Jews From Islamic Lands Speak on Muslim Immigration

By Hannah Lee, Philadelphia Jewish Voice, March 3, 2017

Iranian Jewish refugee from Kurdistan, leaving with Torah (Tehran, Iran, 1950) by Moshe Shapiro in The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life (Creative Commons License)

The president’s travel ban for people from seven Muslim countries (now temporarily suspended by federal judges) has provoked outcries from the liberal community in the United States. Rallies and other acts of dissent have sprung up in most major cities. I last wrote about the response to the travel ban in the general Jewish community. I now seek to learn more from Jews who have lived in Muslim countries.

“In just 50 years, almost a million Jews, whose communities stretch back up to 3,000 years, have been ‘ethnically cleansed’ from ten Arab countries. These refugees outnumber the Palestinian refugees … , but their narrative has all but been ignored. Unlike Palestinian refugees, they fled not war, but systematic persecution,” according to Point of No Return, a blog on Jewish refugees from the Middle East.

Rabbi Albert Gabbai of Mikveh Israel is one of these Jewish refugees, and he has an amazing story that many American Jews do not know: Rabbi Gabbai was originally from Egypt. With the outbreak of the Six-Day War, Egypt rounded up all the Jewish men and put them into prison camps. (I recall learning in an earlier conversation with him that his mother brought food to the prison daily because he and his brothers did not get kosher prison rations.) Three years later, he was driven to the airport. He was given a French laissez-passer (travel document), and he arrived in Paris, with just the shirt on his back. I could have spent much more time learning about his personal story, but our conversation diverged into his views on Muslim immigration in America.

I also had the opportunity to interview two Jews from Iran. One was Ephraim Dardashti, who left Iran before the Revolution of 1979. The other, DD, who prefers to remain anonymous, left Iran after the Revolution.

Below are my questions, with responses from Rabbi Gabbai and the two Iranian-born Jews.

How was life in your native land?

DD: In Iran, by 1979, most of the Jewish community had moved out of the Jewish ghetto. I’m the third child in my family and the first one that was born outside the ghetto. Jews had started to excel both academically and financially. There was still a great deal of anti-Semitism and overt discrimination all around. The hostility took a sharp turn for the worse starting in 1978.

ED: During the reign of the Shah, the Jews were overall well-off at the time. They had economic and educational opportunities that were unprecedented. The ruling regime wanted to move the country to the modern age and leave the Middle Ages behind as quickly as possible. The Jews took advantage of this opportunity, and as result, were far over-represented in the professions and in the economic life of the country.

The socio-religious prejudices were below the surface, but they never disappeared despite the assimilation of the Jews into the society at large. Shiite Iran and pre-Islamic Zoroastrian Iran had a long checkered history when it came to the treatment of the Jews. Prior to the 20th century, there were frequent violent outbursts against the Jews and forced conversions. The Jewish community was battered. Missionaries and the religion of Bahaism made strong inroads among the Jews in the 19th century.

What is it like now? Is there still a Jewish community?

DD: There is still a Jewish community in my hometown of Shiraz, although it has shrunk quite a bit. The Jewish school is controlled by the government, with a Muslim administration, and the school is required to operate on Shabbat. The Jewish education books are issued by the government and taught in Farsi. The contents have a Muslim slant. Jews are excluded from positions of authority and certain professions.

ED: At the time of the Islamic Revolution, the population of Iran was 35 million; the Jews numbered around 125,000. Today, the population of the country is around 80 million, and the Jewish population numbers around 20,000. I think that the numbers speak for themselves.

HL: According to Professor Joel Beinin of Stanford University in The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry, at most, less than ten Jews remain in Egypt today.

What is your view on the United States welcoming Muslim refugees?

AG: As Jews, we welcome people who are persecuted. As Jews, we have to protect ourselves. As Jews, we have to follow the law of the land: dina d’malkhuta dina (Aramaic: דִּינָא דְּמַלְכוּתָא דִּינָא‎‎).

The guiding principle should be that whoever comes here is not here to harm us. As a Jew who was persecuted for his faith and ethnicity, I sympathize much with people who were persecuted, despite being innocent of any crimes.

We are always guided by our Jewish principles. The laws of Maimonides for tzedakah (charity) direct us to focus first on our inner circle – the family – before we address the needs of the community. We cannot solve the problems of the whole world.

Millions want to come here for a better life. We’re not being honest with ourselves if we don’t admit that.

Syrians have fled to Turkey and Jordan. They’re not being killed there. The United States can send them money, medicine and blankets. It does not make sense to bring them here.

We should not discriminate between Christians and Muslims, black and other, when we’re talking about saving people whose lives are in danger.

What are your thoughts on the impact of Muslim refugees on American society?

AG: Germany allowed entry to close to one million Muslims. Most are not from Syria, but are from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Africa. About 80-90% of these people are able-bodied young people, who are not escaping from war, but choosing a better life. They do not care for assimilation.

They live in enclaves, in suburbs such as outside Paris. They cannot afford to live elsewhere. This complicates the problem of assimilation and fosters radicalization. These are police “no go” zones. Muslim community peer pressure enforces a rigid form of piety.

DD: I think Islam, at least the way it is taught in almost all Muslim countries, is the problem, not the Muslims. I’m more concerned about the Muslim schools and mosques, mostly funded by Saudi Arabia, that indoctrinate the followers with Islamic supremacist, anti-Semitic and anti-Western ideology. I have an employee who is a Muslim from India who was confiding to me that he could not find a mosque that followed the moderate version that he was used to in India.

I do think that American citizenship requires acceptance of American law. I was catching a flight back from Detroit a few months ago, and I was stuck behind a Muslim lady who was trying to board with a full niqab (a full-body covering, with only the eyes visible). I think requiring that level of acceptance in America is unreasonable.

ED: The problem facing Europe and the U.S. has fundamentally to do with the nature of Islam. Islam had a golden period in the Middle Ages: the sciences, mathematics and medicine coming out of the vast Islamic lands were far superior to anything comparable in Medieval Europe. But, Islamic societies have hit the wall.

A glorious past, but nothing to show these days despite its oil wealth in parts of the Islamic world. The Islamic world resembles a person who has a glorious lineage, but he or she today has nothing to show for it. The Islamic lands have tried all the “isms” out there — socialism, nationalism, communism and capitalism — yet they are behind in every facet.

Does the resettlement of Muslims differ between the United States and Europe?

AG: In the U. S., there is more opportunity to be part of the “melting pot” because of the American approach to life and liberty and to our greater tolerance for diversity. (Note: In the Arab Middle East, there is no tolerance for diversity.)

DD: I’m a bit conflicted. On the one hand, being an Orthodox Jew, I understand the desire to maintain one’s cultural identity. On the other hand, we Jews, or other similar groups such as the Amish, do not try to impose our way of life on others or resort to violence if our religious sensitivities are offended. I think the U.S. has been somewhat more successful than Europe in absorbing Muslims.

Having experienced the indoctrination that goes on in Muslim countries — having attended a public school — I think there is a clash of civilizations. That said, many Muslims who are trying to migrate to the U.S. and Europe are also escaping the repressive culture. We somehow need to be open to the moderate Muslims and those escaping repression, while fighting the Islamic supremacist ideology, including the institutions and people that promote it here.

ED: These societies are imploding as demonstrated by the Arab Spring. Folks are fleeing them and moving to the heartlands of nations that colonized them in the past, or others, like the U.S. and Canada, that have sheltered them.

In Europe overall, immigrants from Islamic lands are reminded on a daily basis — by self-comparison — how backward they are. Those coming from male-dominated cultures are baffled by the sexual morality of their adopted countries, freedom of thought and generational gaps.

In Europe, as well as in their home countries, the elixir for all the miseries and jealousy has been a return to a misunderstood and over-glorified past. If only Shariah and Koranic rule were in place, then they would be back as great or greater than their glorious ancestors. Islam has to confront itself and modernize. The Jews have done that successfully over the ages.

The frustrated, damaged “refugee” clinging to the unreformed Islam of his ancestors is a time bomb, as demonstrated in Paris, Brussels, Tunisia and elsewhere. Iranians represent the largest non-American ethnic group in the ranks of professors in American colleges and universities. These are the children of the “westernized” and secularized Iranians dating back to the advances under the Pahlavi regime.

This is not about immigration or refugee resettlement, but rather about time-traveling — folks moving from the Middle Ages to the 21st century and their ability to adapt. Eastern Jews made the leap when they moved to Israel. Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian refugees adapted. The Muslim communities sending their kids to madrassas in Minnesota, California, Michigan, New York and Tennessee haven’t, and they are ticking time bombs. The problem is Islam being stuck in the mud of the Middle Ages and dragging into the earth those clinging to that version of it.

Political correctness and the mediocre state of “liberal” education and the fact that we see everything from the prism of the 60’s racial-equality battles have robbed us of the ability to think and analyze. The problem is not immigration or refugee resettlement, but rather a poisoned and dying Islam that, unless it reforms itself, will take down its own adherents and those they come in contact with.

AG: Here, when you ask for directions in accented English, people go out of their way to help, even if by giving erroneous directions.

Some Lessons of Argo

By Hannah Lee

When the animated musical film Prince of Egypt was released in
1998, a rabbi acquaintance expressed his dismay over the Hollywood version of
the yetziat Mitzrayim story. Why worry?, I asked in my naiveté.
He reminded me that for many Americans, it’d be the only version they know of
that Bible story.*  My husband and I saw Argo this weekend when
it finally arrived at my local Bala Cinema and we thought it a fabulous
movie, thrillingly told. The rescue of six Americans, trapped in Iran after
our embassy was invaded in 1979, was classified until 1997 and remained under
our national radar. It only made the headlines when Joshuah Bearman wrote
about it for Wired magazine
. That article sparked two books and this
latest film Argo.

Ben Affleck, center, with his “Argo” inspiration Tony Mendez, far
left, and real-life “house guests” Kathleen Stafford, Bob Anders
and Lee Schatz. At right are Pat Taylor and former Ambassador Ken Taylor
(Keegan Bursaw/Embassy of Canada)



The historical context: On January 16, 1979, Iranian revolutionaries overthrew the Persian monarchy under the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced it with an Islamic republic led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. On November 4, the American Embassy walls were breached by Islamic students and militants; 52 Americans were held hostage while five embassy employees escaped from the back. These five plus
an agricultural attaché managed to evade capture by moving from house to
house until they were welcomed by the Canadian Embassy.

The U.S. State Department considered various preposterous schemes to rescue
these “houseguests” that would not jeopardize the welfare of the remaining
hostages. Finally, the CIA offered another plan: “It’s the best bad idea
we have, sir. By far,” declared Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck in
the film. Mendez was the best CIA agent in “exfiltration” (extracting people
from hostile situations) who came up with a scheme to set up a fake movie
company, Studio Six Productions, dedicated to the six Americans to be

Studio Six, as set up by Mendez and John Chambers, a veteran Hollywood
insider (who won an Oscar for creating the masks and makeup for Planet of
the Apes
), occupied an office on the old Columbia Studio lot in
Hollywood and announced its intention to produce a non-existent sci-fi movie,
Argo, by placing full-page ads in Variety and The
Hollywood Reporter
. Mendez would pose as the Irish Kevin Costas Harkin,
the assistant producer, fly into Tehran, and leave with his scouting party of

Given less than a 50% chance of success (as later revealed by President
Jimmy Carter whose hope for a second term was dashed by the Iranian hostage
crisis), but in a delicate blend of risk, training, and luck, Mendez did
succeed in spiriting the six Americans out of Iran on January 27, 1980. They
left with Canadian passports, aboard a Swissair flight for Zurich, flying out
of Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport.

The delicate situation of the remaining hostages meant that the “Canadian
caper” was classified, with no public mention of the role of the CIA. The
hostages would languish for 444 days until they were released in January 20,
1981, with one failed military attempt, Operation Eagle Claw.
If I can learn the truth from other sources, then I don’t mind that
Hollywood changes the facts to make their product more heart-thumpingly (and
hands-over-the-eyes) dramatic. I’ve learned that Tony Mendez, the CIA agent,
and John Chalmers, the Hollywood makeup artist, were both awarded the top CIA
honor for their multiple services for our country. However, there were other
heroes in this crisis, such as the Canadians (their roles minimized in the
movie) and the British (erroneously disparaged in the film). The housemaid —
the only good Iranian! — whose courage helped the six Americans at a crucial
moment of questioning by the Islamic militia was probably made up for the

The film, Argo, simplified the list of players by eliminating the
role of Canadian consular official John Sheardown who, with his wife,
sheltered four of the “houseguests” and makeup artist Robert Sidell who
collaborated with Chambers in Studio Six. It telescoped events. Most
glaringly, the role of the Canadians appear in the film as “glorified
innkeepers,” keeping their houseguests comfortable with food and liquor
(despite the ban on alcohol by the Islamic regime). The Canadians saw their
roles diminished in the film, while the CIA– “the junior partner” in the
words of their Ambassador to Iran of that time, Ken Taylor– became the team
that masterminded and executed the delicate rescue.

When Argo was aired at the Toronto International Film Festival,
it almost caused another cross-border scandal. Later, Director Affleck
invited Taylor and his wife to Los Angeles for a private screening and
offered to change the postscript. The new postscript says: “The involvement
of the CIA complemented efforts of the Canadian Embassy to free the six held
in Tehran. To this day the story stands as an enduring model of international
co-operation between governments.”  Taylor
said to Jim Coyle of the Toronto Star,
“All the documentation to
authenticate the diplomats as Canadians, the business cards, credit cards,
the passports, the academic credentials, everything came out of Canada.” The
ambassador’s wife, Dr. Pat Taylor, booked three sets of airline tickets with
her own money. The Canadian Embassy staff scoped out the airport and, to
create a pattern of chaos, sent members in and out of Mehrabad Airport.

So, what are the lessons I’ve learned since viewing Argo? First,
diplomacy matters.  When the Iranian revolutionary regime ignored all
the rules of diplomatic protection and the Vienna Convention by invading the
American Embassy, it was the diplomatic ties with the other embassies
(British, Swedish, and New Zealander) that kept open the possible routes of

Second, language fluency is a matter of life-and-death in hostile
situations: an embassy staffer passed instructions in
with the cook, Somchai “Sam” Sriweawnetr and another
corrected an error in Farsi, when he noticed that the date for departure on the fake
passports was listed before the date of arrival (based on the Shah’s calendar
instead of the Ayatollah’s calendar, with the new Iranian year starting in
late March). And in a less serious note, I’ve learned that fluent
Farsi speakers
noticed that Affleck says salam at the end of a
conversation with an Iranian official, but salam means hello in
Persian, not goodbye.

Third, Hollywood rules and history rues. From
the CIA account:
“By the time Studio Six folded several weeks after the
rescue, we had received 26 scripts. . . . One was from Steven Spielberg.”

Director Ben Affleck is now touted as an Oscar contender for Argo,
his third film; his two previous films were Gone Baby Gone (2007)
and The Town (2010). It is a masterly work of art. The final credits
juxtaposed the archival images with the Argo still shots. The
casting of the six American “houseguests” was eerily exact. Furthermore,
marveled Robert Sidell who’d collaborated with Chambers in Studio Six,
“John Goodman was a Xerox copy of Johnny Chambers… right up to capturing
the legendary makeup man’s limp.”

Films based on true events inevitably become a balance between facts and
the director’s artistic vision. Cinematic adaptations of fictional stories
face the ire of devoted fans when they deviate from the books, but documentary-style dramas have the greater risk of changing the public’s understanding of world
history. As a regular viewer, I do not challenge the director’s prerogative,
but I count my blessings for living in a country where I can research the

*An Orthodox friend disputes the rabbi’s contention, stating that the plot
followed Midrash.