Just outside the city of Shiraz, in Iran’s stark and arid south, lies the gravesite of Cyrus the Great, founder of the first empire in human history to declare religious tolerance for all its peoples. Cyrus, acclaimed in the Bible for allowing the Jews exiled by Babylonia to return to their homeland and rebuild their Temple in 538 BCE, lies in an unadorned and simple stone tomb, a reflection, historians say, of the man’s humble character.
So there is some irony in the geography that has placed Shiraz today at the center of a world controversy enveloping 13 locally prominent Orthodox Jews. It is in this provincial capital, known to the medieval poets as the City of Roses and Nightingales, that these Jews sit, moldering in a prison since early this year. Though jailed on suspicion of spying for Israel and the United States, they are widely seen as targeted due to their religious activism.
As head of the oldest Jewish community in the diaspora, Parviz Yashaya knows the route past Cyrus’s old stone tomb well. It is a side road that runs off the route he himself has taken all too often lately, from the gritty national capital of Tehran up north, down to the sun-drenched capital of Fars Province. Since at least last November the fate of these Orthodox Jews has been this secular, cosmopolitan Jewish leader’s special preoccupation.
Just last month, for example, in a move widely hailed for its bravery, Yashaya’s Central Jewish Committee of Tehran, the most prominent umbrella group for Iran’s 25,000 Jews, publicly embraced the cause of the 13 Jews as its own for the first time. Lauding them as “our religious teachers,” the committee declared flatly, “Spying requires devices which these individuals, whom we well know, did not have for carrying out such a task.” Demanding an open trial for the 13, the community leaders vowed to retain defense lawyers for their case.
The committee’s statement, in a Rosh HaShanah greeting to Iran’s Jews, has set the country’s organized Jewry on a course sharply at odds with powerful hard-line fundamentalist leaders in Tehran’s Islamic government.
It is no small irony, therefore, that many Iranian Jews and American Jewish leaders hold Yashaya, the communal leader behind this declaration, responsible for playing a role in their being jailed in the first place.
Odder still: Even the most adamant of these say that Yashaya, of all people, is the only person who can now help them.
“He is one of our main hopes,” acknowledged one American Jewish activist speaking on condition of anonymity. This activist, like others, spoke with awe of Yashaya’s legendary connections to Iran’s leadership, forged during his days as a radical leftist during the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Yet like many others, the American activist also said in the very next breath, “Yashaya is probably the reason they are in jail. … He’s the person who put them in, and if anything happens to them, I’ll hold him responsible.”
Man On A Tightrope
Parviz Yashaya, who once sat in prison himself for his revolutionary activities — and was reportedly rescued from the executioner’s sword by Iran’s Jewish community — is today the point person in Iran for Jewish efforts to relieve the 13 Jews’ plight. All agree the government of Iran bears ultimate responsibility for the situation today. But this 66-year-old leader’s unique personal story has left many wondering if his role is mainly that of defender of the Jews or defender of the government — or both.
“This guy is in a situation in which he has to be one of the most artistic acrobats in the world,” said Darioush Fakhari, editor of Eyewitness, a monthly magazine for Iranian Jews in Los Angeles. “He’s dealing with some of the worst enemies of Israel. And he must play their game without being sold.”
Teetering between a xenophobic, fiercely anti-Zionist Islamic government whose top officials he often knows intimately and a Jewish community whose welfare even many of his critics acknowledge he has nurtured steadily, Yashaya is undoubtedly the most unusual Jewish leader in the world today. And in recent months, not the least unusual thing about him has been his determined effort to free a group with whom he was in bitter conflict until their jailing.
Just last month, Yashaya met for the second time in Shiraz with the judge who will decide the fate of the alleged spies. He tried during these meetings to ensure that the judge understood fully the background of this group, and to obtain a pledge from the judge of his own independence. According to informed sources, his efforts helped bring assurances that many, though not all, of those jailed would ultimately be released for lack of evidence.
Earlier, it was Yashaya’s constant efforts on the prisoners’ behalf — aided, no doubt by world attention — that secured regular family visits for the 13 Jews after they were denied such contact for the first six months of their imprisonment. Yashaya is widely credited, too, with ensuring their ability to receive kosher meals, also long denied.
But informed observers cited Yashaya’s Rosh HaShanah statement publicly embracing the 13 as the highwater mark of someone who had come full circle. In the years, and especially in the last few months leading up to their imprisonment, it was Yashaya, these sources say, who was their main antagonist.
According to these sources, the 13 Jews now sitting in jail were mostly leaders and activists of the most pious group of Jews in Iran. It was a group, the sources say, that for various reasons had set itself rigorously apart from the rest of the community — and in particular from the community’s elected leadership under Yashaya.
Interviews conducted with more than 35 people in New York, Los Angeles, London and Israel indicate that this group’s increasing influence on Iranian Jewry, and its contacts with outside religious groups in the West, were seen by Yashaya as a threat to his own position. (Repeated attempts to reach Yashaya were unsuccessful.) It was one serious enough, for example, that even before the arrests he banned one of the group’s members from the pulpit of a Tehran synagogue, where his weekly sermons were drawing large crowds.
Today, Nasser Yaghoub Levy Haim, the man Yashaya banned, is one of the jailed Shiraz 13.
But the Shiraz circle’s increasing boldness at some point also drew the ire of a far more dangerous adversary. By last November, the government’s hard-line Ministry of Information and Intelligence had communicated to Yashaya a dictate of its own.
According to Fakhari, the Los Angeles magazine editor, the ministry’s message to Yashaya was essentially, “Either you get these people under control, or we will.” Fakhari cited Hamid Sabi, a London-based Iranian Jewish attorney and Yashaya’s liaison with Iranian Jews outside Iran, as his source. Sabi, who also met regularly with Iranian intelligence on Jewish issues, declined to comment on this.
According to numerous sources, in a series of meetings fraught with anger and escalating tension late last year and early this year, Yashaya demanded many of those now in prison abandon their separatist, highly public Orthodox practices or face the consequences. And when they refused, these sources say, Yashaya at the very least dutifully reported their defiance to his intelligence contacts.
Some hint he may have done more than this, such as giving information on the group to the authorities. One, a leader of the Iranian Jewish community in Israel, related, “This person wants to have total control over the Jews in Iran. He goes to Shiraz and sees this group has its own independent operation. And he dislikes it.
“Maybe he wanted a little bit to punish them,” said this leader. “But he didn’t think it would become such a crisis, that they would be charged with espionage.”
According to another source, a leader of the Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles, the head of the local community in Shiraz, who was aligned with Yeshaya, first took the conflict to government authorities. But others defend Yashaya unreservedly as a “hero” who tried to warn these Jews of imminent threat — only to be misperceived as the government’s enforcer.
Every faction within this fractious community, regardless of their viewpoint, agrees that none of the 13 Jews now in prison — among them Hebrew teachers, a ritual slaughterer and several rabbis — were engaged in anything resembling espionage. “Bringing up natural differences within the Jewish community in Iran at this time will only serve to divert attention from the main issue,” warned Frank Nikbakht, a Los Angeles activist. But the reasons for the clashing perceptions of Yashaya’s role are inseparable from his personal history. A former communist, according to many who knew him at the time, Yashaya was an early and militant supporter within the Jewish community of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and a committed anti-Zionist.
A son of the old Jewish ghetto in south Tehran, Yashaya climbed his way to Tehran University, the nation’s premier institute of higher education, where studied sociology and he took French as a second language. He is a prosperous prize-winning commercial producer.
Yet Yashaya is no government puppet imposed on the community by the regime. Indeed, unlike most American Jewish leaders, Yashaya was elected by the community itself in 1985 in a hotly contested general ballot. He has been re-elected several times under a system in which all members of the community are eligible to vote.
Even many of Yashaya’s strongest critics within the tightly knit Iranian Jewish community abroad acknowledge he has won these votes by working hard within the constraints of Iran’s Islamic system for the overall welfare of Jews in Iran.
Nevertheless, in the last election Yashaya faltered. After years as the top choice for the board of directors of the Central Jewish Committee, Yashaya placed only fourth in the 1998 ballot. This was still sufficient to win one of the six board seats. And the other five winners promptly re-elected him as their chairman. But the dropoff reflected the rising influence of the traditionalist religious wave in this community.
For all his differences with this Orthodox faction, however, Yashaya has one reason to empathize strongly with the threat of execution the 13 Jews face as they ponder their fate in their lonely cells. In the 1970s he, too, sat in such a cell, charged with agitation against Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, then ruler of Iran.
Indeed, according to a former member of the board of the Jewish Community Council at that time, Yashaya himself was threatened with execution for his political activities. He was saved from this fate only because of the intervention of the Jewish community council board.
Those were the bright red shining days for the young Yashaya. According to numerous sources within the community who know him personally, Yashaya then was a member of Tudeh, the pro-Soviet Communist Party of Iran.
“He was kind of the ‘bad child’ of the community,” said Professor Amnon Netzer, an expert on Iranian Jewry at Hebrew University in Israel and one of many who confirm the Tudeh tie.
Still, in this respect, Yashaya, who was born in the late ’30s, was far from alone. Living under the corrupt autocracy of the Shah on one side and in the shadow of the neighboring Soviet Union’s heroic military role against the Nazis on the other, many young Iranian Jews after World War II were drawn to at least an intellectual interest in Marxism.
In fact, related Frank Nikbakht, the Iranian Jewish activist in Los Angeles and an amateur scholar of the community’s oral history, “Hundreds of young Iranian Jews were very prominent members of the Tudeh Party. In Iran, during the war, there was no one else who would defend the Jews. All the other parties had pro-German sympathies.”
The phenomenon echoes — in some respects — one known well by the Ashkenazi Jews of Russia and Eastern Europe. There, too, the siren song of communism wafted sweetly through thousands of towns and shtetls under the heels of kings and dictators.
‘Never An Alienated Jew’
But in Iran, say those who know the community, there was an important difference: Western radicals often left their parochial Jewish communities far behind, if they did not actually turn against them as counter-revolutionary redoubts. But the Jewish radicals of Iran, by and large, never disowned their community, nor it them. They remained part and parcel of it, simply a crimson strand within the warp and weft of Persian Jewry’s intricate, ancient weave.
Thus, stressed one Westerner who knew Yashaya back in the ’70s, for all his anti-Shah radicalism, “He was never an alienated Jew.”
Yashaya was, in fact, a central member of what turned out to be a crucial organization within the Jewish community. The Anjuman Johmeh Roshan Fekhran Yahoudi, or Society of Young Jewish Intellectuals, brought together a small circle of young radical thinkers and activists like Yashaya.
The group met regularly to plan community actions and published a small newspaper to voice their views. It was during this period, too, that Yashaya formed his early critical ties with some of the most important Islamic dissidents, men who would take control of the country sooner than anyone thought. Ultimately, these contacts came to include Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution himself.
It was tough going, given the largely apolitical, business-oriented nature of Iranian Jewry. “I remember they’d bring [Islamic revolutionary leaders] to the synagogue to speak,” said one Jew from Tehran, recalling the days after the revolution.
“It was funny. We were laughing. We knew these were the most anti-Semitic people. And the rabbis told us these were great guys.”
But when the revolution occurred, it was Yashaya’s coterie of intellectuals that leapt into a leadership vacuum with credible anti-shah credentials capable of protecting their community. The moment was critical, as the community’s old leadership had abruptly fled, and no one was exactly in charge.
“They ran away,” said Fakhari, the Los Angeles-based community magazine editor, bluntly. “For 30 years they shook the shah’s hand and stood at his side. Then, when trouble came, they jumped on a plane and left the community in the hands of God.”
Amid the confusion, apparently it was Yashaya who saw clearly that whatever the community’s sentiments, it was crucial they be lined up early on with the winning side. As the anti-shah protests and strikes increased daily, Yashaya organized a huge — for the Jewish community — protest of some 7,000 against the shah.
Then, leveraging this move as collateral, Yashaya and his cohorts gained a meeting with Khomeini himself shortly after he returned to the country from exile. It was a time still fraught with a rising potential of popular violence against the community, which was subject to being perceived as close to both the departed shah and to the now-hated Israel. But Yashaya secured from Khomeini a fatwa, or religious legal ruling, specifically forbidding any harm to the Jewish community.
“It was a daring wild card,” recalled Fakhari, “to take the Jews into the street against the shah. They [Yashaya’s group] organized it. And as a result, the Muslims in the street chanted, ‘Mazal Tov! Join us. Welcome, Mubrak! It is our joint alliance!’ ”
Professor Shaul Bakhash, an Iran expert at George Mason University, termed Yashaya’s actions during this period “very valuable.”
The delegation of young Jews he led to meet with Khomeini “expressed their genuine [pro-revolution] sentiments,” Bakhash explained. “But they also made peace between the revolution and the Jews.”
The years that followed were horrific for all Iranians. A ruinous eight-year war with Iraq left tens of thousands dead and even more maimed and wounded, while devastating the country economically. Many Jews left the country during this period, often illegally. But in recent years, Yashaya and his diaspora partner, Sabi, are credited with negotiating liberalized emigration regulations for Jews that have curtailed the arrests — and in some cases, disappearances — of Jews attempting to flee over Iran’s mountainous borders.
Today, the 70,000-plus Jews that lived in Iran at the time of the revolution have dwindled to an estimated 25,000 to 30,000, but it is still the largest Jewish community in the Muslim Middle East. Tehran, for example, has 11 functioning synagogues, many of them with Hebrew schools. It has two kosher restaurants, an old-age home and a cemetery. The community also runs one of the city’s best hospitals, one that draws many ayatollahs through its doors for treatment by its renowned medical staff. Most of those remaining, say those in touch with them, have made their peace with the protected second-class citizenship promised to them under post-revolutionary Iran’s Islamic constitution.
Yashaya’s critics acknowledge his role in maintaining and even developing this crucial infrastructure for Jewish life under the modus vivendi he has worked out with the government. But they maintain, this modus vivendi has also carried a steep price. As Human Rights Watch put it delicately in a 1997 report on Iran, “Information on the treatment of Jews in Iran is difficult to gather, owing in part to the apparent preference of community leaders not to publicize instances of mistreatment, if and when they occur.”
According to human rights monitors, 17 Jews have been executed since the revolution and — depending on whom you ask — either three or five have occurred within the last four years. But Yashaya throughout has resolutely fought those urging world attention or protest on these cases.
That policy has not changed in the case of the 13. To Yashaya, their intense public religiosity and the government wrath it drew may have appeared a threat to all he had nurtured. To the 13, Yashaya’s past as a radical, combined with his close ties to the regime, may have made him seem more enforcer than messenger.
But his close associate Sabi, for one, makes no apologies for his approach.
“We’re quiet not because we’re cowed by the regime,” he said, “but because we think the survival of the Jewish community depends on finding resolutions, not confrontation.”
Recalling the way of Queen Esther and Mordechai, he added, “We didn’t live 2,700 years by confronting the government whenever we had a problem. Yet each time we managed to get around the king’s edict.”