Habib Elghanian may be unknown to many Jews in the United States, Israel and elsewhere in the world. To Iranian Jews, however, he is a symbol—a beloved community leader wrongly executed 41 years ago by the newly established Islamic Republic regime.
Elghanian was not only the head of Iran’s once 80,000-strong Jewish community; he was a patriotic Iranian citizen who was at the forefront of helping to modernize his country.
On May 9, 1979, when he was killed with a bullet to the heart by Iran’s Islamic revolutionary thugs, Iran’s Jews not only were devastated emotionally, but quickly realized that their lives were at risk under the new regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
At that time, Jewish leaders in America and abroad condemned the killing. Yet today, many of us Iranian-Jewish activists are baffled that such leaders have totally forgotten the crime against him, and fail to invoke it whenever political matters of Iran arise. After more than four decades, the time has come for Jews to bring Elghanian’s killing to the forefront, and shame the Iranian regime in every forum for the heinous crime they committed against an innocent Jew.
When publicly speaking out against the Iranian regime’s human-rights abuses, I am asked frequently why I continue to bring up Elghanian’s story, which took place so long ago.
The answer is simple. How can we Iranian Jews forget our beloved community leader who was killed for no reason? How can we stay silent when justice has not been served? Elghanian did nothing but good for his country. He was only executed for the crime of being a Jewish community leader.
In early 1979, during the Islamic revolution in Iran, Elghanian left the country temporarily. Despite pleas from friends and family that he not to return, he came back because of his desire to protect Iran’s minority Jewish population.
“I have done nothing wrong or illegal during my life in Iran, and have done only good things to help my country,” he told those who begged him to reconsider. “Why would the authorities arrest me?”
What Elghanian did not realize at the time, however, was that the new Khomeini regime did not operate in accordance with morality or logic. They were radical Islamists seeking to punish and force non-Muslims out of Iran.
Shortly after his return home, Elghanian was arrested and imprisoned on false charges of spying for Israel and America. After a sham televised 20-minute trial, at which he was denied an attorney, he was sentenced to death by the notorious Islamic cleric, Mohammed Sadeq Khalkhali, who also ordered that his assets be confiscated.
Prior to his execution, Elghanian—who was permitted to wear a kippah and Jewish prayer shawl before being shot to death—recited the “Shema,” the Hebrew prayer affirming God’s singularity.
In fact, Elghanian was neither a spy nor a traitor. He was a successful patriotic Iranian industrialist who had employed thousands of Iranians of various faiths and helped modernize the country. He and his brothers were responsible for creating a number of plastics, metal pipe and refrigeration manufacturing companies. In 1962, they built the 17-story Plasco Building in Tehran, the first privately constructed high-rise–and home to the first modern mall–of that pre-Khomeini period in Iran. (In January 2017, due to the ayatollah-led regime’s mismanagement, the Plasco building burned down, killing 75 people.)
Elghanian also promoted Iran’s economic growth as an active member of the country’s Chamber of Commerce. In that role, he encouraged international trade. His generosity to Jews and Muslims alike is well documented. Iranian-Jewish leaders recall, for instance, that in 1967 he was approached by Muslim counterparts seeking financial help to complete the construction of the Hossieneh Ershad Mosque in Tehran. His response was not only to donate money, but also to raise additional funds for the project from fellow Jewish businessmen.
Many Iranian Jews living in America today agree that the primary purpose of his execution was to strike fear into the hearts of all Jews in Iran. Ultimately, the regime wanted to the scare the Jews of Iran into fleeing the country, so that it could take possession of their lucrative properties, businesses and money. By killing Elghanian, the Khomeini regime could get rid of its “Jewish problem” and make itself wealthy at the same time.
Their plan worked. After Elghanian’s execution, thousands of Jews fled the country. In subsequent years, every time another Jew was executed by the regime, thousands more Jews followed suit. These Jews either had their assets confiscated were forced to leave them behind in their effort to get out fast and save their lives.
Today, only 5,000-8,000 Jews remain there. Since taking power in 1979, the radical Islamic regime has arrested, imprisoned and tortured thousands of Jews for no reason, and has executed nearly two dozen. It also has confiscated billions of dollars in Jewish assets. Moreover, since its inception, the regime—governed by Sharia Law—effectively has turned the Jews and other religious minorities into third-class citizens.
This is why we Iranian-Jewish activists abroad are demanding that Elghanian’s execution be stressed every time that the regime’s leaders claim to “love the Jews.”
We ask why his killing is never raised by major American-Jewish groups or leaders during Congressional hearings on the nuclear deal with Iran, and why it was never mentioned in the media when Iranian propagandist Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif visited the United States and spouted lies about the great “freedoms” that Jews enjoy in Iran. And why hasn’t Elghanian been discussed by elected American-Jewish officials who believe in direct negotiations with Tehran? Finally, why haven’t Jewish organizations every honored his memory in any of their annual gatherings?
The time has come to rectify this intolerable oversight.
Karmel Melamed is an award-winning internationally published Iranian American journalist based in Southern California; He is a member of the Speakers Bureau of JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa.