40 years since Victoria and 80,000 others fled Iran

Demonstration in Iran during the revolution, with protesters holding up placards featuring the Ayatollah  (Wikipedia/  GNU Free Documentation License/Author: Unknown via Jewish News)
Demonstration in Iran during the revolution, with protesters holding up placards featuring the Ayatollah (Wikipedia/ GNU Free Documentation License/Author: Unknown via Jewish News)

I never gave liquorice much thought until I met Victoria. This lady, now in her 80s, had lived in Iran until 1979. Her late husband’s business was to harvest the roots of the liquorice plants which proliferate naturally near the town of Kermanshah, and to sell the liquorice  for food processing, tobacco or for its medicinal properties.

As soon as the Shah was deposed and the Islamic Republic of Iran declared, Victoria’s husband lost no time in bundling his family out of the country. Israel had been a major client. Under the Shah, Iran had  good relations with the Jewish state. After the Islamic revolution, Israel became the ‘Little Satan’ (the regime considers the US – whose diplomats were taken hostage for 444 days in November 1979 – the ‘Great Satan).

Iran is racing to develop nuclear weapons to dominate the region. It denies the Holocaust  and regularly declares its intention to wipe out the Jewish state. Together with its proxies Islamic Jihad,  Hamas and Hezbollah, it presents the greatest physical threat to Israel.

Victoria and her family abandoned their house and their business. They caught a plane to London. She was just one of the 80,000 Jews who made their escape from Iran, many migrating to the US, the UK  or Israel.

Thousands of others became hostages. Desperate parents sent 1,800 lone children to safety in the US. Jews risked their lives to be smuggled out over the Pakistani border. The route was treacherous, and several disappeared without trace.

Forty Jews have lost their lives to the regime. The wealthy businessman Habib Elghanian was executed as an example to the terrified community.

For decades the regime has been dispatching its enemies to Evin prison . Into a cell 4ft by 10ft, shared by 10 prisoners with two blankets between them, was flung a Jewish manufacturer of brake linings, Joseph Koukou. Greedy employees denounced Koukou as a Zionist spy. Every day inmates would be randomly executed. Koukou was lucky to get out alive after serving five years in jail.

Victoria knows of no refugee from the Islamic regime – Jewish or non-Jewish – who has received compensation.

In London,  she went to the Iranian embassy to register the family’s lost assets. Their house was now a police station, but the thought of turning up on the doorstep  to order the policemen out was improbable.

The remaining 8,000 Jews are ostensibly free to practise their religion, but any link with Israel is taboo. The secret police controls what the community says. To its credit, the regime has not encouraged popular violence against Jews, although there have been isolated incidents.

Jews in Iran have fewer rights than Muslims, are subject to unfair inheritance laws  and debarred from the upper echelons of government, the army and politics – except for one token Jewish MP.

Unlike their rulers, the Iranian people  are generally thought of as open-minded  and pro-western. Victoria had nothing but pleasant memories of life under the Shah. But Jews have suffered pogroms and forced conversions during their 3,000-year old history.

Ultimately, individuals pay the price for political upheaval and intolerance: Every year on or around 30 November , we commemorate the exodus of Jews from Arab countries and Iran. On the 40th anniversary of the Islamic revolution,  let’s not forget the innocent victims of  this antisemitic and  brutal regime.

  •    Harif (www.harif.org) and the S&P Sephardi Community will be holding a Jewish Refugee Day event on 30 November. Book your tickets online at www.Sephardi.org.uk/events

About the Author
Lyn Julius is a journalist and co-founder of Harif, an association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa in the UK. She is the author of 'Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilisation in the Arab world vanished overnight.' (Vallentine Mitchell)
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