Strangers in the Land of the Free

Iranian Jews are a refugee community, and some see the ban as a tragedy for the country they now claim as their own.

Ted Soqui / Reuters

Half of the members of my congregation in Los Angeles are Iranian Jews, most of whom fled from Ayatollah Khomeini in 1978, during and after the fall of the Shah. The revolution took their businesses, their independence, and, in more than one case, the lives of those whom they loved. This is a remarkable community, passionate and driven, which almost instantly achieved success in America both in business and in a range of professional fields.

Iranian Jews have complicated feelings about the Muslim world. Many grew up with friends in Iran who were Muslim, retain such friendships here, and rightly insist that the people of Iran are sophisticated and largely pro-Western. Like other Iranians, they sometimes draw contrasts with Arab culture that flatter their own. Yet most of them fiercely opposed the Iran nuclear deal because they do not trust the regime, which is as duplicitous as it is dangerous. In the Middle East, naiveté is a cardinal sin. Strong supporters of Israel, they fear and are personally touched by the rise of Islamic radicalism. A widespread sentiment is that the Obama administration was feckless and weak in the face of resurgent terrorism. Many in the Iranian Jewish community supported Trump.

At a large Iranian wedding I officiated this past Saturday night, I asked some of the attendees how they felt about the ban. A few expressed support, insisting that the inconsistencies will be smoothed away but the ban is a good idea. One or two said the U.S. cannot be naive about the world they themselves escaped.

But many more were troubled. Several knew Iranian Jews who were now barred from entry. One congregant pointed to a Muslim woman, a doctor, who was attending the wedding, and said that her family was now unable to join her. And then one older woman asked me—genuinely asking, as though I knew—what would have happened if the ban had been in effect in 1978?

Iranian Jews are a refugee community. The older members speak Farsi, the younger are navigating two civilizations. The extent of their wealth and success and talent makes it seem that they have both feet planted in the gilded soil of Beverly Hills—Iranian Jews were instrumental in the founding of giant enterprises from Qualcomm to Tinder. But underneath is the unease of people who in an instant lost everything—their homes, their past, their businesses, their sense of security.

And so they know, as Jews have always known in their bones, that as one man put it to me—"we could always swim and we were looking for a pool." Images of the children stranded in boats from Syria are not reminiscent of their grandparents, but of their earlier selves. As fiercely as they fear the importation of the hatred they knew in Iran to the United States, the people I spoke with understood that an indiscriminate ban, a closing of the iron gate on the desperate and ambitious, the creative and hopeful, was a tragedy for the families and for the country they now claim as their own.

Every country has a right to boundaries, borders, interests, and anxieties. There is evil in the world, and American Jews have the obligation to name it and be vigilant against its encroachment in their country. Jews know that Jihadist Islam is coming for us first, and that it is far harder to wipe out an ideology than an army. And many refugees, even well intentioned ones, arrive from parts of the world infected with the virus of anti-Semitism. American Jews have every cause to be vigilant.

Yet every crisis requires that we be informed by fear, but not controlled by panic. Judaism's greatest gift to the world was the idea that all human beings are created in the image of God. To see people fleeing—parents, children, grandparents—and to simply say, "We will not take them," is a betrayal of that gift.

Jews seeking refuge in the United States from Nazi Germany were suspected of being spies. Screenwriter Ben Hecht proposed buying 70,000 Jews, and told the U.S. government that if any were spies, it could shoot them. The proposal was rejected. Many of those Jews, who would have contributed immeasurably to America, doubtless died in the furnaces of Europe.

The philosopher Hermann Cohen said that “in the idea of the stranger Judaism was born.” The stranger is mentioned 36 times in the Hebrew Bible. On the Sabbath, as I spoke with the remarkable people who made their way, sometimes with nothing more than a suitcase, often on foot, out of Iran, I thought—“This is wrong. This is not Jewish. This is not American.” The German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine once wrote that "freedom speaks with a Hebrew accent." The Liberty Bell speaks in that accent, with a verse from Leviticus: "Proclaim freedom throughout the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof." Walking the streets of my own polyglot city, even walking the halls of my congregation on the Sabbath, I have heard freedom speak in every accent in the world—a cacophony which is the true American accent.