian-American Jewish community, which today, according to activists’ estimates, is approximately 40,000 in Los Angeles and 25,000 in New York. The Jewish community in Iran, which numbered 80,000 prior to 1979, now numbers between 5,000 and 8,000.