Even as efforts continue to gain freedom for 13 Iranian Jews jailed by their government on suspicion of spying, new information is surfacing about 11 other Jews who vanished while attempting to flee Iran illegally between 1994 and 1997.
The information, some of which emerged at a public meeting in Los Angeles last month, is threatening to further fracture an Iranian Jewish community in the United States caught between the impulse to protest, and to stick to silent diplomacy in its efforts to help imperiled brethren.
“I have been silent for five years. I want my child. I want my child. No one has done anything,” shouted the father of a missing teen at the public meeting in Los Angeles.
The July 8 meeting was organized to provide Iranian Jews with information on the 13 now in jail. But the father was one of two family members of missing Jews to speak up there. An account of the father’s outburst was provided to The Jewish Week on condition his name not be used.
The Iran government has denied to their families any knowledge of what has happened to the missing Jews. But Iranian Jewish activists in the U.S. believe otherwise.
“When someone is lost, either you find the body, or you find them alive. People don’t go to the moon,” said one Iranian Jewish activist who spoke only on condition his name not be used, explaining he had family still in Iran.
Jewish leaders stress that the circumstances surrounding these cases are different from those of the 13 now in jail — not least because those now missing were engaged in illegal activity by trying to leave Iran without permission. In contrast, Jewish leaders denounce as trumped up the espionage allegations against the 13 who face execution if convicted.
Accounts from community leaders in New York, Los Angeles and Europe indicate the 11 missing are mostly from Tehran, Iran’s capital. They disappeared in four separate attempts to flee. In each case, they were part of a larger group, others of whom succeeded in crossing the border. Some were draft-age teens fleeing to avoid army service. Others were prevented from leaving legally because the government claimed they had outstanding debts.
While it is not known what route any group took, Iran’s mountainous borders with Pakistan and Turkey are the most popular ways out. These areas are remote and often dangerous, due to the presence of tribal groups and smugglers. Families of the missing reportedly looked for them in Pakistani and Turkish prisons, without success.
Attempts to obtain comment from Iran’s UN Mission in New York were unsuccessful.
Within the large but close-knit Iranian Jewish community here, the long-festering issue of these missing 11 is now emerging with explosive potential. Some are directing their anger not just at Iran’s government but the established leadership of the Iranian Jewish community, centered in Los Angeles.
That leadership, it turns out, has maintained years of secret contacts with Iranian government officials. [See accompanying story.]
Communal leaders have justified these contacts as a crucial channel to quietly resolve such issues as the 13 imprisoned Jews and the 11 missing ones. But now, some are asking whether the price of maintaining these contacts has been a disabling public silence while these issues are still unresolved.
These critics have organized a new coalition called the Council of Iranian Jewish Organizations. Calling for more publicity to highlight the situation faced by Jews in Iran, this group has repeatedly assailed the older Iranian American Jewish Federation, which favors quiet diplomacy.
Last month, at the public meeting in Los Angeles on the 13 jailed Jews, the father of the missing teenager brought proceedings to a halt. In an angry, tearful speech he demanded that Iranian Jewish leaders do something to discover his son’s fate as well.
“The Federation told us to be quiet,” he said referring to the older Iranian Jewish group. “I didn’t know. I was stupid. … Now, my heart is on fire. If there had been as much publicity about my son as about these 13, he would be found by now. The world did not know. It should have known.”
Frank Nikbakht, an activist with the Council, charged, “Apparently for years [the Federation] was keeping people silent so that there would not be anything against the regime from this community.”
The charge of inaction and failure in the case of the missing 11 forms part of the new coalition’s indictment of the community’s long-established leadership. These critics also cite five Jews who have been executed in Iran in the last five years with, they claim, scant public outcry from community leaders.
According to Nikbakht, until recently, leaders of the Federation kept news about the 11 missing Jews from the U.S. government and Jewish groups such as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Malcolm Hoenlein, the conference’s executive vice president, confirmed he was not informed about these cases until recently.
A State Department official involved in the case of the 13 jailed Jews related that he, too, had been told little about the missing Jews.
In contrast to members of other Iranian minority groups living here, said this official, “The Jewish community has been much less forthcoming. Generally, our perception has been that they have not wanted to see things appearing in U.S. government human rights reports. … Then again, we have not pressed them.”
Indeed, the issue of Jews executed in the last few years presented difficult problems.
For one, according to numerous sources, they were apprehended, tried secretly, sentenced and dispatched before their own families found out what happened to them.
“No one really knew about it until the families were told to retrieve the bodies,” said a congressional source who has been involved with the issue.
In addition, Federation leaders and others view these cases as less clearly attributable to the Jewishness of those executed.
The 13 jailed Jews are religious leaders in their local communities who are alleged to have spied for Israel and the U.S. — an allegation vehemently denied by both governments. The executed Jews were less prominent community members charged with other crimes, such as corruption and forgery. Whether trumped up or true, or somewhere in between, say some Jewish leaders, this makes it much harder to tie their cases directly to their Jewishness.
Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Federation, is unapologetic about his group’s approach in dealing with such problems.
Notwithstanding his critics’ charges of silence, he said, “There have been cases in the past in which we have been the only outspoken people. Memorials were held in all the cases of those executed after we got the news. Public officials attended, and statements were given to reporters. Anyone who was interested to hear, did.”
But asked to address the case of the 11 missing Jews, Kermanian said, “At this point, I don’t wish to make any comments on this case.”
Others in the community, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the missing Jews pose an especially difficult dilemma. Jews are not the only ones who have been caught trying to leave illegally. Still, according to Nikbakht, the issue is a Jewish one, because only these individuals have simply disappeared rather than been arrested and charged. His claim could not be independently confirmed.
“There’s no way to organize, because there’s no one to appeal to,” said one community activist of the missing 11. “If you held a public demonstration, how many would come?” he asked. “Fifty thousand? That means nothing in Iran. One ayatollah could bring two million to the streets in a rampage. All you’ll do is fall into a trap,” he said. “They’ll say, look — the Zionists and imperialists are against us. In the end you won’t get anything, and the other 25,000 Jews in Iran will be in greater danger.”