Iranian Jews in America: Torn Between Homelands

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It's a sunny Saturday morning in Great Neck, New York, and Larry Bencivenga is taking me on a driving tour. Bencivenga is the head security guard at a local synagogue for Iranian-American Jews.

He tells me that when the Persian Jews emigrated to Great Neck -- a Long Island suburb about thirty minutes by train from Manhattan -- they transformed the community. They built stained-glass synagogues and colossal homes -- "That garage is bigger than my house!" Bencivenga laughs as he points to a mansion -- which has since led to a broader pattern of gentrification in the area as a whole.
 
"You can tell which homes are Persian because they're made out of brick," Bencivenga tells me. Why brick? "They want them to last forever."

The word "forever" isn't one Persian Jews use lightly, either. The Jewish community in Iran stretches back for 2,700 years. They preceded the Iranian Muslims by more than 1,000 years. But Iranian Jews also know what it's like to leave that history -- and the sense of permanence that went with it -- behind. Two-thirds of Iran's Jews immigrated to the United States in the thirty years after the 1979 revolution.

Now, 31 years later, global tension is high over Iran's quest for nuclear weapons and the question of what, if anything, the United States or Israel should do to stop it. Many Iranian-American Jews are now facing difficult questions: As a community that straddles at least three different societies and identities, are their loyalties divided? Who should they support, and how? Could Persian Jews back Israel -- a country most love deeply -- in striking what is for some of them an equally important homeland?

For most, these are painful questions -- and even intrusive, when posed by someone from outside of the community. Neither are they easily answered.


BEFORE THE REVOLUTION
, Jews in Iran enjoyed a relatively free and prosperous life under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. While most of the Jews in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq fled to Israel in 1950s and '60s, Iranian Jews stayed. Now, some historians consider this to be a testament to the Shah's leadership. But the social and economic success of the Jews during the Pahlavi monarchy cost them later: They were partially blamed for the domestic and economic woes that faced the new Islamic Republic.

When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took the reins in 1979, he ushered in an era characterized by conservative Islamic values, anti-Semitic rhetoric and distrust of the West. Most Jews believed they would no longer be free to succeed professionally and worship freely. Those who ventured to America settled mostly in Beverly Hills and Great Neck.

Becoming American citizens added a third layer to an already complex identity.

"Growing up in Queens, half of my friends who knew I was Jewish were surprised I was Iranian [and not Israeli]," says Raymond Iryami, an attorney in Great Neck who immigrated to America in 1982 when he was 10-years-old. "The other half of my friends who knew I was Iranian were shocked to find out I was a Jew, thinking all Iranians are Arabs. So it's a very delicate balance."

The current tension between Iran and Israel has not made that balancing any easier.

 "It's very difficult for us," explains Hooshang Nemat, the executive vice president of the Iranian American Jewish Federation of New York. "You don't want to see your nation destroyed, and you don't want to see a conflict between your country of birth and the country that you sympathize with because of religion and because of shared history." Nemat, a 67-year-old Mashadi Jew (an small, ancient group from the Iranian city of Mashad), came to America in 1961 as a student at the University of Miami. He returned to Iran in 1972, and came back to the United States because of the revolution.

Like Nemat, most Iranian American Jews are against a military strike on Iran -- whether it is from Israel or from the United States. But while they'd prefer a diplomatic solution, others say they would still support Israel in defending itself against a virulently anti-Semitic, and potentially dangerous, regime. Sam Kermanian, the former secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, believes that an Israeli strike "would be viewed as a justifiable act of defense," adding that "the reaction of the Iranian American Jewish community won't be much different than the reaction of the majority of the people of Iran, who view the current regime as oppressive, and in conflict with the interests of the people of Iran."

If Israel strikes, Iranian-American Jews say they will fear for the safety of their family in Israel, America and, in some cases, still in Iran. The estimates of Jews remaining in Iran range from 15,000 to 25,000. Only a few trickle out each year. According to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an agency that facilitates the immigration of Iranian religious minorities through Vienna, 136 Jews left Iran in 2009, 159 in 2008, 229 in 2007 and 152 in 2006. Mark Hetfield, senior vice president for Policy and Programs at HIAS, says the numbers reflect the change in approval ratings, which became higher a few years ago. "There was a time when you would come to Vienna and you were taking a bit of a chance that you could be denied," he explains. But at this time, the vast majority are approved." When the percentage of denials declined, more Iranians who were once hesitant to leave applied for the program.

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Elizabeth Weingarten is an editorial assistant at the New America Foundation. A former Slate editorial assistant, she also previously wrote for and produced the Atlantic's International Channel.

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