The highly controversial immigration policy of US President Donald Trump is also severely hurting Iranian Jews. This emerges from conversations with senior executives of American Jewish organizations and Israeli officials.
Preventing illegal immigration and reducing legal immigration, as well, were among the central election promises of Trump and remain one of the most contentious issues between him personally and the Democratic-led House of Representatives. After assuming the presidency in January 2017, Trump hurried to issue various executive orders regarding immigration, which were meant to show that he keeps his promises.
Some of the decisions and measures adopted are viciously cruel. They separate families, and children from their parents. Some of the children were sent to American foster families and dozens, if not hundreds, disappeared and are unaccounted for.
Trump’s efforts to implement his immigration policy face many difficulties. Mexico refuses to pay the cost of the border wall, which Trump insists on building. Congress is adamant that funds be allocated for it, while human rights groups and federal courts challenge the legal aspects of Trump’s policy.
At the core of his policy of sealing the borders is the ban on citizens from seven Muslim countries from entering the US – Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Iran. In a sense, Iran is an exception. All the other six are war-torn nations, while Iran is relatively calm.
The purpose of the decision known as the “Muslim Ban” is to reduce the possibility of terrorists infiltrating America. But practically speaking, it is collective punishment, an indiscriminate approach that doesn’t differentiate between the “baddies” and “goodies.” It hurts the terrorists but also their victims. It targets vicious regimes, which sponsor death squads and torture their opponents, but at the same time punishes political asylum-seekers, dissidents, and religious and ethnic minorities persecuted by these regimes.
Two Iranian minorities are the prime victims of Trump’s arbitrary attitude. The first community is the Baha’i. The Baha’i faith is a religion teaching the essential worth of all religions, and the unity and equality of all people. Established by Bahá’u’lláh in 1863, it initially grew in Iran, where it has faced ongoing persecution since its inception. The Baha’i oppression worsened after Iran declared that it is an Islamic Republic in 1979, ruled by Shi’ite ayatollahs.
The other minority that fell victim to Trump’s policy are Iranian Jews. The Jewish community comprised some 100,000 members, who lived safely and prospered under the Shah until February 1979.
In the first months after the Islamic Revolution, Jews lived in fear of the virulent anti-Israel and anti-Zionist regime. The turning point came when shortly after the revolution, the new regime charged Habib Elghanian, one of the most prominent and wealthy members of the community, with spying for Israel and hanged him.
Following the incident, half of the community left Iran. Some of them went to Israel and others to the US and Canada, usually after being forced to sell their property for meager prices.
In Israel, they joined an already large existing community of expatriate Iranians. Today the size of the community is estimated at approximately a quarter of a million. In the US, there are around 70,000 Iranian Jews with large concentrations in Los Angeles on the west coast and Long Island on the east coast.
Weeks after the Islamic Revolution, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), a Jewish-American, New York-based relief organization rushed to help those who were stuck and could not leave. First it was involved in a secret and daring mission, which had never been never publicized before. The JDC managed to get 120 children separated from their parents out of Iran. This was reminiscent of the CIA rescue operation to airlift American diplomats hidden at the Canadian ambassador’s residence in Tehran, which decades later was immortalized in the Hollywood film “Argo.”
In subsequent years, another Jewish American relief organization – the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) established in 1881 – has been involved in aiding and rescuing Jews from Iran.
Since the establishment of Israel in 1948 (and even in the pre-state era), the JDC has been a long-standing partner of the Mossad in helping Jews in distress who are prevented from leaving a country by local authorities, and getting them out of their native countries. The joint JDC-Mossad rescue missions have taken place mostly in Arab countries such as Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
At least in one publicized case, there were efforts in the 1980s to smuggle Iranian Jews to Israel. But unfortunately, the mission failed and 10 Jews disappeared on the way. A few years ago, the Mossad – led by then-director Tamir Pardo – conducted a thorough inquiry to solve the mystery and reached the conclusion that they were most probably killed by robbers while trying to cross the border into Pakistan.
Today, in Iran there are approximately 10,000 to 15,000 Jews – the exact number is hard to determine. Most of them live in Tehran and a few other urban centers. In contrast to the image formed throughout the years that Iranian Jews are wealthy, the socioeconomic conditions of the remaining members of the community are lower middle class.
The Iranian authorities do not impose any restrictions on them and try to respect their Jewish traditions and religious customs, as long as the members of the Jewish community have no official ties with the “Zionist regime” – although most of them have relatives in Israel.
One seat is always reserved for a Jewish representative in the Majlis (the Iranian parliament). Before Rosh Hashana, Iranian leaders send the community congratulatory messages.
Iranian Jews can leave Iran and may even travel or emigrate via a third country to Israel. But they don’t do it for a variety of reasons. Many of them are old. Others refuse to leave families behind or lose most of their property.
Those who do wish to leave Iran are usually quite young and don’t want to immigrate to Israel. They want to settle in the US, where they have relatives. But Trump’s immigration policy and the addition of Iran to the list of banned nations has turned the Jews (the Baha’is and all other minorities) into an unwanted element.
When the ban was first introduced, JDC, HIAS and other Jewish organizations in the US tried to change the policy.
Their leaders and executives acted secretly, behind the scenes, to persuade administration officials and congressmen to find a way which would allow Jews to enter the US as asylum-seekers or to be united with their family members. Among those whom they approached were Jared Kushner and his wife Ivanka Trump, who serve as the president’s advisers and are among the very few who have any influence over Donald Trump.
The Jewish leaders knew, however, that any arrangement has to be legally justified and accepted by the public. They were well aware that any “affirmative bill in favor of Iranian Jews exempting them from the “Muslim Ban” would only further fuel anti-Jewish sentiments and increase antisemitism, which is already on the rise in America. They failed.
It is superfluous to explain to most American Jews why Trump is bad for America and the world. They know it – and it is no wonder that 70 percent of them voted for the Democratic Party.
But for many Israelis, Trump is considered to be a gift from heaven. They think that he is so anti-Muslim and anti-Palesttinian and so supportive of the right-wing Israeli government that he is their savior. The Iranian Jews’ plight is just one example that Trump’s policies are not that good for Israel and the Jewish people.
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