ISRAEL: Iranian Jews show solidarity with Iranian protesters
Their names often pay tribute to Iranian culture and their accented speech still sings the unique music of the language, even after decades. They stay on top of Iranian news, culture, sports and trivia, and stay in touch with friends and family living in a country whose distance from Israel is measured in more than geography. The Israeli community of Iranian Jews numbers about 170,000 -- including the first generation of Israeli-born -- and is deeply proud of its roots.
On Tuesday, around 150 members of the community demonstrated in the Israeli city of Holon, home to the country's largest concentration of Iranian Jews. They expressed solidarity with the people of Iran, chanted slogans against the ayatollahs' regime and in favor of Reza Pahlavi, crown prince of Iran at the time of the revolution and today living in exile.
The show of support was organized by Kamal Penhasi, the Iranian-born editor of Shahyad, the only Persian-language magazine published in Israel. "We speak from the throats of the entire Iranian people, whose voices are being silenced by the censorship of the regime that is killing people on the streets …we are part of the Iranian people and want to tell them we are with them. Enough of this regime; the Iranian people deserve their freedom," he said at the demonstration.
Penhasi left Iran shortly after the Islamic Revolution. "I saw what happened in 1979; today's events remind me of that revolution," he said. "This is the great spark in the direction of the big revolution." Penhasi says the regime likes to show that it is strong, but in reality it is crumbling from within. "The people of Iran want their freedom and have taken to the streets to prove it." The young generation in Iran knows exactly what's happening in the outside world, they view Israel as a second paradise on Earth after the U.S. in terms of freedom, he says. Acknowledging that "30 years of brainwashing" have damaged Iranians' sympathy to Israel, Penhasi still believes it's there.
Penhasi has been publishing Shahyad for 19 years. Each month, 2,000 copies of the magazine are printed and it is read by many others online in Israel and elsewhere, including Iran. Besides news and culture, the website serves Penhasi for outreach, for preserving the connection with Iran, keeping an open channel for information and dialogue and documenting the Jewish community's history. Once, he undertook a project to document all the streets in Israel that have Persian- or Iranian-related names and posted them on the website. Iranians were astonished that the Zionist state has so many sites recognizing Iran.
And some repay him in kind, sending him information and pictures from Jewish sites such as cemeteries, including exclusive pictures from the tomb of Esther and Mordechai in Hamadan. For years, he has collects documentation on the Jews of Iran, with hopes of one day establishing a heritage center. If only the many organizations of Iranian Jews in Israel were better organized and budgeted, this would be possible, he says sighing, envious of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center.
Many still have family among the 15,000-17,000 Jews still living in Iran. It's not always simple and not always safe but there is contact. These days, Penhasi is more plugged in than ever -- but not only with Jews. Phone, e-mails, chats -- he has a constant stream of real-time news, some of it exclusive that he shares with the local press.
The name of his publication is no coincidence. Shahyad is the great tower of Tehran, built as a tribute to Persian history and the nation's kings, before being popularly renamed Azadi (freedom) after the revolution. Penhasi and his publication favor Reza Pahlavi, whom he still refers to as the crown prince. He maintains close connections with the opposition. Penhasi knows that even if the regime were to topple, the era of the shah wouldn't return as it was. If a monarchy is revived, he envisions it more like Spain's version. Iran is complex, he says. It's not one of those places where you have a military coup and people wake up in the morning with little fundamental change. There are many ethnic groups in Iran that seek independence, and only a member of the royal family could keep Iran from crumbling after a revolution, he says.
A few months ago, the southern Israeli town of Kiryat Gat held a stormy council meeting on a proposal to change its flag, which was designed 56 years ago and bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the flag adopted by Iran after the revolution. Tuesday's demonstrators in Israel boldly and proudly waved the Iranian flag -- the pre-revolution version. "Proud to be Persian," reads a banner on the website.
-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem
Photos:Iranian Jews demonstrate in Holon, Israel. Credit: Kamal Penhasi and Shahyad