Tag: Jewish refugees/Iran

The Iranian Jews who joined the Islamic revolution

Lior Sternfeld, author of “Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran” (Stanford University Press, 2018) is not best pleased with Tehran, the new Israeli Netflix series, because it shows a Jew putting family before loyalty to the Iranian revolution. The downfall of the Shah of Iran, he tells Ofer Aderet of Haaretz, was supported by ‘a great majority’ of Jews. It is true that Jews have always been active in revolutionary movements (the Russian revolution, the FLN in Algeria, etc) but Sternfeld is in danger of exaggerating Jewish support of for change –  and whitewashing the oppressive antisemitism of the Islamic revolution. (Sternfeld has form here). The revolution caused untold suffering to Jews, claimed the lives of dozens, dispossessed them of their property and forced the great majority into exile without bothering to establish what their politics were.

Protesters attacking the offices of El Al in 1978

On the eve of the revolution they saw themselves as an integral part of the Iranian nation and identified with the people’s struggle for democracy, independence, freedom and equality. Sternfeld describes how many of them experienced the shah’s tyranny and his dictatorship as Iranians, not only as Jews.

 From there the way was short to their integration in diverse political groups and organizations, whose common denominator was their opposition to the shah’s authoritarian monarchic regime.

This was the background to the establishment of the organization of Jewish intellectuals in Iran in 1978, which gave expression to the Jews’ dissatisfaction with the monarchical regime.

The organization immediately started to cooperate with other revolutionary factions, including Muslim activists. “We formed this group in order to show the rest of the people in Iran that we Jews were not woven from a different fabric of society than other Iranians, but that we also supported goals for democracy and freedom,” Said Banayan, one of the organization’s founders, told Sternfeld.

The author sees this as an example that illustrates well that the Jews “stood shoulder to shoulder with their compatriots and placed the national need ahead of the needs of the community.”

Aderet:   There is an irony here. It was the shah who drew the minorities, including the Jews, closer to Iranian nationalism, and then they joined the 1979 revolution in order to topple the regime. Accordingly, you title the chapter dealing with this “Unintended Consequences.”

 “Correct. The shah’s nationalism project scored a success to the point where the Jews were able to think of themselves first of all as Iranians, and to go into the streets in protest against the situation of the Iranians, and not only to think about relations between the shah and the Jews. The great majority of the Jews were against the continuation of the monarchy and supported the looming revolution.”

There were also Jews who participated actively in the fighting, though their exact number is unknown. Some of them did so within the framework of their activity in Iranian professional organizations or in explicitly Jewish organizations.

Others were active in organizations that were almost wholly Muslim and that supported the revolution. One of those organizations was Mujahedin-e Khalq (People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran). One of the Jewish activists in the organization was Edna Sabet, who was born in 1955 to a Tehran Jewish family from the urban middle class, and many of whose relatives were engineers and industrialists who acquired their education in the United States.

 During her years of study at Ariyamehr Technical University in Tehran, Sabet began to become involved in political activity.

Subsequently, in the wake of her Muslim husband, she joined the Mujahedin and became a prominent figure in the movement. The members of the movement fought alongside the revolutionaries against the shah’s oppressive regime, but after the revolution they were denied the right to take part in the elections and they opposed the new regime and were persecuted by it.

Among those who suffered that fate was Sabet: She was arrested and executed in 1982, at the age of 27. What was a left-wing Jewish woman doing in an Islamic revolutionary organization in the first place? “Despite her tragic end, her story illustrates another aspect in the complex weave of identities and loyalties that characterized many of those from her generation,” Sternfeld says.

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Iranian Jewess hopes for Purim salvation in Holland

With the festival of Purim beginning tonight, it seems appropriate to feature the story of Sipora, an Iranian-Jewish refugee in Holland. Sipora was sentenced to death in her native Iran for helping abused wives, but has not been offered asylum by the Dutch authorities, who are tightening up their immigration policies. She could go to Israel, but fears putting her husband, still in Iran, at risk. (In the past, Israel has insisted on being the sole destination for Jewish asylum seekers: it is not clear if this is also a factor in Sipora’s case). JTA reports:

Sipora at her daughter’s house in Holland (photo: Cnaan Lipshiz)

Sipora, 60, was sentenced in absentia to death by public execution in 2013 by a Tehran court that convicted her of “violating Islamic rules [of the] Islamic Revolution” and “anti-regime activity.” Her crime: running an underground organization that found housing solutions for women with abusive husbands who could not obtain a divorce.

 Luckily for Sipora, she had already left Iran a year prior to her sentencing to help with the pregnancy of her daughter — herself a political refugee who has been living in the Netherlands since fleeing her native land in 2010. Sipora’s daughter, Rebecca, fled in connection with her involvement in the making of a documentary film about the fight for democracy in Iran.

 “A few weeks after I came to Holland, I called my husband on the telephone. He asked me to go on Skype. I knew something was wrong,” Sipora recalled.

Sipora’s husband of over 40 years, a Jewish building contractor with a heart condition, told her online that Iran’s dreaded secret police were looking for her and other members of her group.

“In that moment I knew there is no going back,” Sipora recalled.

 Unfortunately for her, Sipora’s legal troubles back home coincided with a toughening of immigration policies in the Netherlands, where the center-right ruling party is bleeding votes in favor of the anti-Islam Party for Freedom, which favors a shutdown of immigration from Muslim countries.

 Rebecca received a temporary residency permit and later citizenship without delay even though she had no death sentence against her in Iran. Meanwhile, the Dutch Immigration and Naturalization Service has consistently declined requests by Sipora two years later. Instead, she is in legal limbo — neither granted asylum nor deported, despite her whereabouts being known to authorities.

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Wishing all Point of No Return readers a Happy Purim!

A tale of horror and escape from the Ayatollahs

Houman Goshe and his mother, Eti Sionit Goshen ( Photo:Yehoshua Yosef)

Eti Sionit Goshen was a 35-year-old mother of two under the regime of the Ayatollahs in Iran. As an employee in a government office she was well-placed to embark on a new career – forging documents for young Jews desperate to escape. (To be drafted into the Iranian army, then at war with Iraq, was a death sentence). Eti was denounced, jailed and tortured and it was ten years before she was able to escape herself to Israel. She  tells her hair-raising tale of horror  to Yariv Peleg of Israel Hayom. Read it all. (With thanks: Lily)

“One day, by chance, I saw a top secret document with an order barring Jewish emigration from Iran. I was mortified. I told my husband, and we started thinking about what could be done. Tehran has a rabbi named Baruch Hacham, who would help the young people escape somehow. The smugglers would charge a lot of money and it was a very dangerous road. Many were caught and thrown in jail.

 “My father-in-law had just died, and they [Houshang’s family] decided to try and get two older brothers out [of Iran] through Hacham, but they were caught near the border and thrown in jail. My husband went to get them and was beaten up. But he paid a bribe and got them back. They then decided to try and smuggle the two younger brothers out. They were only 15 and 16, and so many soldiers had died in the war the army was starting to recruit really young boys.

“Iranians lend great importance to identity. They would always ask, ‘Are you Iranian or Jewish? Jews were sent to the front line immediately. Going into the army as a Jew — that was a death sentence.”

 Q: Were your husband’s younger brothers able to escape?

 “He sent them through Hacham, but they were also caught near the border. Their mother was left alone, she was elderly and lived in another city. They [the authorities] wouldn’t issue her a passport because she was Jewish. We were also waiting for passports, but they gave us the runaround. We didn’t know what to do.

At that time, in addition to passports and identity cards, there was also a third registry, a notebook that listed the details of the family. To leave Iran, you had to have all three documents. The solution we came up with was to pay Muslims for the documents. I stole stamps from the office where I worked and forged passports. Jews’ passports were red and Muslim passports were blue. That’s how we started helping Jews leave Iran.”

  Placing themselves at considerable risk, the couple launched a forged passport “industry,” mostly for young men who were slated to be enlisted.

“We never thought of ourselves. We were focused on helping the young people. I would forge passports, replace photos, stamp. I spent hours on end on it. We would buy Muslim passports. They could travel far more easily. But these were delicate transactions. We only got them from people we knew, in my workplace, my husband’s or friends we knew before the revolutions. We would spend a long time convincing them. After all, it placed them in danger as well.”

 The illegal industry was exposed after a woman they forged a passport for apparently told a government official she had befriended about them.

“One night, we were at home with the kids, and all of a sudden regime officials came into the house. They’re not like the police here in Israel — they were like God. They could do whatever the wanted. They could kill with impunity. It’s like having Islamic State operatives show up on your doorstep.”

 Q: Did they find anything illegal?

 “They tore the house apart, pulled up tiles, and we weren’t allowed to say a word. They blindfolded us, and threw the children to the side [of the room]. We had materials in the house that we used to forge passports. At the time my husband was unemployed and he was involved in illegal money-changing, and there were papers saying he transferred dollars out of Iran, which was illegal. There was also a photo of my cousin, who immigrated to Israel and was in the Paratroopers Brigade, in uniform. God help me, I’m still terrified just talking about it.”

 That night ushered in a chapter of horrors for the family. Fortunately, while forging passports, the couple had the sense to pose as Muslims.

“We had documents saying we had converted to Islam. We also had Muslim marriage documents that we had poured tea over, to age them. We also had Khomeini’s book and a Koran, so the police were confused. They didn’t really understand who we were or what we did. The police said they were taking us in for interrogation. The landlord heard the ruckus and came over and I asked her to take the children to my sister. I wasn’t supposed to speak, so they [the police] hit me and threw me down the stairs.

 “They beat the hell out of us during the interrogation. They used electric shocks … the torture was unimaginable. Then they showed us the picture the woman who informed on us, and I thought — that’s it. This is our death sentence. Then they threw me in a room that was pitch black, without food or water.

“The next day they took me and my husband to a prison that is known as one of the world’s most infamous jails. They say even birds don’t fly there. If you go — you never come back. It’s a miracle we got out alive. It’s a miracle I’m sitting here.”

 Q: Did your family know how you were doing?

 “No. We didn’t get a phone call, or a lawyer. I had no idea what was going on with the kids. In Israel, an Arab terrorist gets a lawyer and he can go to school while in jail. We got nothing. We were nowhere.”

 Q: What was prison like?

“They separated us immediately. They tied me to the bed and stretched me until I was sure my back had broken. I was beaten with a leather whip until I passed out. The men would beat me, even though they were prohibited to do so by their religion. Because they suspected I was Jewish they enjoyed it. They dragged me across the floor by the chador [full-body-length garment worn by women in Iran when in public]. I didn’t eat or drink for three days, I was half dead.

I was interrogated every day. The interrogator would hit me repeatedly. ‘Tell me, you little stinking Jew, how did you fool the Islamic Republic?’ he would ask. ‘How dare you? Who did you work for?’ They thought we were a network. But I never broke. I never told them about anyone. I prayed that my husband wouldn’t talk. I didn’t want to place the families of the young people we helped in danger.”

 Between interrogations, Goshen was thrown into a cell with Baha’i women, whose religion was also targeted in post-revolution Iran.

“One of the women there taught me the Quran, and I also knew a little from my daughter, who went to kindergarten with Muslim children after the revolution,” she recalls.

“One day they took me in for questioning by an Imam. He told me to recite something out of a prayer, but Muslims have a purification ritual before [prayers] so I said, ‘I have no water for purification.’ He told me to go ahead anyway. So I sang what I knew. I did it wholeheartedly, I hoped it would save my life. Then he told me to recite another line that I happened to know from my daughter, then another line, which that woman taught me the night before. By some stroke of luck, he stopped me after the last line I knew. I don’t know what I would have done had he asked for even two more words.

“My mouth was dry and my heart was pounding. It’s an indescribable feeling. Every day might be your last. The moment he told me to stop I said ‘Shema Yisrael’ in my heart.

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Iranian Jew: ” We plan and God laughs”

Moving piece in the Jewish Journal by Afshine Emrani expressing how Jews from Iran are torn between their love of Israel and love of Iran. Nevertheless, the vast majority of Iranian Jews in the US, like Jews in Israel, are opposed to President Obama’s nuclear dealwith Iran.

Jewish children in Purim costume in pre-revolutionary Iran

My father served the ‪‎Iranian‬ government for over thirty years.

With the majority of his friends and colleagues ‪Muslim‬, few ‪‎Persian‬ Jews know of him now.

He pulled himself out of poverty, away from the misery of losing his
own father at a young age. He reached one of the highest positions a
‪‎Jew‬ had achieved in 1979.

All his savings went to buy a beautiful apartment complex in ‪Tehran‬.
We lived on the first floor, with a large backyard, a garden and an
empty pool. The other four floors above were rented out, as he waited
for his four sons to grow up, get married and take one floor each,
keeping the ‪‎family‬ nucleus intact, so that he could finally enjoy
what he did not have as a child.

As happens in life, we plan and ‪God‬ laughs- but I think God has a full-on belly laugh with Jews.

His adult life was dedicated to strengthening Iran, advancing its
mining, engineering, infrastructure. I still hear the sounds of the
water canal running next to our home, how we left the door wide open so
that the breeze would usher in the smell of the air mixed with the
droplets of the roaring water, music to his ears.

He lost it all with the ‪‎revolution‬.

We, Jews of Iran, are ‪‎torn‬ on so many levels, it is hard to explain.
We love the people of Iran. We love Israel. We are Jews before we
belong to any country. We are American. We hate oppressive regimes. We
detest those who wish our destruction. Still every generation rises up
to destroy us. We are diverse.

So when an ‪‎American‬ president (for whom the majority of Jews voted
twice) pushes a deal that can potentially harm the people of Iran and
the people of Israel and the people of ‪America‬- ‪‎wounds‬ open, bleed,
sizzle and make ours eyes tear.

I now realize why that pool was left empty.

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US Iranian Jews: we blame ourselves

The bitter-sweet aftertaste of liquorice in Iran

The liquorice plant grows wild in Iran

I never really gave liquorice much thought until I met Victoria. This lady in her 80s had lived in Iran until 1979. Her late husband’s business was to harvest the roots of the vast numbers of liquorice plants which grow naturally near the Iranian town of Kermanshah, and to sell the liquorice to be processed into food, for tobacco or for its medicinal properties.

As Israel was a major client of his – Iran then had excellent relations with the Jewish state – Victoria’s husband lost no time in bundling his family out of the country as soon as the Shah was deposed and the Islamic Republic of Iran declared. The family abandoned their house, their business, everything.

A few years later, in London, Victoria and her husband went to the Iranian embassy to register their lost assets. They drew up a will in order to bequeath their property to their children. The embassy officials were mystified as to why they had left in the first place. Their house was now a police station, but the thought of turning up on the doorstep and ordering the policemen out was rather improbable. The chances of their children ever reclaiming the family property were just as remote.

Victoria knew of no refugee from the Islamic regime – Jewish or non-Jewish – who had managed to get compensation or restitution.

She knew of families split between Israel and Iran – the children who stayed behind to run the family business while the parents went to Israel. Letters addressed to ‘Occupied Palestine’ reached their destination, although it is not known if they were censored along the way. Jews in Iran could not make direct calls to Israel from their homes, but had to go to call centres, where presumably their conversations would be monitored.

Victoria, whose family came originally from Iraq, had nothing but pleasant memories of her life under the Shah. But indigenous Iranian Jews had longer memories of persecution, and were more wary in their relationships with Muslims.


This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

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