When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as president of Iran, would invite leaders of the Iranian Jewish community in the U.S. to meet with him when he was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, the answer was a definitive “no.”
After all, he was a Holocaust denier whose stated goal was to wipe Israel off the map.
But in recent days, when the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, issued a similar invitation, there was considerable discussion among the leadership of the Iranian Jewish community here and in Los Angeles as to the appropriate response. Unlike his predecessor, Rouhani has been on a one-man public relations campaign, seeking to soften his country’s image in the hopes of easing tough economic sanctions and countering talk of military action against Iran.
In the end, though, after much late-night discussion over the weekend between the New York and Los Angeles groups, the answer was “no,” based in part on a recent statement — or perhaps non-statement — on Rouhani’s part.
“The impetus of our decision,” explained a leader of the Iranian American Jewish Federation here, “was that when the president had a chance to redeem himself on the question of the Holocaust, he did not do that.”
He was referring to Rouhani’s response, when asked by an American journalist whether he believed the Holocaust was a historical fact. The president chose to avoid a direct reply, saying he was a politician, not a historian.
In addition, Sam Kermanian, senior adviser to the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles, noted that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, when asked a similar question about the authenticity of the Holocaust, said Iran condemns all murders, including the murder of Palestinians by Israelis.
“To compare accidental deaths to systematic murder shows that they don’t understand the world’s sensitivities to such a horrific event,” Kermanian said.
The New York and Los Angeles groups, made up primarily of prominent businessmen, are separate but seek consensus on major issues.
A third factor, Kermanian added, was Rouhani choosing to bring to the U.S. with him Iran’s only Jewish member of parliament, Siamak Moreh Sedgh, a 48-year-old doctor who has been an outspoken critic of Israel.
The concern was that Sedgh would be used as a propaganda tool, castigating Zionism and Israel’s policies toward Palestinians.
American-Jewish Iranians are in a delicate position, deeply concerned about the fate of the 20,000 Jews still in their homeland. The leaders here do not want to offend Tehran by rejecting the meeting with Rouhani. But they are unwilling to hold a meeting with him for fear that it would be misinterpreted and actually used to mislead the Obama administration and U.S. public into thinking the Iranian Jewish community here has fallen for Rouhani’s charm initiative.
The Iranian Jewish leaders said they had hoped Rouhani would offer some specific proposals or expand the freedom of the Iranian people.
“But we have not seen anything yet,” a local leader said.
The decision not to meet with Rouhani was endorsed by Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who told The Jewish Week that Rouhani was “a master of charm and deception.
“He had an opportunity to send a strong signal simply by answering [the Holocaust question] in a different way. The fact that he wouldn’t say it was an historical fact sends a clear signal to everybody.”
Hoenlein noted that despite Rouhani’s more benign rhetoric, asserting that he seeks dialogue with the U.S. and a peaceful resolution to the confrontation with Washington, “he and his officials have said they are not going to stop their nuclear program.”
The Iranians have long insisted that their race to develop nuclear capability is for peaceful means, while the U.S., Israel and other Western countries believe the goal is to produce nuclear arms.
Some Israeli officials and American Jewish leaders have expressed deep, if private, concern that the administration is being outsmarted by the Rouhani diplomatic campaign and that his motivation is to continue to stall while the nuclear efforts continue.
One of the issues the American-Jewish Iranians would like to raise with Tehran’s leaders is mandatory attendance on Shabbat at the Jewish schools in Iran.
The local Iranian Jewish leaders said that if invited, they might, under certain conditions, agree to meet with Sedgh, the Jewish parliament member, but as one said, “We are hoping he won’t ask.”