At the urging of leaders in the Iranian Jewish community here, American Jewish leaders this week suspended their public campaign calling for the release of 13 Jews accused of espionage in Iran.
Instead, they are beginning to implicitly acknowledge the inevitability of a trial for the 13 by shifting their demands to the legal arena.
The move, decided on during a Monday conference call, was decried by other Jewish activists. One of them, Rabbi Avi Weiss, president of the grassroots group Amcha, held a public demonstration in front of the UN Iranian Mission on Sunday attended by about 350 people. The group called for freedom for the 13 Jews, who face execution if convicted.
But Sam Kermanian, secretary-general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, who participated in the Monday conference call, said, “Look, none of us agrees with the charges leveled against these people. Nonetheless, charges have been brought forth. And once done, they will be resolved through the legal process. The more these charges are muddied by political issues, the worse it will become.”
Kermanian urged supporters of the 13 jailed Jews, who could face the death penalty, to now “demand that they be given their full and complete rights under the constitution for a fair legal process.” This must include “visitation rights, full legal representation, and an open trial,” he said.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the national organizations within his umbrella group had agreed to a “temporary lowering of the level of rhetoric,” even as intensive diplomatic efforts continue.
Rev. Jesse Jackson, he noted, is still seeking a visa — so far refused — to go to Iran and personally seek release of the 13 Jews. And senior officials in France, Germany, Britain, Japan and Muslim Central Asia have recently warned Iranian diplomats that Iran’s relations with their governments will be badly damaged if the Jews are executed.
Iranian officials “have been taken aback by the worldwide diplomatic reaction,” said Hoenlein, who added that the move away from the public press conferences and meetings of the last two weeks comes in the wake of some indications of responsiveness from the Iranian side.
Jewish leaders pointed to a statement last week by Iran’s president, Mohammad Khatami, saying he took “personal responsibility” for the safety of Iran’s religious minorities. Hoenlein said his group had also received information that “periodic visitation rights” for the 13 were being restored after long being denied.
At the same time, however, hardline statements have continued from powerful Islamic fundamentalists within the Teheran government who adamantly oppose the relatively moderate president’s policies of opening up Iran culturally and economically.
Last Friday, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, secretary of Iran’s Council of Guardians, which oversees Khatami’s government, said, “Those who think that it is possible to strike a deal on the fate of the spies are definitely mistaken — the punishment for espionage is death.”
Addressing Friday prayer worshippers on the campus of Tehran University campus, Jannati assured them, “The matter is being scrutinized unbiasedly. … Those facing spying charges in the Islamic Republic of Iran will be given a fair trial and served proper punishment like many other traitors in the nation.”
The clash of statements reflects an increasing struggle within Iran’s fractured political culture. Many analysts see Islamic fundamentalists within the power structure as seizing on any issues possible to try to discredit the popular Khatami’s initiatives to open up the country. The espionage charges against the 13 Jews may just be the latest.
Those Jewish leaders advocating caution and diplomacy argue that more aggressive tactics will only play into the hands of these hardliners by provoking a nationalist backlash against international pressure.
The shift away from press conferences, press releases and public meetings marks an effort to return, at least partially, to the approach Jewish leaders were pursuing until Iran announced two weeks ago that the 13 jailed Jews were being charged as spies.
Five of the Iranian Jews were arrested in January. The other eight were imprisoned in March, just before Passover. According to family members and others in the Iranian Jewish community, most are known only for their intense involvement in Judaism. They are said to include rabbis, Hebrew teachers and a ritual slaughterer. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are among the human rights groups that have issued alerts on their behalf.
At first, no announcement of the jailings or any charges were made public. This led many to hope the situation could be resolved quietly through private appeals to government officials in Tehran.
But the announcement of spying charges on June 7 over Tehran Radio led to a spate of public events, including the recruitment of Jackson to seek the jailed Jews’ release on a humanitarian basis. It also highlighted the emergence of a faction within the Iranian Jewish community here that has sharply challenged the quiet approach of Kermanian’s Iranian American Jewish Federation.
Now that the issue is public, it remains to be seen if the Jewish establishment can push the genie of public outcry back into its bottle.
At Sunday’s demonstration in front of the Iranian UN Mission, Rabbi Weiss condemned the “trumped up charges” and appealed to the “justice and mercy found in the Koran” in calling for the Jews’ release. Neither Weiss nor other speakers at the rally directly condemned Iran or its government.
Rabbi Weiss acknowledged being influenced by a long phone discussion he had with Kermanian, who pleaded with him to cancel the protest.
“I couldn’t agree to that,” said Rabbi Weiss. “But the language we use is very important. The bottom line is that the emphasis should be on the religious message. There are ways of saying we think you’re wrong.”
Within the 25,000-strong Iranian Jewish community in America, the newer, more assertive Council of Iranian Jewish Organizations strongly backed Rabbi Weiss’ demonstration. “We all approve of it,” said council activist Frank Nikbakht.
But both the council and the Kermanian’s federation are headquartered in Los Angeles, where the highest concentration of Iranian Jews lives. And though New York and Long Island have the second highest concentration, only a handful of Iranian Jews attended Weiss’ protest.
Fewer still came to a tiny, angry protest staged later Sunday by Jewish Defense Organization leader Mordechai Levy in Great Neck, the very heart of New York’s Iranian Jewish population. With about 25 demonstrators around him, Levy railed against the Iranian regime as throngs of smartly dressed Iranians strolled past him, shopping on a sunny weekend afternoon in the boutiques and shops lining Middle Neck Road.
Several said that at Sabbath services the previous day, community leaders urged them not to attend any demonstrations.
One of the few Iranians at the rally told demonstrators his brother was one of 12 additional Jews who had been taken in by the authorities. In an interview afterward, he declined to give his name, but said that unlike the 13 Jews now being highlighted, who are jailed in Shiraz, the whereabouts of these 12, including his brother, were unknown. He said they had been arrested even before the earliest of the 13 were in January.
Reports in Israel this week speak of some 22 Jews in jail, total. But sources in the community and among Jewish leaders said the cases of the others should not be mixed with the 13 for whom they are now fighting. These cases, they said, involve other offenses.
If a trial does come for the 13 Jews now jailed in Iran for espionage, the limited tactic being adopted by Jewish leaders of demanding it be fully fair and open may run up against a difficult reality:
The prosecution may still be able to gain a conviction.
This is because a 3-year-old Iranian law actually criminalizes as espionage many ordinary exchanges between Iranians and U.S. and Israeli citizens. Under this law, say Iranian Jewish sources, even exchanging information of a social or cultural nature with Americans and Israelis can be considered spying. And any contact with Israel is strictly forbidden by the fiercely anti-Zionist Iranian government.
It is impossible to know for certain what contact, if any, individuals among the 13 may have had with U.S. and Israeli citizens. But various reports indicate that such contacts may have taken place — though none would be considered spying in the West.
“These laws are all very vague, subject to interpretation and for use in selective prosecution,” said Mansour Farhang, a Persian studies professor at Bennington College.
Jewish leaders acknowledge that the low threshold Iranian law has set for “espionage” does pose difficulties. But they hope that under the right political circumstances, even conviction, if it is for innocent contacts and seen by all in an open court, will lead to light sentences, at worst.