As the trial of the 13 Iranian Jews accused of spying for Israel appeared to be winding down this week with another two defendants confessing, supporters of the 13 openly disagreed on whether this is the most propitious time to hold public events in their behalf.
“We have experts constantly reassessing what is the best course of action,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “At this stage — before the trail is concluded — it is the consensus of all of those involved that this is not the time to escalate our street activity.”
But Rabbi Avi Weiss, national president of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns-Amcha, said his group and the Simon Wiesenthal Center plan to go ahead with what has been billed as a “Prayer Vigil for the Iran 13” next Wednesday at noon in front of the Iranian UN mission at 40th Street and Third Avenue. And Amcha has taken out full-page ads in several newspapers, including this issue of The Jewish Week.
“We have spoken with several relatives [of those on trial] and we are extraordinarily sensitive to their concerns,” said Rabbi Weiss. “Some have applauded what we are doing, and others have called us to express concern. I have spoken with many, many experts — people who have a tremendous knowledge about Iran and are sensitive to these concerns — and we believe in the efficacy of a public outcry.”
Unlike the days of Soviet Jewry protests, when the former Soviet Union was denounced, “we have never, in all of our gatherings in front of the Iranian mission, denounced the Iranian government,” Rabbi Weiss said. “We stand in prayer because we believe … responsible public prayer will save lives. When we stand out there, we are heard in the prison cells of Iran and the 13 innocent Jews understand that they are not alone.
“We need thousands of people in the streets because that sends a message to the American government and to European nations that Iran must be based on the pillars of human rights. … Quiet diplomacy can only be effective if it is in tandem with some kind of public manifestation.”
And to those who say wait?
“I say we hear you,” Rabbi Weiss said, “but it’s preferable to gather in a public prayer vigil before the rendering of the sentence in the hope the prayers will lighten the sentence.”
Hoenlein said that instead of demonstrations, Jewish leaders around the world have chosen “diplomatic and economic pressures,” including a bid to derail two Iranian loans before the World Bank. Iran has requested an $86 million loan for a primary health project and a $125 million loan for a sewage project in Tehran. There was sufficient opposition to delay a vote earlier this month on the applications, and Hoenlein said he hoped the World Bank would either reject the loans or delay the vote at this week’s meeting.
Meanwhile in Shiraz, reporters Monday asked a judicial spokesman, Hossein-Ali Amiri, what penalties the Jews could face if they were convicted.
“Those found guilty of espionage are not always condemned to death,” he replied.
One of the court-appointed defense lawyers, Karim Sadeghi, said he had asked the man presiding over the revolutionary court, Sadeq Nurani, if he could support his clients’ confessions with evidence. Nurani alone sits as the prosecutor, judge and jury.
“Not one confidential document has so far been brought before the court,” said Sadeghi. “The confessions are not enough.”
Eight of the nine defendants who have appeared before the court, which has remained closed to outsiders on security grounds, have pleaded guilty to spying for Israel. The 10th pleaded innocent. Hoenlein said there was speculation that the trial might end before the other three Jews, each of whom was freed on bail earlier this year, are called to appear in court.
Defense lawyers have asked the court to bring those who have confessed into the courtroom at one time, Hoenlein said, so the defense can show the inconsistencies in the confessions.
Amiri told reporters Monday that the two suspects who had confessed that day — Asher Zadmehr, 54, a language instructor, and Farhad Seleh, 40, a theology teacher — had taken pictures and collected information about medical centers and military electronic installations.
Israel has denied that any of the men were spies, and Hoenlein scoffed at Amiri’s claims. He questioned the usefulness of photos of medical centers and asked why the pictures have not been produced.
But Hoenlein noted that allegations the men had spied also for the United States have been dropped, as well as assertions that they were engaged in activity against Islam.
Once the trial ends, the judge has one week in which to render a verdict, Hoenlein said. He said an appeal can then be filed with a parallel revolutionary court in Shiraz and then to the country’s Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, there was growing concern about the safety of Iran’s 25,000 Jews. Hoenlein said there was talk of a boycott of Jewish-owned stores, that anti-Semitic graffiti had been found on walls in the Jewish community and that Jewish students had been harassed in school. Some parents were keeping their children home from school because of the taunting they were receiving there.