A few days ago I walked into a coffee shop to meet my friend and that was the first thing she asked me.
A quick Google search revealed the headlines like “Iran Says Preemptive Strike on Israel Possible” “Israel Threatens to Strike Iran’s Nuclear Facilities” “Iran and Israel Accuse Each Other of Attack.” The decades-long feud that sits at the cross section of my identity has ignited once again, involuntarily placing me in the middle of a potential war.
As a native Seattleite of Iranian Jewish descent, the question she posed in such blunt terms has become the perpetual conundrum of my life. Each time politics between these two powerful Middle Eastern countries are ruffled, I somehow find myself forced to take a stance solely as a consequence of my contentious identity. Then comes the never ending list of questions from perplexed people trying to place me into a category. “Are you aligned with Iran’s politics or Israel’s?” which translates into “Do you feel more Iranian or Jewish?”
In 2005, when Iranian president Ahmadinejad declared that “Israel must be wiped off the map” [see my earlier post #34, AP) I felt protective of my Jewish heritage and the struggles of the Jewish people. But now, with an attack on Iran by Israel appearing increasingly imminent, my allegiances waver at the prospect of violence in a country my ancestors called home for centuries.
Last year, I spent 3 months traveling in the Middle East. Each day I feverishly vacillated between the two pieces of myself as I attempted to locate my identity among the mist of complicated political upheaval. I quickly learned that ‘taking a side’ was no longer a choice but a matter of survival.
During dinner with a powerful Lebanese hotel owner in Beirut, after learning I was Iranian he abruptly said to me, “I hope you are not one of them…the Jews.” Feeling like a guilty imposter, I lied and told him that I was a Shia Muslim which he instantaneously replied, “Good, I knew you were one of us.”
While crossing the border between the West Bank and Jerusalem I was held for 3 hours by an 18-year-old Israeli soldier who was convinced I was a terrorist due to my Iranian namesake. He was adamant that the Lebanese and Syrian stamps in my passport, in tandem with my Iranian heritage placed me in the enemy category. I had to resort to emphasizing my Jewish origins as a way to prove my innocence.
I resented constantly having to deny one piece of my identity in order to legitimately claim the other. As the trip went on I realized the only viable option was to let my Iranian and Jewish selves co-exist.
I’m not the only one who struggles with this. There are tens of thousands of Iranians living in Israel. And Iran is home to the largest group of Jews in the Middle East (outside of Israel). The connection between the two now combative nations is deeply rooted. Iranians in Israel still speak Farsi and maintain their cultural ties, while Jews in Iran still go to synagogue and practice Judaism.
Although now it’s hard to imagine a time that Israel and Iran were amicable, for the 30 years prior to 1979, Iran maintained gracious ties with Israel. During that time, Iran was one of the only majority-Muslim countries to recognize Israel as a sovereign nation. Like much of the Iranian Jewish community, my family enjoyed relatively good lives in Iran and never contemplated leaving. My parents share stories of feeling part of a country, culture and community that did not oblige them to ignore their religious roots.
After the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran severed all ties with Israel,* marking the beginning of the rivalry between the two nations and driving many Iranian Jews, like my own family, out of their native country.
With a feeling of loyalty to both Israel and Iran, the current tension makes it difficult for Iranian Jews to embrace both homelands. We don’t have the privilege to distance ourselves from the controversy in the Middle East, because our very identity represents the forces that are fighting each other, implicating us without an escape route.
So what do you do when two things that you hold so close to yourself are in conflict in the outside world?
Iranian and Israeli politicians have traded aggressive rhetoric for years. But I’m living proof that there is nothing fundamentally at odds between the Iranian and Jewish people. Still, with war between the two countries looming, I may have no choice but to pick a team. I could never support war on soil, whether it be in Israel or Iran, that holds a piece of me and my history. So if I have to choose, I’ll choose against the side that turns words into deeds and strikes first to harm my people, whether they’re Iranians or Israel is.
* In fact, unbeknownst to most of us, there was a series of links, deals and collaborations between the two countries after the Islamic Revolution. See Dr. Trita Parsi's book, "Treacherous Alliance: the Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States."