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A long overdue thank you: a letter to my Persian brethren

I feel that an apology is in order. We Ashkenazi Jews owe a collective mea culpa to our Persian brethren. 

This sentiment has crystallized since approximately October 8, as the world’s sympathy swiftly turned against Israel. However, I’ve been heartened and humbled by the marked outpouring of strong, sober voices from the Persian Jewish community. 

While I’ve grown up with Persian Jews my entire life here in Los Angeles, not only have I never listened closely to their immigrant stories, but also have I not heeded their precious, geopolitical wisdom, as I now do.

Persian Jews escaped their homeland of 2700 years starting around 1979, when the Ayatollah assumed power, thereby making life for Iranian Jews untenable. Most of these families recount no less than jaw-dropping, harrowing stories of fleeing their homes and evading Iranian police, in the dead of night, through Pakistan, Turkey and other hostile countries, in the back of a jeep, on a donkey, evading gunfire, and arriving in the United States with only the shirts on their back, a few dollars in their pockets and their own grit and determination.

And though American Jewry was well-established at this time, it is no secret that these Persian immigrants felt a less-than-warm welcome to our community. At best, they felt snubbed; at worst, they received blatant discrimination at local synagogues and schools. 

While my European Holocaust survivor relatives held equally heroic stories, these Ashkenazi immigrants arrived in the mid to late 1940s. Unfortunately, only a few Holocaust survivors are still alive today. While Steven Spielberg, through the USC Shoah Foundation, has painstakingly documented testimonies of survivors, sadly, these videos aren’t splashed across Instagram with the exposure they deserve. 

In contrast, Iranian Jews arrived mostly in the 1980s and thereafter, in the latter part of the twentieth century. I posit that this relatively freshly lived experience from within these past 40 years makes an indelible impression on their world view. Moreover, many Persian Jews were young children when their families fled. Today, they hold living memories of the trauma of the Iranian regime which is inscribed in their collective consciousness. Their personal narratives serve as compasses to their lives, to teach and remind us Ashkenazi Jews of the limits of our assimilation, the prosperity we have achieved in America, and how our comfort and complacency have somewhat caused us to fall asleep at the wheel. 

Stated another way, Ashkenazi Jews are essentially two generations removed from tyranny; Persian Jews are one generation removed. What a difference this generation makes. 

This visceral understanding of what totalitarianism looks like and what it smells like is perhaps why so many of the brave, pro-Israel voices we hear today on social media are young Persians. Sam Yebri was amongst the first of the Iranian Jews to speak out, forming 30 Years After in 2007, an organization which promotes the participation of Iranian-American Jews in American political, civic and Jewish life. Fast forward to today, when the torch has been passed on to women like Dr. Sheila Nazarian, Mandana Dayani, Lisa Daftari, and Columbia student Eden Yadegar. There’s even a word in Farsi—Shirzan, meaning “Lion woman”—that captures these lioness ladies. These articulate and fearless women have put so much on the line to speak out for Israel. They are clarifying the issues for what they really are—a battle of good versus evil. This, they say, is the war for western civilization. 

We must thank these Children of Esther. And we must listen to them. When they say how the recent college “protests,” encampments, and antisemitic rhetoric have brought back memories of attacks in Tehran, we must listen carefully. We need to self-reflect on what has gone wrong with our liberal society. How did our universities, once bastions of free thought and expression, become incubators of Jewish hate? How did the best-intended DEI departments become hostile arenas for the so-called “oppressor” Jews? 

A good Jewish expository piece would not be complete without giving an action plan. So, what is our charge now? We can start with a hearty, better-late-than-never toda raba. Thank you for being a vibrant, courageous, and integral voice in our diaspora. Thank you for modeling what it means to speak up. And, how do we move forward in our new normal as American Jews? 

Listen closely. Join hands. We have lots of work to do together. 

About the Author
Sarah Miller Lipton is a physician specializing in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. She lives in Los Angeles, California with her family.
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