Jewish support for Iranian protesters flags as attention shifts to Israel and antisemitism

Activists lament American Jewish community's diminished attention on Tehran, despite its role in the Oct. 7 attacks, call for renewed interest in highlighting opposition to Islamic Republic regime

A year and a half after the start of the Women, Life, Freedom protests in Iran, the American Jewish community’s enthusiasm for supporting the people of Iran and their demonstrations against the country’s regime appears to be faltering, as attention shifts to the war in Israel and rising antisemitism at home. 

All the chaos only serves as a distraction, Matthew Nouriel, community engagement director at JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, told eJP. 

“This is what [the Iranian government] wanted,” Nouriel said, pointing out that with the world’s eyes elsewhere the Islamic Republic cracked down on protesters. Last year, executions in Iran reached an eight-year high. In April, Persian rapper Toomaj Salehi received the death sentence for participating in the Woman, Life, Freedom protest movement, and this week, acclaimed film director Mohammad Rasoulof fled the country after being sentenced to eight years in jail due to his work’s criticism of the regime.

As the world waits to see the outcome of the political upheaval in Iran after the death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, known as the “Butcher of Tehran,” in a helicopter crash over the weekend, Iranian Jewish advocates say the greater Jewish community should focus initiatives on celebrating the richness of Iranian Jewish culture and the wealth of history between Jews and Iranians because our futures are interconnected. 

“Everywhere I go, I’m constantly talking about it,” Nouriel said. “Because it’s a coalition that needs to be nurtured.”

In Jewish communities, where there had been programming based around the protest movement in Iran, today there is little acknowledgement of it.

Even though many young Persians in America are unlikely to be seen supporting Israel, the young generation living in Iran, no matter their background, are passionate about fighting the Islamic Republic and see Israel as an ally, Rabbi Tarlan Rabizadeh, vice president at American Jewish University, told eJP. 

“In Iran, they’re loud. They’re literally saying they don’t care if they die,” she said. “I just don’t understand how we’re not helping them.”

Even though they are still passionate about the Iranian freedom movement, many Persian Jews have shifted their energy too, according to Sharon S. Nazarian, the president of the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation and senior vice president of International Affairs for the Anti-Defamation League.

Last March, the Jewish Committee to Support Woman Life Freedom in Iran launched with Nazarian as a member of its steering committee, providing micro grants to support Jewish protesters outside of Iran — principally Persian Jews — but no one has applied for grants for months, she said. 

After Oct. 7 many Persian Jews focused their attention toward Israel and antisemitism, especially since many of the campus protests are occurring in New York and Los Angeles, both of which have large Persian Jewish communities.

“Yes, our heart is with the people of Iran, wanting better for our homeland where we were born,” Nazarian said. “But right now, the threat is very personal. It is in our communities where we live today.”

And yet Nazarian stressed that all of these things are interconnected: Iran’s Islamic Republic clashing with Israel directly and indirectly, through proxies such as Hamas and Hezbollah; the war raging through Gaza; and the protests flaring on American campuses. The “bigger picture” that Jewish organizations should focus on is that “this regime [is] showing up over and over again as an oppressor,” Nazarian said.

She added that Persian Jews can offer a special voice on these cultural trends emerging on college campuses and among young Americans in general, as they both shatter the myth of all Jews being white and can also share their communities experiences, particularly as it relates to student protests. “What happened in ‘78 in Iran and ‘79 started on university campuses. It started with this desire for democracy, for freedom. Then the Islamic Revolution hijacked the democracy revolution. That’s a very important lesson,” she said.

Jewish organizations should be motivated by the history of, and amplify a message of, Jewish and Iranian unity, Hooman Khalili, who describes himself as a politically conservative Iranian who was born Muslim, converted to Christianity and now lives in Los Angeles, told eJP. 

“Persians have been friends of the Jews for 3,000 years,” Khalili said, “when we’ve only been enemies for less than 50.” 

Since the Oct. 7 massacres, Iranian protesters of all backgrounds have rallied in in America, the United Kingdom and France, waving Israeli flags and the pre-1979 Iranian flag, emblazoned with the lion and the sun, a symbol of resistance against the Islamic regime. A popular chant that has bellowed through the crowds has been: “Not Gaza, Not Lebanon, My Life Only for Iran.”

Khalili designed 12 murals for sites throughout Israel supporting women’s liberation in Iran, including a mural on the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, featuring images of Mahsa Amini and Shirel Haim Pour, both of them Iranian women — one Kurdish and one Jewish. Amini’s September 2022 death sparked the Woman, Life, Freedom movement after she died while detained by the Islamic Republic’s morality police for improperly wearing a hijab. Pour was an IDF soldier who was killed by terrorists on Oct. 7 at the Nahal Oz base near the Gaza Strip. “Esthers of the world rise up,” the mural says, referencing the Persian heroine of the Purim story.

As Persian Jews stand at the crossroads of so much, one way Jewish organizations in the greater community can support them is by learning about the richness of their culture, Rachel Sumekh, lead consultant of TEN: Together Ending Need, told eJP. If all you know about Persian Jewish culture is their scallion-assisted version of the Passover song Dayenu (in which Persian Jews whip each other with the allium), “you have to ask how we can do a better job of bringing our Jewish community’s cultural richness into communal spaces.”

She recently helped plan a Persian Shabbat at the Reboot Summit, an annual gathering of Jews who are part of the Reboot Network, an arts and culture organization. “What was really special was, they didn’t just say, ‘Here, you have two minutes, talk about Shabbat.’ From the cocktail hour to the dinner menu to the music to the framing and remarks, there was support and resources invested to bring our magic to the dinner. It was the most celebrated and least tokenized I’ve felt being asked to share in a Jewish space.”