Many Iranian Jews in ‘Tehrangeles’ say their allegiance is to Israel, not Iran

May 12, 2024
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LOS ANGELES — As pro-Palestinian protesters and counterprotesters rally at universities across the country, some of the most vocal defenders of Israel are members of the Iranian Jewish community.

In Los Angeles, home to the largest Iranian diaspora outside Iran and often referred to as “Tehrangeles,” Iranian Jews have emerged as a regular presence at demonstrations on the campuses of UCLA and the University of Southern California.

Many are the children of parents who fled Iran starting in 1979 during the Islamic Revolution, which ushered in a new era of social, political and religious extremism that continues to haunt many former citizens. They were raised with stories of a vibrant and rich culture in what was formerly called Persia and often refer to themselves as Persian Jews.

“To this day, they still talk about the idea of one day returning,” Los Angeles resident Abby Yosian said of her family. “Still to this day, my grandmother talks about Iran as the most beautiful country in the world.”

Because the old way of life was quashed by the regime, many Iranian Jews say they relate more to Israel and support its fight against Hamas and, by extension, Iran, the militant group’s key financial and military supporter, according to a 2020 State Department report.

Although a shadow war between Iran and Israel has been ongoing for decades, the tensions between the two countries have risen in recent months. They came to a head on April 1 when Israel bombed an Iranian consular building in the Syrian capital of Damascus, killing two generals and five officers in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

When Iran launched an unprecedented drone and missile strike against Israel last month in retaliation, many Iranian Jews living outside the country described experiencing a kind of cultural dissonance.

“Like so many of us, religion is at the core of who we are,” Yosian said.

An alum of USC, Yosian said she always felt most comfortable in Jewish spaces and was an active member of student groups like Hillel USC. On a recent April evening, she was among a handful of people who remained outside the campus after hosting an al fresco Passover seder on the sidewalk.

People wore yellow ribbons in remembrance of the hostages held captive by Hamas. One woman was draped in an Israeli flag.

“To see what has been happening in the last several weeks, I was concerned as an alumnus,” Yosian said of pro-Palestinian protests. “If I was still a student, I would have been one of the people who coordinated what we saw today.”

Yosian’s father and grandmother were among the thousands of Jewish people who fled Iran during the Islamic Revolution and settled in Los Angeles after initially seeking refuge in Israel, she said.

Decades later, her grandmother continues to reflect longingly on her native Iran — the smell of fruits and flowers at outdoor markets and the vibrant community that spoke her native language, Yosian said.

At UCLA, where hundreds of protesters and counterprotesters have been facing off for weeks, a family of 10 recently stood outside the perimeter of a pro-Palestinian encampment that was later dismantled by authorities.

Charlene, who asked that her last name not be used for fear of facing antisemitic harassment, and her relatives waved small Israeli flags and filmed protesters who she felt became too aggressive.

A Columbia University alum, she flew in from New York to observe Passover with her Los Angeles-based extended family. She said her cousin, a UCLA student, was recently spit on while wearing a Star of David and called a “Zionist pig.”

“I obviously have to support them,” she said of her cousin. “We are Iranian, but we’re also Zionist.”

Many Iranian Jews say their steadfast support for Israel is embedded in deep cultural and religious ties to Judaism that date back centuries.

Historians trace Iran’s Jewish population to nearly 3,000 years ago, making Judaism one of the oldest minority religions in the country. King Cyrus the Great, who ruled the Persian Empire between 559 and 530 B.C., is considered a savior of the Jewish people after he annexed areas of Babylon, in modern-day Iraq, where Jews from Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judea lived after being exiled.

He gave Jewish residents of the Persian Empire freedom to practice their faith and allowed those who had been previously exiled to return to Jerusalem. His amnesty and great works are mentioned several times throughout the Bible and he is sometimes referred to as the first Zionist, said Elham Yaghoubian, executive vice president of the Iranian Jewish American Federation.

The kinship has stretched more than a millennium and continues to influence how many Jewish Iranians outside the country view Israel.

“Right now, no community has more nuanced views about something than the Persian Jewish community,” said David Javidzad, a Los Angeles resident whose parents left Iran in the late 1970s before the revolution started. “We love being Persian. We love Iran. We aren’t Israelis, but we love that Israel exists.”

Javidzad, who said he grew up speaking Farsi, not Hebrew, described his childhood as more Jewish than Persian. Hearing his father read the Book of Psalms, or Tehillim, in Farsi is “pure poetry,” he said.

Recently, Javidzad said he felt unprepared to celebrate Nowruz, the Persian New Year, at work because his family didn’t traditionally observe the holiday.

“It’s funny how you can have culture shock even within your very specific community,” he said.

During Passover, however, his family injects a touch of Persian culture by enthusiastically slapping each other with large scallions, a tradition among Sephardic Jews. Usually the dinner table explodes into mayhem, he said laughing at the memory, but this year’s seder took on a heavier meaning.

“Even though we come from America and a lot of privilege, everyone felt like we’re back in bondage right now and our status is not free,” he said. “It was totally a post-Oct. 7 seder.”

Although he supports Israel, Javidzad says the civilian toll of the war in Gaza is heartbreaking.

Even tight-knit communities are not monolithic, and many Iranian Jews have spoken out against the war in Gaza. Rabbi Younes Hamami Lalehzar, a prominent Jewish leader in Iran, has repeatedly criticized the Israeli government, and recently condemned Zionism as a nationalistic political ideology that must be defeated.

In October, he led a march calling for a cease-fire, drawing the ire of Israeli leaders and media.

To people watching history unfold from outside the Middle East, the ongoing tensions between Iran and Israel betray a cultural link that cannot easily be destroyed.

“This is a dream to think of these two nations being friendly together again,” Yaghoubian said. “No one with any morals would ever say war is the solution.”

When protests broke out two years ago after the death of Mahsa Amini in Iran, Israel emerged as a leading critic of the regime and Persian Jews in Los Angeles added their voices to international outcry.

Amini, 22, died in 2022 while in the custody of the Islamic Republic’s morality police, who accused her in part of violating the country’s strictly enforced hair code by improperly wearing her headscarf, which is required for all Iranian women.

In Tehrangeles, which is centered on the west side and encompasses the neighboring city of Beverly Hills, people flooded the streets shouting Amini’s name and dreaming of an open society that once existed in Iran. Her death triggered painful memories for many exiled families living thousands of miles away.

“Iranians and Israel have a common fight against extremism,” said Lisa Daftari, an Iranian American commentator and Middle East expert. “It is the Islamic Republic that is the common enemy.”

The demonstrations, which came to be known as the “Women, Life, Freedom” movement, were eventually crushed by the regime.

But the movement sparked lingering hope for many Persian Jews living outside the country that the Iran of their parents’ and grandparents’ youth could rise again.

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