In September, I lost my beloved maternal uncle, Mansour Torbati, a larger-than-life doctor who lived in Jerusalem. Six months earlier, in February, he had suffered yet another heart attack, but believing he was on the mend, he made a seemingly strange declaration to his concerned family: He was going to Azerbaijan.
When Mansour’s children asked why he wanted to visit the former Soviet republic, his response moved them to tears. Four decades ago, Mansour, who was born in Tehran and always believed he lived the best years of his life in Iran, was forced to escape the country with his wife and two young children. Like many Iranians at the time, he reviled the fanatic theocracy headed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that had displaced the secular, westernizing Shah Mohammad Pahlavi and turned Iran into an official Islamic state that killed dissidents with impunity.
My uncle was eternally tormented over feeling that his land had been ripped from his hands. He had escaped to Israel and begun a whole new way of life, including a new medical practice, in the Jewish state. But last February, after another heart attack, Mansour was overwhelmed with one need: to be close again to Iran.
When he told his children, “I’m going to visit Azerbaijan,” they responded, “Abba, you need to rest. And you’re not going to be able to enter Iran again.” Mansour answered, “I know that. I just want to stand on the border between Azerbaijan and Iran and look across the way to see my beloved country again with my own eyes, even from a distance.”
He never made it to that border.
Want to know a secret? My uncle didn’t always love his life in Israel. An impassioned Zionist and Jew, he loved the concept of a Jewish state and was eternally grateful to Israel. But he was constantly stressed over what he described as a hard life there, particularly for an Iranian immigrant who came to the country wearing the metaphoric rose-colored glasses.
I am an ardent Zionist, but even I acknowledge that the Jewish world subscribes to an overly-romanticized narrative that paints Jews who escaped Arab and Muslim countries as having arrived in Israel without ever looking back. But for many Iranian Jews, it simply wasn’t that way. Though Hitler’s army came dangerously close to Iran’s border during World War II, Iran never had the same (20th century) level of persecution that plagued other Jewish communities in the region, such as the 1941 Farhud massacre in Baghdad or the escape-or-be-killed violence against Jews in countries such as Libya and Syria during the Six-Day War in 1967.
For the most part, Iranian Jews who immigrated to Israel beginning in the 1950s came to Israel without the same desperate need for survival experienced by other Jews. They mostly came because they were Zionists (and it helped that before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, they could travel back and forth between Israel and Iran). The revolution, however terrible, wasn’t a pogrom against Jews.
And then there are Iranian Jews who escaped post-revolutionary Iran and came to the United States as refugees and immigrants. For decades, our story in America was a mostly happy one. Until now.
There are murmurs of deep concern among Iranian American Jews about the shocking rise of antisemitism in this country, coupled with what seem to be waves of imminent civil unrest, whether related to race relations or the dangerous—yes, dangerous—divide between the left and the right in America today. This concern is best encapsulated in a conversation I had with my friend, David Ebrami, during a Sukkot lunch this fall.
Like me, David escaped Iran as a child. For the past few decades, he’s admitted to having lived “a great life” in Los Angeles. But now, “Dave,” as I call him, sees a change for the worse. During that lunch, we talked about the current, historic revolution sweeping Iran that aims to overthrow the theocratic regime. But we also spoke about L.A., an L.A. that neither one of us recognizes anymore: violent crime that goes unpunished, a feeling of dread when walking in the street, and not knowing whether the person you’re facing is a closet antisemite.
And then, Dave made an astonishing observation that tied together pessimism regarding America today with optimism regarding the revolution now underway in Iran: “Tabby,” he said as he laughed, “Wouldn’t it be unbelievable if things became so bad in America and so good in Iran that we, refugees, who escaped to this country, would have to escape back to Iran?!”
But the realist in me—the one who learned about coup-d’étatsand warfare before I learned how to tie my shoes—knows that in life (and statecraft), anything can happen.
And now, when it comes to Iran, it’s no longer a question of whether the regime will be overthrown, but when.
Last month, Iranians in the diaspora almost fell out of our collective chairs over a letter penned by a woman named Badri Hosseini Khamenei. She slammed the Supreme Leader of Iran for his “despotic” rule; she accused the regime of bringing “nothing but suffering and oppression to Iran and Iranians” and even went as far as to demand that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) lay down its arms.
Badri Hosseini Khamenei is the sister of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
And then there came the news that the mullahs were in talks with Venezuelan leaders about potentially obtaining refuge in the Latin American country if the regime were to be toppled. “Do you have any whiskey in the pantry?” my father asked me as he shared the news about Venezuela. “This is a development worth celebrating.”
But while there are glimmers of celebratory news, Iranians around the world are deeply pained over the hundreds of dead and tens of thousands who’ve been arrested in Iran, including over 50 children who’ve been killed in connection with the historic revolution taking place in the country today. We in the diaspora are eternally indebted to those in Iran for their sacrifice and unabashed courage. We can never repay them, but we will forever honor them.
The revolution we’re witnessing in Iran today extends beyond the country; it’s a fight for democracy in general. And if the Iranian army (not to be confused with the dreaded Basij or IRGC, who are brainwashed regime loyalists) steps in and defends demonstrators in the streets, the revolution has the best chance of succeeding.
Only then, after I’ve prayed for those who never lived to see a free Iran because they died to ensure a free Iran; after I’ve witnessed a successful transition from theocratic tyranny to voter-enabled democracy; and after I’ve seen portraits of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei removed from Iranian governmental buildings and replaced with images of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old woman whose brutal death in September sparked a historic fire, do I hope to pour a glass of whiskey, think of my late uncle, Mansour, whom I lost four months ago in Jerusalem, and proclaim, “Next year in Tehran!”
Tabby Refael is an award-winning LA-based writer, speaker and civic action activist. Follow her on Twitter @TabbyRefael.
This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.