In a stepped-up response to the 13 Iranian Jews charged with spying for Israel — 10 of whom were convicted last week — the organized Jewish community is planning its first rally at noon Monday to protest the charges. Until now, it has restricted its public events to prayer vigils.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the rally will be held at the Isaiah Wall opposite the United Nations. It hopes to draw youngsters from Jewish camps and others who wish to express their outrage at the verdict.
On Saturday, an Iranian revolutionary court sentenced 10 of the 13 Iranian Jews to prison terms of four to 13 years. The other three were acquitted. There had been fears that at least some of the defendants would receive death sentences. Two Muslims accused of assisting them were sentenced to two years.
The families of the convicted Jews are meeting with their lawyers to discuss an appeal, Hoenlein said. He commended the lawyers for their efforts and pointed out that they were being “isolated” in their communities.
Hoenlein, who was expected to meet Wednesday with President Clinton on the matter, said that to date there has been a “measured response consistent with the needs of the situation. We are anguished at the length of the sentences and now we begin a new phase.” He said the prayer vigils were targeted at the Iranian judiciary, which “understands prayer and religion.”
“Now we are dealing with the government. We believe it is in the hands of [President Mohammed] Khatami and [supreme leader Ayatollah Ali] Khameini, and so our response has to have a higher profile,” Hoenlein said. “We are asking that due to the injustice [of the convictions], the sentences be commuted and the men allowed to go home.”
He stressed that the rally is one of solidarity with the 10 convicted Jews and would not be an attack on the Iranian government, nor would it clamor for a change of government. It was planned late Monday afternoon during a conference call with Jewish leaders in Europe and Canada.
Demonstrations are also slated for other major cities in the United States and around the world, Hoenlein said. In Germany, which Khatami was scheduled to visit Monday, Hoenlein said there would be “appropriate Jewish expressions of concern.” (Jewish leaders have called upon Germany to postpone the visit.) Should these protests not work, he said “it may be necessary to have phase three and ratchet it up further.”
He noted that members of Congress are now drafting legislation that would rescind the easing of trade with Iran. A trading ban was lifted earlier this year in response to the growing strength of moderate leaders in the government, despite the fact that hard-line fundamentalists still control the judiciary.
Because of the trial, both the British and Australian foreign ministers postponed trips to Iran that were scheduled for next week, Hoenlein noted.
Reaction to the conviction and sentences was swift and critical.
Israel, which denied strongly that the accused ever worked for the country, vowed that it would not rest until the Jews were released.
“After this iniquitous judgment against our Iranian brothers, we call on the leaders of the whole world to join Israel and cry justice for these innocents,” said Foreign Minister David Levy. “This is also a test for the Iranian leadership, which must decide whether to follow the shadowy path of regimes which, in the past, had used the Jews as scapegoats in internal quarrels.”
A member of the Iranian Jewish community who left 10 years ago and now lives here said that although the court did not impose the death sentence, the 27,000 Jews still living in Iran are petrified. Asked why Jews continue to live in Iran, given the fact that 17 have been tried on trumped-up charges and executed since the Iranian revolution in 1979, he replied: “That’s a good question.”
Hoenlein said the number of Jews leaving Iran since the arrest of the Jews 17 months ago has “noticeably increased,” but that emigration is a difficult process.
The Iranian Jew said the American Jewish community should know that Jews in Iran “used to have our own yeshiva. But a few years ago, they all became public. The Jewish schools are no more and Jews have to go to school on Shabbos.”
He said that after the yeshivas were closed, children were taught Torah and Hebrew and Judaism in the synagogues. But those arrested include religious leaders, and “the only reasons they were arrested was to scare them off — that they shouldn’t continue doing that. But after the arrests were publicized all over the world, the Iranians had to show they did not arrest them for nothing and so they called them spies and made them a story.
“The government fabricated everything,” he said. “There is no evidence against them.”
Since the arrests, “nobody dares to teach Torah” in Iran anymore, the man said.
“It is not only these men who have been arrested, Jewish studies are being held in captivity, too,” he said. “The Iranians want to get rid of the Jewish religion [in Iran].”
President Clinton expressed deep disappointment in what he characterized as a failure of the rule of law. The Dutch government said it viewed the sentences with “horror,” and its foreign minister warned Iran of possible European Union reactions. The European Jewish Congress condemned the verdict and praised the Jews’ courage. In Britain, one of the country’s most prominent Jews, Lord Janner of Braunstone, termed the sentences “vile and uncivilized.”
“I now urge all nations to apply the full force of diplomacy to convince the Iranians to ensure that these persecuted prisoners of conscience do not get flogged, lashed or detained and are released from Iran’s revolting jails,” he said.
American Jewish organizations were also quick to express outrage. The Union of Orthodox Congregations of America pointed out that the conviction occurred despite the presentation of any evidence against the defendants and behind closed doors. It noted that so-called confessions were later retracted and that those who made them claimed they did so under duress.
“The only so-called crimes that these innocent Jewish people committed were the teaching of Torah and Jewish tradition to members of the Jewish community,” he said. “The Orthodox Union deems this a gross violation of their civil, human and religious rights and demands that people of conscience the world over raise their voices in protest to this vicious and baseless persecution.”
The United Jewish Communities called the charges “baseless and the trial a blatant injustice and a mockery of internationally accepted judicial norms.”
UJA-Federation of New York condemned the “trumped-up espionage charges” and said it was “obvious that they were guilty of nothing more than their religion. Their continued suffering represents a travesty of justice.”