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Two countries, close and far away
Interview with two Israeli-Iranians

Fariba Amini
July 5, 2007

It is as hard for us young people to hold on to our opinions at a time when ideals
are being shattered and destroyed, when the worst side of human nature predominates,
when everyone has come to doubt truth, justice and God.
-- Anne Frank

While visiting the beautiful city of Istanbul a few weeks ago, I had the fascinating experience of encountering two young Israeli men of Iranian descent. I met Daniel and Yaron at a workshop on minorities in the early modern Middle East held at the German Oriental Institute in the busy, sophisticated quarter of Jahangir in the heart of Istanbul, overlooking the breathtaking Bosphorus. Until I spoke to them I did not know where they were from. It turned out that both were Israeli citizens living in Jerusalem. Interestingly, the minute we started speaking I established a bond with them; we quickly became friends, maybe because of our common heritage--Iran. Who knows, they say blood is thicker than…

At the workshop, Daniel and Yaron spoke about Jewish minorities in the Ottoman Empire and in Safavid and Qajar Iran. Yaron gave a paper entitled,” At the Marketplace: Interethnic Encounters in the Ottoman City and its Cultural Significance.” Daniel’s talk was titled, “Some Notes on Shi’i-Jewish Polemical Exchanges.”

Daniel’s family name was Sadiq for as long as they were in Iran; after they left they changed it to Tsadik. His mother’s name is Homayoun and his father is called Benayahu. Yaron’s family name is Ben-Naeh’s, originally Banayan – His grandfather was 'Abdullah (son of Meir) Banayan, and his wife - Miriam Ben Eliyahu. His mother, Helen, was born in Tehran – to Eliya (his grandmother always called him Mirza, son of Refael &Taos) Negaran/Negari and Sara (daughter of Murad & Morvarid) Kamkar.
Daniel and Yaron both teach at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where they work on the Middle East and, more specifically, on Jews under Islam in the early modern period. Each has written a book as well as many articles. Yaron has published a book entitled “Jews in the Realm of the Sultans,” which was published by Magnes Press in Jerusalem and will appear in English at the Mohr-Ziebeck Press (Tübingen, Germany), and in Turkish (Goa Press, Istanbul).

Daniel has a forthcoming book on his long-standing interest, Iranian history, titled “Between Foreigners and Shi’s: 19th Century Iran and its Jewish minority” (Stanford University Press, 2007). The Persian translation of the book is also under publication.

Daniel speaks Persian. He told me he was conceived in Isfahan and born in Jerusalem to a Jewish family who moved in 1969 from the city of Isfahan to Israel. He loves the Persian way of saying things in a subtle and profound way, related to the issue at stake. Iranian Jews, says Daniel, like Iranians in general, love quoting lines of poetry from the greatest poets, such as Sa’adi and Hafiz. Daniel’s father knows many of these lines by heart, and Daniel was brought up hearing a line for any kind of incident that may happen.

Yaron understands little Persian; his paternal grandparents emigrated around 1920 (the father via Iraq; the mother, who was from a wealthy family, via India and onward to Egypt by boat). They became Israelis and, besides the few Persian words that they retained, were immersed in Israeli culture – literature, music etc. What remained were stories and memories about rabbis and doctors in Iran. His maternal grandparents in the 1930s emigrated to Tehran, and in 1951 left for Israel. They continued to speak Persian in the family circle, and held on to Iranian cuisine and customs, and as he says, even “mentality – honor, discreteness and extreme politeness, belief in the evil eye, etc.”

Yaron and Daniel’s family were told that they had to move to a distant area, near the Israeli border, as was the case with many Middle Eastern Jews. Daniel’s grandfather refused to go; he wanted to settle in Jerusalem. With persistence and hard labor, he was able to settle his family in that city. Yaron’s grandparents understood the importance of good education, and in order to buy an apartment in a good neighborhood in Jerusalem they sold many precious items that they brought with them – silk rugs embroidered with gold, a great deal of silverware, jewelry and gold coins. In doing so they secured the future of their children.

Daniel who focuses on Iran and Sh’iism, received his PHD from Yale University. Yaron obtained his doctoral degree from the Hebrew University. They told me they have some Arab students with whom they have a very good relationship. They both would like to visit Iran and in particular their ancestral cities, Isfahan and Hamedan, where their parents and grandparents came from. Daniel wants to visit his old house and the graves where his family members are buried. They told me that on this trip, as they walked in Istanbul, seeing the Islamic Republic travel agency, formerly Iran Air, they stopped; an Iranian woman with her hejab was there, and they inquired about the price of a round trip ticket to Iran; they did not dare say where they were from Israel. Considering the relationship between the Islamic Republic and the Israeli government, this was probably a wise move.

I told them they that should have let her know they were from Israel , that nothing would have happened, that the Iranian people are not against the Israeli people and/ or Iranian Jews. Rhetoric only exists between the governments. But they were still reluctant. Daniel told me that he understood, but that the Iranian government has a problem with Israelis and Jews outside of Iran. As a matter of fact, according to him, anti-Semitic publications are widespread and the government does nothing to stop this, to say the least. Daniel told me that it was his dream to visit Iran one day. He knows that having an Israeli passport makes this impossible, though. I told him that many Jews in Iran feel safe and in fact practice their religion and are active members of the society. He agreed and added that even if some Jews leave Iran today, others stay in the country due to economic opportunities. I wanted to assure him that, one day, he would be able to visit Iran without a problem; who knows, anything can happen if we are hopeful.

Both Daniel (DT) and Yaron (YBN) spoke candidly to me on each and every issue.

How has life been like for you in Israel?

DT- It’s been both good and bad like in any society. My family was not in a good shape, economically, when they came to Israel, and my father had to work hard, 2-3 jobs, to provide for us. We were not treated the same as the Ashkenazi Jews. In the early phase of statehood, not everyone was privileged to go to college and finish at the university level. There is corruption in the police but there is also a free press, and one can criticize the government. Jerusalem has become very orthodox whereas Tel Aviv is more secular. Nevertheless, in general Israel remains an open society. I love Israel, its people and the life in it.

YBN- I cannot complain. My life is good, thank God. My family was wealthy but my grandparents had to sell many of their belongings when they came from Iran. My grandmothers on both sides never went to the market, nor did they work. They were always at home. Luckily my father was able to sustain the family, and my mother went out to work only after my little sister (we are 5 children) went to school. Both sides of the family were very strict about education and encouraged learning. It has been hard to get to where I am today, but worth it, and I am proud.

How do your parents/grandparents describe their lives in Iran?

DT- my mother always said that they were not treated with kindness. When she used to go to the market, if she touched the fruits they would say you are najes; you are impure, if you touch anything you must buy it. Then they would sell her the bad fruit and vegetables. My uncle used to say that sometimes they beat him because he was a Jew. But my father always says that he wants to go back to Iran. He served in the army, and remembers those days as good days, at the service of his people. For him, Iran is the land of milk and honey! In terms of relations with society, they both remember strong friendships with some of their Muslim neighbors. (Daniel told me that they celebrated Noruz and he did so last year in Philadelphia with his Iranian friends, Muslim, Jewish and Christian alike, in fact at the Persian rug store of a Muslim friend.)

YBN – life in Iran came up as a subject when we looked at the old family albums. My grandfather never said anything about his past, but for comments on the harsh military service during the reign of Reza Shah, and he regretted that as a Jew he was not able to enter Iran's beautiful mosques. He learned chemistry at Tehran University, but never continued his studies. In Israel he owned a launderette. That's how he used his chemistry study which is pretty sad, considering that he was educated.

My grandmother was more willing to tell us about her past, and as she became older, and then sick with cancer, she told more and more stories. My grandparents were cousins. My grandfather was the son of a spice dealer. My grandmother came from a wealthy family in Hamadan, as her father was an antique dealer. Both graduated the Alliance Universelle Israélite high school and knew French well. She used to speak about the beauty of the city and the hills, the weather, their good life, her studies, and of old family tensions. Two of her brothers later came to Israel. The third remained in Iran and became very rich – he was an industrialist and owned some mines. He and his wife fled Iran after the revolution with a bag full of diamonds, and moved on to Los Angeles.

My grandparents never regretted coming to Israel, but I don't think they were very happy about it. Their immigration, as was true of many others in the early 1950's, was a response to the establishment of the state of Israel, to the difficult years of the Second World War—Reza Shah was collaborating with the Germans—and to the dynamics that the mass immigration created in the community. Yet, economically they did well and had a pretty good life. They were not treated badly by the Muslim population; I never heard that from my grandmother. She passed away a few years ago in Jerusalem.

In your classes do you have Palestinian or Arab students?

DT- Yes of course, I have some Arab students; at the beginning of the school year, we are given a list of names and some are Arab names. I have a very good rapport with all my students. There seems to be affirmative action, like in the US. The university is obliged to accept students from the lower strata, be they Jewish or Muslim. There have never been any kinds of clash between my students.

YBN- I must say the same. I have about 20 students per class and some of them are Arab students. My job is to teach and discrimination is far from our thoughts. I treat everyone equally, as I should.

FA- What do you think about Jews from America, the settlers?
YBN – some come with suitcases of money, from US or France, and that causes prices to go up, especially in the real estate market. Otherwise, they are usually orthodox, have many children, and are academics, which is good for the country. Besides that, I don’t have much of an opinion about them, and there’s no point in generalizing.

Do you consider yourself an Orthodox Jews and what is the meaning of that?

YBN- I am an orthodox Jew. This means that for me the Jewish Halakha - the Jewish religious law (similar to the shari'a) guides every action I undertake from the moment I get up, till I fall asleep. It encompasses everything in everyday life - from praying, saying a benediction before and after eating something, to one's relations with other people. Even if I sin and transgress something, I am aware that I have wronged. The belief in God is of course, immanent.

DT- I consider myself as a human being first, then a Jew who seeks to combine his humanism with his Jewish religious persuasion. Specifically, I am a religious Jew who follows Orthodoxy. Being an Orthodox Jew means to accept the divinity of the Torah and the Jewish oral Law.

What is your opinion on war, on the recent attack on Lebanon by the Israeli government?

DT- the only thing I know is that war is terrible. My mother always tells me, khoun ra ba khoun nashour (don’t wash blood by spilling more blood). There is no justification for war, but when you are attacked what are you supposed to do? Sit and be killed? Obviously there is reaction. But I am against war. When human beings are killed, both sides of a conflict suffer and I don’t like to see human suffering.

YBN- the planning was poor and foolish. As usual, Hizbullah men used civilians as a human shield. Many people got killed and it was not necessary. Many in Israel are critical of the government for this action.

Do you envision peace with the Palestinians?

DT- I don’t see it happening in this generation; I am afraid I am not hopeful. Maybe I am too much of a pessimist. There is a lot of animosity. I can’t see the death of innocent civilians on either side. But we should be accepted as a nation; unfortunately the other side still wants to get rid of us. There is no justification for Palestinian parents to teach their children to kill and be killed or to be violent. I believe life is worth more than death. To teach your loved ones to be a martyr is against sanctity of life. There seems to be some kind of movement on both sides to come to more understanding. I want to see two states living side by side.

I care about what happens to the impoverished Palestinians living under terrible conditions. But you cannot blame it on Israel. The Palestinian Authority wasted a lot of money and did not provide for the majority of the population, a lot of mismanagement and mishandling of finances. We all know that Arafat’s widow took millions of dollars out. This too happens within the Israeli society. Of course there is corruption on the Israeli side but at least it is reported in Ha’aretz and other Israeli newspapers. Israeli citizens can criticize their government whereas the Palestinian Authority has never admitted to any wrong doing and people cannot truly criticize their leaders.

What do you think of what is referred to as Neo-cons in the US?

YBN- I am afraid that in the long run their policy will be dangerous to the Jewish community in America and Israel. Anyhow, they are a minority. Neo-cons are closer to the Bush circles whereas in general Jews have always been democrats.

What is your opinion on Iran acquiring Nuclear power? Iranians think it is their right, why Pakistan, Israel, India, why not Iran?

YBN- As long as it is not aimed towards us or any other country, it is fine, but there is a constant escalation in this subject, all over Asia. If not for the explicit threat to the state of Israel, I wouldn't care much. The best would be that all countries give up their nuclear weapons and dedicate the money to humanitarian and cultural issues.

Do you think Iran is portrayed without any biases in Israeli newspapers?

YBN – Yes. This is a democracy, and I think the Press is quite frank and unbiased. We have nothing against the Iranian people. The papers do not deal with Iranians, Iranian life, but are concerned with anti-Israeli declarations and the nuclear threat.

DT- The Israeli press is unbiased about news on Iran but it is usually interested and more recently in two issues relevant to Israelis, denial of the Holocaust by the Iranian President, Ahmadi Nejad and the nuclear capacity of Iran, which might be turned against Israel.

When I asked Daniel and Yaron if they ever wished to go visit Iran? Both replied: “not today but yesterday!”

The night before we left Istanbul, we went to a restaurant; we sat at a long table, people from all over the world from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. The Greek restaurant owner put on Iranian music at the request of a wonderful German professor attending the workshop. We sat there, had dinner and drinks. There were Christians, Jews, and Muslims around the table. We had a splendid time; it was peaceful and cordial.

It maybe wishful thinking that the real world can be this way, especially these days, but that evening we sat there together, and nothing mattered but friendship and warmth. I consider Daniel, Yaron and all the others my newly found friends. I hope this friendship continues and I hope that, one day, young people from Palestine, Israel and Iran will meet, in a different atmosphere. They may not realize it but they have more in common than our current conflicts would lead us to believe. Comment


* Anne Frank was fifteen when she died of typhus in October 1944, along with her sister Margot after being captured by the Nazis in their hiding place in Amsterdam, the Netherlands and sent to the notorious concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen in Germany, where many Jews vanished. Her mother, Edith, was gassed in Auschwitz. Her father, Otto Frank, was the only remaining member of her family who survived. Anne Frank's diary “the Secret Annex,” has been translated into sixty languages, including Persian.

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