The Iranian diaspora can learn something from the Jewish experience in America. Like it or not diasporas in any society are linked to the country that others most associate them with. We are viewed through the prism of the relationship between that place and the nation we now call home. Jewish Americans have long understood this reality. Iranian Americans? It’s complicated.
Many Iranian Americans came to the US as political, ethnic, or religious refugees. Others came for economic opportunities or because they wanted to live in what they saw as a more democratic society. Consequently, Iranian Americans tend to be very critical of the Iranian government (for good reason) and may resent being associated with today’s Iran. For Jews who have existed in a diaspora for thousands of years it is the modern state of Israel with which we are most often associated despite the majority of us having closer connections with Eastern European Jewish culture. This association exists regardless of the individual’s views towards Israel, whether they be staunch supporters, critics of modern Zionism, or reject it altogether.
Therefore most Jews have long understood that if Israel is viewed as a pariah state or held to a different standard this will ultimately be used as an excuse for anti-Semitism. Wait. Let me explain what I do not mean first. I am not referring to individual Jews or Jewish groups that misuse the label of ‘anti-Semite’ to shutdown serious debates about Israel or silence legitimate criticism of Israeli actions. Such tactics have even been used against progressive Jewish organizations and they are wrong. What I am referring to is the importance of ensuring we are judged by the same standards as everyone else.
Countless times at dinners with friends I have been asked to defend some action by Israel as if Bibi Netanyahu and I have weekly chats. I think Iranian Americans and indeed all Iranians abroad can relate to being asked to answer for the politics of a country that they themselves may not agree with but nonetheless have little control over. I am sure many readers will be taken aback by my comparison of Israel with Iran. Some may take offense to comparing what they feel is a democratic Israeli state to an authoritarian Iran. Others may feel that whatever Iran does wrong at least it is not bulldozing houses to build settlements. If this is you right now then you have already missed the point. Israel and Iran are both incessantly in the international spotlight and the Jewish and Iranian diasporas are often unfairly called upon to answer for their alleged misdeeds.
When we are asked to personally answer for the perceptions that the American public has about Iran or Israel we have a choice to proactively shape the debate or remain on the sidelines. All too often we react either by completely distancing ourselves from the topic or becoming staunchly defensive. But a Jew can criticize Israeli settler crimes or the Netanyahu government while also pushing back against the absurd notion that there is a “Zionist conspiracy” or that Israel is uniquely aggressive. Likewise Iranians can criticize the Iranian government’s human rights record or arrest of a dual-national while also pushing back against the notion that Iran is the source of all the Middle East’s problems when the nuanced facts suggest this is simply not true. Some Iranian Americans even insist on calling themselves Persian for no other reason than to separate themselves from Iran.
While legitimate criticisms must be aired, it cannot be denied that an unfair demonization of Iran poses risks to the Iranian-American community. Iran has been singled out as the number one state-sponsor of terrorism, despite the arguably bigger role played by US allies such as Saudi Arabia. The more Iran’s role in terror is exaggerated, the more dire the policy consequences have become – including the manner in which Iranians as a people have been conflated with the actions of the government. This, in turn, has led to a wide acceptance of Iran’s inclusion in (and Saudi Arabia’s exclusion from) the already discriminatory Muslim Ban. In the month after the ban was announced two Indian men were shot in Kansas by a man who mistook them for Iranian. But this was very much the consequence of a long history of sensationalizing the supposed Iranian threat.
By demanding fairness and balance, one is not defending the actions of Israel or Iran but preventing hyperbole and hysteria to be used against our communities here in America.
Still, it is easy to draw distinctions between the Iranian and Jewish experiences in the US. Iranian Americans left a place that had always been their home. They have held onto its food, language, culture and poetry. Whereas most Jews have not lived in Israel nor did our great-grandparents live in Israel. We are more connected with the culture of the Eastern European shtetl (Jewish village) than Tel Aviv.
However, our experiences are the same in that we both find our roots in a world that no longer is. At the US Holocaust Memorial Museum there is a list of shtetls that were destroyed by the Nazis, including my great-grandfather’s. Obviously the piece of land still exists but the world it represents is lost. Speaking to Iranian Americans I have found that many feel the same way about Iran. They may visit family or take trips back to their hometown but the Iran they knew has changed. Thus the conundrum of being part of a diaspora in America is that we are connected to the image of a distant place that we may ourselves have legitimate criticisms of yet we suffer if it is vilified and therefore must demand it is treated fairly.
But this is our burden and to neglect it jeopardizes our well-being and community here in America.
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