Letter to Editor
Once again, as thirteen Iranian Jews were being tried on trumped-up charges of espionage, denied due process, and handed severe sentences, establishment Jewish leaders have sought to lull the community into passivity with that old familiar refrain: "Trust us. If you only knew what we know. We've got the facts. We just can't share them with anyone." We've heard that old "If-you-only-knew-what-we-know" refrain before from our self-appointed leaders, most devastatingly during the Shoah, and we are now hearing it again. Throughout the travesty of justice inflicted on the Iranian Jews, officials of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations were assuring us that they along had the facts, and that based on those facts they alone knew exactly how to proceed. How many times do we need to hear this refrain before we wise up?
Don't worry, they assured us, we have an inside line. Don't worry, we're working behind the scenes with the U.S. government to bring sanctions against Iran. Don't worry, we've galvanized the international community through the World Bank to delay loans to Iran. Don't worry, through out intercessions the prisoners are now receiving kosher food and family visits. Don't worry, maybe a couple of the defendants will get five to six years, but most will get shorter terms.
It turns out we had a lot to worry about. It turns out that those who said they knew what was going on were almost always wrong. It turns out that instead of sanctioning Iran, the U.S. removed tariffs for Iranian goods, allowed the Iranian soccer team to visit here, and permitted Iranian diplomats to travel freely in the States. It turns out that the World Bank failed to delay the loans. It turns out that the kosher food and family visits that were allowed consisted of only one meal and painfully brief visits that lasted just a few minutes. Most important, it turns out that the sentences were by no means moderate; they were extremely harsh.
The "If-you-only-knew-what-we-knew" position reached its low point when the Conference insisted prior to the sentencing that public outcry would be counterproductive. To up the ante, its officials warned that they had contacts with members of the prisoners' families, ALL of whom opposed such public manifestations. And then came the twist of the knife. Our first concern must be the welfare of the prisoners, Conference leaders chided, not what makes us feel good - as if those who disagree with them don't care about the accused. To these sorts of psychological pressures can be attributed the fact that some newspapers expressed trepidation about running our ads announcing a large prayer vigil at the Iranian mission to the UN. The news of the trials was also effectively kept our of leading Jewish papers during the two weeks prior to the sentencing, giving the impression to the Iranian government, which closely monitors the press, that the reaction of the Jewish community was not something about which it needed to be concerned.
The fact is, family members with whom we spoke before planning our many vigils in New York gave us their blessings. Moreover, our large prayer vigil, which attracted more than 2,500 participants despite the Conference's efforts to undermine it, generated two meetings between rabbis and Iranian officials. If public outcry has no effect, as the Conference claims, why did these officials agree to meet with us in what turned out to be the only official meeting between Jewish leaders and Iranian diplomats since the crisis began? Pooya Dayanim, a leader of the Iranian Jewish community in L.A., correctly noted that the U.S. did not do more because there was no public outcry to pressure the government to be tough on Iran.
It is fatal to allow ourselves to be patronized and rendered passive by leaders who take refuge in the "If-you-only-knew-what-we-knew" refrain. The activities of our leaders must never remain secret. They must be spelled out so that the community can hold them accountable. The Conference, of course, has the right to push its own strategy, but to take the position that it is the sole authority and that its approach is the only valid one is both arrogant and dangerous. Moreover, to suggest, as some now do, that the fact that the prisoners did not receive death penalties vindicates the policy of restraint and working through back-room channels, is defeatist in the extreme. We must take absolutely no comfort at all from the harsh sentences that have been handed down.
Among those who surrendered to the behest of lay leaders condemning public protests were some of the most liberal, progressive Jews who would never tolerate following religious leaders blindly. Yet they docilely bowed to the dictates of the Conference of Presidents. The policy of blindly following was a disaster for Jews during the Shoah, and a dismal failure once again in the case of the Iranian Jews. When will we learn? The "If-you-only-knew-what-we-knew" refrain is a call for complacency and powerlessness. Leaders who hide behind the "Trust-us" syndrome should never be trusted.
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