Woman Life Freedom

Iran-focused Jewish groups mark first anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death, prepare for new protests

Organization formed to support protesters has already issued several grants with more in the pipeline; Jews will struggle to participate in this year’s demonstrations, which fall on Rosh Hashanah

This Rosh Hashanah — Sept. 16 — marks the one-year anniversary of the death of  22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained by Iran’s morality police for improperly wearing a hijab. The moment sparked mass protests that cut across sex, creed and class. School girls tore off their hijabs, businesses shuttered in national strikes and women across the Iranian diaspora chopped their locks in support.

The year has been trying for many Iranian Jewish leaders working in the nonprofit sector. Activists are putting new initiatives in place to prepare for a new wave of protests inspired by the anniversary, and many are calling for help from the greater Jewish community.

“Most revolutions are not consistently in the same level of dynamism,” Nazee Moinian, a Middle East Institute analyst and member of the steering committee for the Jewish Committee to Support ‘Woman Life Freedom’ in Iran (JCWLF), told eJewishPhilanthropy. “They are heated at one point and they go into a plateau situation, which is where we are now, and then they pick up again.”

Her organization, which launched in March, distributes micro grants to support Jewish protestors, no matter their background. Funds can be used for anything from printing protest posters to transporting protestors to events to advertising events. Three grants have been handed out so far with many more under review, Moinian said.

“Americans want everything done yesterday,” Moinian said, making it clear that JCWLF is in it for the long run. “[Americans] have such short attention spans. [They] think that [because the protests  have slowed down] it’s dead. The genie’s out of the bottle with Iranian people, and you can’t put the genie back in.”

Yet it has been difficult for many Jewish activists to attend protests over the past year because they are regularly held on Shabbat. Major anniversary protests are scheduled to be held when many Jews will be attending High Holiday services this year.

“It’s like a slap in the face from the non-Jewish Persian community,” Rabbi Tarlan Rabizadeh, vice president for Jewish engagement at American Jewish University, told eJP. As an activist in both Jewish and Iranian circles, she often feels “homeless,” she said, “never Persian enough, never Jewish enough, never nothing enough,” especially because she also doesn’t see many in the greater Jewish community speaking out about the atrocities Iran is involved in, which includes funding much of the terrorism against Israel.

To help pull more of the mainstream Jewish community into the movement, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, as well as partner organizations including Chaya and Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA), are conducting an outreach campaign to the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, a nondenominational organization that includes over 200 rabbis.

“We are collaborating on creative ways for community members to express solidarity with the protests while observing the holiday,” Mary Kohav, the Los Angeles federation’s vice president for justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, and community engagement, told eJP.  “From asking synagogues to invite Iranian congregants to share their stories, to preparing leave behind materials with action steps, to distributing buttons and bracelets that say [the movement’s slogan] ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ in Hebrew and Farsi. We are affirming our support for the people of Iran alongside an intersectionality of partners.”

Rabbi Noah Farkas, president and CEO of the L.A. federation, told eJP that his organization had to do something. “We have a moral responsibility as Jews to speak out against what is happening in Iran, where women, political activists, students, and religious minorities are wrongfully imprisoned, brutally tortured or arbitrarily killed simply for exercising their right to peacefully protest.”

The federation is also reaching out to politicians to ensure that they understand the importance of the movement and how they can help.

“Constantly speaking about this to your elected officials, it matters,” Daniel Bral, an attorney and the board president of the Progressive Zionists of California, told eJP. “Because when such pressure’s applied on these politicians, they understand that ‘My constituency really cares about this, and I need to reflect the concerns of my constituents.’”

As a delegate to the California Democratic Party and on behalf of Progressive Zionists of California, Bral drafted a resolution supporting and expressing solidarity with the protesters in Iran that was adopted by the California Democratic Party.

This solidarity with the people of Iran needs to include offering refuge for those minorities who want to flee the country, Mark Hetfield, the president and CEO of HIAS, told eJP.

There are, according to estimates, 9,000 to 20,000 Jews remaining in Iran out of a population that once numbered over 100,000 before the 1979 revolution. Because the Jewish population lives under Iran’s autocratic regime, they are “so terrified that they literally are silenced out of fear,” Matthew Nouriel, community engagement director at JIMENA, told eJP.

Since 1990, when the United States passed the Lautenberg Amendment, HIAS has brought tens of thousands of refugees to the United States. Originally aimed at Soviet Jews, the program now offers refuge to Iranian minorities including Jews, Christians, Baha’is, Sabaean-Mandaeans, and Zoroastrians, processing them through Vienna.

The program is voted on every September and has traditionally received bipartisan support, but in 2017 the Trump administration halted it.

In April, it was relaunched and already 50 refugees have arrived in Vienna. Over 10,000 are waiting, Hetfeld said.

The program is “something we traditionally have tried not to make too public because it is sensitive because it involves bringing religious minorities out of Iran and to the United States,” Hetfield said. “The events of last year have only underscored for us the importance of the program… We don’t expect [demand] to diminish for the foreseeable future.”

This demand for help can be retraumatizing for many whose families were forced to flee after the 1979 revolution. Old wounds are festering. Some, especially the older generation of Jewish Iranian Americans, have lost hope.

But losing hope isn’t an option for the younger generation of Iranians, said Nouriel, who dreams of one day going on Jewish heritage tours of Iran — visiting Queen Esther’s Tomb — and plans to celebrate erev Rosh Hashanah with their family and attend a protest on Sept. 16.  

“You have the luxury in America to have your hopes crushed, but they don’t have the luxury of having their hopes crushed in Iran. They have to keep fighting,” Nouriel said. “The young people have gotten to the point where they just don’t care anymore. And that that’s a really dangerous place for the regime because now you have a population of young people who literally are like, ‘What are you going to do that you haven’t already done? You’re gonna arrest us. You’re going to torture us. You’re going to murder us. You’ve been doing that. It’s nothing new for us at this point. So we’re gonna keep fighting.’ And I think that that’s something that the entire world needs to get behind.”