Saba Soomekh: Things Are Changing
Saba is an Iranian-American academic who is passionate about Iran’s history and the religious minorities that have been overlooked and underrepresented.
I was born in Tehran, Iran, the capital, my mom’s side is from Tehran and my father’s side is from Hamedan, Iran. Unfortunately, I was two, when we had to escape the country, so I can’t tell you what Iran is like today, I cant tell you about Modern Iran. I have spent my life studying the history of Iran, and specifically the history of the Jewish community in Iran. The country was Zoroastrian, it became a Sunni Muslim, then in the Sixteenth Century, under the Safavid dynasty, it became Shia, and then you have the Pahlavi dynasty who came into power, and the Pahlavi dynasty under Reza, Pahlavi and his son Muhammad Reza Pahlavi was secular, where they thought that they were emancipating the religious minorities. In a sense, they were, because they did emancipate the Jews who were forced to live in the Mahlaiz, the Jewish ghettos, and were considered to be what they refer to Najaiz, ritually and religiously impure. Then, in 1979, you have the Islamic Revolution of Iran, and so I was born in 1976, and my family left Iran in 1978, and we have not been back, unfortunately.
I wrote a book, my first book, From the Shahs to Los Angeles, interviewed 120 Iranian Jewish woman in Los Angeles, from ages 91-18 years old–what I refer to as the grandmother-mother and daughter generation. The grandmother and mother generation talked about Iran as if it was the best place to be, because again, under the Safavi and Kajar dynasty, which were Shia, Jews were relegated to Demi status, second class citizenship. When Reza Pahlavi came to power, he wanted to “emancipate” Iran, secularize Iran, and he felt that those rules were really archaic, and didn’t apply. His son, Muhammad Raza Pathlavi further expedited that emancipation. Now, you can say a lot of stuff about Muhammad Raza Pahlavi and Raza Pahlavi, and there’s a lot of different narratives, and for all of the things that they did that were not good, there was a lot of things that they did that was good, and for religious minorities in Iran, they were great.
What people don’t realize about Iran, is that the women there are strong, and most of the Universities are full of women, it was mostly women who brought about the Islamic Revolution, so you are looking at very strong local women.
I am the Associate Director of the American Jewish Committee in Los Angles and the AJC, for people who don’t know, is one of the oldest Jewish Human Rights organizations, we were founded in 1906. We are a 501c(3), meaning we are not non-partisan, and we fight against Anti-Semitism, Racism, we also honor Israel’s rights, and make sure that the Anti-Semitism doesn’t go into Anti-Zionism so we believe in securing Israel’s right to exist. I work with consul generals, ambassadors, elected officials, and amazing partners in different religious and ethnic communities like MALA.
Most people don’t realize that 60% of Israelis are Mizrahi, meaning Jews from all over the Middle East, and why did that happen, is because you had 800,000 Jews who were kicked out or life was made so difficult for them in the Sunni Middle East world. So they were kicked out of Egypt, or they left because people said they weren’t kicked out. Kamal Abdul Nasser took their passports, their property, took everything, and this Pan-Arab Nationalism, and even though these Jews were Arab, they were not seen as being Arab. So, Jews from Yemen, Syria, Egypt, all over the world ended up leaving and Israel was their home, their spiritual home, and the one place that brought them in, and so 60% of Israel’s population is Mizrahi. On top of the fact that we have a large Ethiopian Jewish community that we are so proud to see and so beautiful to see.
The fact that people don’t know that Mizrahi Jews exist is also our fault, within the Jewish community. I talk a lot about the fact that there is an Ashkenazi-normative culture, Ashke-normative means just an Ashkenazi dominant culture in Judaism, specifically in America, because the majority of Jews in America, are Ashkenazi Jews. So even the Ashkenazi community, whether in Israel or America, really don’t highlight, until recently, the Mizrahi Jewish community and our experience–but that is changing a lot.