Ellie Cohanim, from Iran to the State Dept: America’s warrior for her people

"Despite the regime wanting Iranians to hate Israel, you can see that the people feel differently. We see it on the streets of Iran every day when students refuse to step on the Israeli flag."

 Ellie Cohanim with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (photo credit: Ellie Cohanim)
Ellie Cohanim with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
(photo credit: Ellie Cohanim)

“I am incredibly hopeful for the future of my sisters and brothers back home in Iran, because I know that this regime is an anomaly in Persian and Iranian history,” says American broadcast journalist and former State Department envoy Ellie Cohanim. “Remember, we are the people who had Cyrus the Great, in essence, be the first to give religious freedom to the world, and also encourage the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild our Temple.”

Born in Tehran to a Jewish family, Cohanim, 49, recounts her lineage to a proud tradition of Iranian Jews that trace back their ancestry thousands of years, going as far back as the First Temple period. Cohanim describes her family as culturally Iranian, and that the country and Iranian people still hold a special place in her heart.

“In my family, there was always a love of Persian culture,” explains Cohanim. “Specifically poetry. My parents to this day are part of an Iranian poetry night that they have with some friends who are Jewish, Muslim and Bahai... and really nobody cares about each other’s religion. But what brings them together is their deep love for Persian poetry and music. So that was the kind of home I grew up in, where we had this deep appreciation for this very ancient civilization that is just part and parcel of who we are.”

Following the overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran severed relations with Israel. In subsequent years, tens of thousands of Jews were compelled to flee the country while being forced to leave behind vast amounts of property. It was at this point that the situation for Cohanim’s family would take a turn for the worse.

“I was attending a Jewish day school before the Revolution,” Cohanim recounts of her childhood in Tehran. “And the memories that I have very clearly are from the start of the Revolution, when we started to see protests in the streets and things like random shooting of guns into the air. My father in particular had a large construction works company. Under the Shah’s reign, he had won a bid for a big government project. So he brought in Israeli engineers – it was a water construction project – from Mekorot. They did this project and the engineers then went back to Israel.

 Ellie Cohanim (credit: US STATE DEPARTMENT) Ellie Cohanim (credit: US STATE DEPARTMENT)

“Fast forward to the 1979 Islamic Revolution,” Cohanim continues, “and someone who owed money to my father threatened to denounce him as a Zionist spy. So that incident combined with the fact that the regime had executed the president of the Jewish community – Mr. Habib Elghanian – really made my family understand that we were at personal risk. So the decision to flee for our lives was pretty sudden.”

Cohanim’s family found refuge in the United States and she would receive excellent educational opportunities as a woman in America.

“We were fortunate because we left Iran at a moment in time when you could just go on an airplane and leave,” says Cohanim. “We came to the United States, which has been the greatest blessing in my life. We received refugee status, and I consider it a blessing having grown up in America.”

As a young girl, Cohanim would attend the Bais Yaakov Academy of Queens, and earn her BA in Political Science at Barnard College, while later conducting some of her graduate studies in International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“It is something I appreciate so deeply, and it has really informed my desire to fight for the Iranian people,” Cohanim says while describing her experience of freedom in the US. “It has really informed my work that I’ve had every benefit of living in America, while knowing at the same time that my former countrymen are living under the most despotic regime in the world.”

Prior to her appointment as the State Department’s first deputy special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism in 2019, Cohanim’s early career began in the Jewish communal world at UJA-Federation of New York, Yeshiva University, and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Having done a fair amount of journalism in college, Cohanim would be recruited by the founder of the Jewish Broadcasting Service, Rabbi Mark S. Golub, ultimately becoming senior vice president and special correspondent for the television network.

“I was a child when the [Islamic] Revolution took place in Iran,” says Cohanim. “But the lessons of the Revolution stayed with me my entire life. I personally have this story of being born in a country that was so friendly to Israel and held a flourishing Jewish community, with every kind of Jewish institution you could imagine. And suddenly, overnight... you see that society change completely.”

For Cohanim, the lessons from her formative years in Iran distinguished her at the State Department under the Trump administration.

“Ellie’s Iranian heritage and her own escape with her family from the revolutionary Islamic Republic have fueled her advocacy on behalf of the Iranian people,” says Victoria Coates, former US deputy national security advisor for the Middle East and North African Affairs. “She is deeply respected by her fellow Iranians for her outspokenness on their behalf. In contrast to the oppressive regime, Ellie has always fought for her people’s human rights and the opportunity to determine their own destiny. I look forward to the day when Ellie returns to her beloved birthplace as the next US ambassador to a free Iran.”

This high esteem and praise is echoed by Cohanim’s colleagues at the State Department.

“Ellie is a fierce advocate for religious freedom and human rights,” says former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who appointed Cohanim to her position with the blessing of the White House under President Trump. “She worked tirelessly with America’s friends worldwide to combat the world’s oldest hatred. I am proud to have had her on my team.”

At the State Department, Cohanim would serve as the lead official on antisemitism policy for the Middle East, North Africa and Latin America regions until 2021. Antisemitism envoys are the voice and moral authority of the United States for fighting global antisemitism, where much of their work resides in diplomacy.

Cohanim was also a part of the Abraham Accords’ Warm Peace team, where she fondly recalls working closely with Saudi Arabia’s Muslim World League; signing an MOU with Bahrain’s King Hammad Center for Peaceful Coexistence; and being invited to attend the restoration of and speak at the reopening ceremony of Egypt’s Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Alexandria.

“I was privileged to see how President [Abdel Fattah] Sisi made every effort to really celebrate the Jewish history of Egypt,” says Cohanim, “as well as creating warmer ties toward Israel that we’re seeing to this day.”

Cohanim’s official travel also took her to other Arab countries, like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, to create enduring partnerships to combat antisemitism, anti-Zionism and anti-Muslim bigotry.

“Ellie Cohanim is one of the most consequential Jewish-American leaders in the world,” said Len Khodorkovsky, former deputy assistant secretary of state and senior advisor to US envoy for Iran. “You want Ellie in the foxhole with you... she put fear into antisemites everywhere, and as the first Iranian-born State Department envoy, she advocated relentlessly for her fellow Iranians tormented by the world’s foremost terrorist regime.”

“When I was tapped for the position,” said Cohanim, “one of my immediate requests was that I wanted to work on the Iran portfolio.” The Trump administration ultimately designated Iran as the world’s leading state-sponsor of antisemitism because of the country’s official policy of denying the Holocaust, constant threats of genocide against the Jewish State, support of terrorist proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah, and abusive treatment of the country’s remaining Jewish population.

“According to the laws of the Iranian regime,” explained Cohanim, “Jews are second-class citizens. For example, Jews are not permitted to pursue certain careers and face a tiered penalty system in the courts. Last year, there were reports where Iranian officials themselves are on the record saying that they are monitoring and spying on the Jewish community, with [Iranian Vice President for Economic Affairs] Mohsen Rezaee even threatening to hold the country’s Jews hostage if tensions with Israel should arise. They are a community that lives in fear.”

The status of Iranian Jews remaining in the country following the Islamic Revolution is concerning to Cohanim.

“This is a community where at least 14 members have been executed by the regime since the 1979 Revolution,” says Cohanim. “As well as 13 Jews who were accused of being so-called ‘Zionist spies’ and were imprisoned until there was a huge international outcry to release them. This same regime is constantly threatening to eliminate the Jewish State of Israel and commit genocide against the Jewish people. They have dedicated billions of dollars to that end, giving it to terror proxies and their nuclear enrichment program. This is despite Iranians struggling financially.”

However, this has not stopped the regime from using Iranian Jews remaining in the country for propaganda purposes. The most recent example took place several months ago during the American tour of self-proclaimed Chief Rabbi of Iran Yehuda Gerami.

“It was shocking to see him come to the United States on what seemed to be a charm offensive while echoing regime talking points,” says Cohanim, “such as when he criticizes Israel and uses ‘Zionist’ as a dirty word and accusation. He also chose to attend the funeral services of the No. 1 terrorist in the world – Qassem Soleimani – when the Trump administration eliminated him.

“It was further shocking to see a Jewish magazine echo those same talking points,” in reference to an interview published by the Brooklyn-based Ami Magazine. Iranian Jews took the article to task for interviewing the rabbi, while at the same time uncritically accepting many of his claims that paints a “blossoming” picture of life for Iran’s remaining Jews.

“It came to the point when we saw this propaganda on the cover of a Jewish magazine. At that point, I and other Iranian Jews spoke out against what we thought was failed journalism by Ami Magazine.

“Any good journalist would know that those people who are living in oppressive societies – like Iran – are being carefully monitored by regime authorities. Journalists need to know better by fact-checking and researching what somebody might say under the pressure of authorities.”

Being a strong defender of the Islamic Republic’s victims has made Cohanim a target.

“I have been targeted by the Iranian regime since leaving the State Department,” Cohanim reveals, “and I have had death threats made against me. But one thing that I am clear on is that I will never be silenced, and I will never abandon the Iranian people or the Jewish people worldwide.”

Since her departure from the State Department, Cohanim has continued her foreign policy work as a Senior Fellow for the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF).

Calling it one of her proudest achievements, the series features her interviewing high-profile figures such as former US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, as well as Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky, on topics including human rights, Israel and the Iranian threat.

Despite Iran’s continuous support of international terrorism and coming closer to a nuclear capability, Cohanim maintains a positive outlook for the future.

“I had the privilege of leading a delegation of Iranian Muslims to Israel in July,” recounts Cohanim. “It was the first delegation of Iranians in the country since the 1979 Revolution. It was incredible to see Israel through their eyes. Despite the regime wanting Iranians to hate Israel, you can see that the people feel differently. We see it on the streets of Iran every day when students refuse to step on the Israeli flag. It’s really a matter of time until the people of Iran take back our beautiful country.”  

Bradley Martin is the Executive Director for the Near East Center for Strategic Studies. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @ByBradleyMartin