Jackson's Bid to Rescue Jews Jailed by Iranians Stirs a Note of Caution

Experts Warn of Long-Term Danger
White House Will Press Europeans as 13 Face Death

Rebecca Spence - Forward - June 18, 1999

[J4JP Note: See section dealing with Jonathan Pollard below]

NEW YORK - As the Rev. Jesse Jackson seeks an invitation to travel to Iran on a mission to free 13 Jews being held there on charges of spying for Israel and America, counterterrorism experts are raising doubts about the wisdom of the plan.

While mainstream Jewish leaders are unified behind Rev. Jackson's efforts to go to Iran on a humanitarian mission, counterterrorism experts are concerned about the long-term policy implications of the effort. Meanwhile, a dispute over tactics is also emerging on the question of public demonstrations against the Iranian government; the mainstream Jewish leadership opposes such demonstrations, which are being staged by smaller groups such as the Coalition for Jewish Concerns-Amcha and the Jewish Defense Organization.

The debates over tactics echo a dispute that simmered within the Iranian-American Jewish community in Los Angeles, where one faction wanted to exert public pressure to gain the release of the prisoners and another faction preferred to keep the matter behind the scenes. The debates also come as the American government is redoubling its efforts to win the release of the prisoners, promising in a June 15 letter from the national security adviser, Samuel Berger, that President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright will raise the issue of the captive Iranian Jews in meetings with European leaders.

"It's a matter of short term verses long term," said the editor of the Middle East Quarterly, Daniel Pipes. "For the short term, it's for the good, [Rev. Jackson] has a proven record of rescuing people," but "in the longer term, there is a price to be paid," Mr. Pipes said.

A Washington-based anti-terrorism expert, Steven Emerson, went further than Mr. Pipes in his criticism of Rev. Jackson's mission, characterizing it as a "dangerous development." "As much as I have sympathy and empathy for the families and the victims who are being persecuted by Iran, the fact is that Iran should be made to understand that the United States speaks with one official voice, and that it cannot go around the official U.S. government to curry favor with freelance diplomats," Mr. Emerson said.

The director of special projects at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, Shoshana Bryen, also said she had "grave questions" about a Jackson mission, "not because of who he is, but because raising the profile may not be a good idea.

The Jewish leader who first asked Rev. Jackson to become involved, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, said that we do not have the luxury or the time to isolate other religious leaders who are willing to help free the captives. "Jewish lives are at stake," Mr. Foxman said. "Sometimes those that haven't been that friendly can pierce [the situation] better than those who have," he said.

Mr. Foxman, who was prepared for the criticism, said that some will ask why he and other Jewish leaders are legitimizing people who have been critical of Israel in the past. "But at this point, it's irrelevant," Mr. Foxman said.

At a press conference in Los Angeles with Rev. Jackson and families of the captive Iranian Jews, the national president of the American Muslim Council, Nazir Khaja, was at Rev. Jackson's side, according to a dispatch from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Mr. Foxman wrote to Mr. Berger last month that "some positions of the AMC, such as support for extremist terrorist groups...are completely contrary to fundamental principles of US policy." The president of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, who angered Jewish leaders by signing a full-page New York Times advertisement in December of 1996 calling for an end to sole Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, is now at the center of the ecumenical coalition to free the 13 Jews awaiting trial.

The executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein, emphasized the immediate need to save Jewish lives. "We will deal with areas of difference later, right now the priority is saving Jewish lives," Mr. Hoenlein said.

Mr. Hoenlein also said he "discouraged" street protests on behalf of the Iranian prisoners. "It's not the right time yet," Mr. Hoenlein said. Mr. Hoenlein said that it was important that the world and Iran do not see this as just "a Jewish affair."

The director for international and communal affairs at the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Betty Ehrenberg, said that "in the interest of saving the 13 Jews, if they are willing to put differences aside, then I value it." She said: "This is an issue of endangered lives."

At a press conference that included representatives of the Catholic and Episcopal Diocese of New York, as well as the president of the New York Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Marc Schneier, Rev. Jackson said that this was "a matter of faith to faith."

Rev. Jackson hinted that Iran's release of the prisoners could be an important step in Iran's effort to end the American trade sanctions against the Islamic republic. "This will be a great moment as Iran makes its magnificent step toward its rightful place in the family of nations," Rev. Jackson said.

Mr. Pipes said, "There is something of a corruption of our [the American] position. Issues that have been on the table, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and the peace process, these are put aside for the 13 Jews, and the Iranians have succeeded in changing the issues." He said that if the Iranians release the prisoners that they will have to be thanked by the world, and thus "the larger issues are put aside."

The president of the American Iranian Jewish Federation, Sam Kermanian, said that public protests, such as the one led Sunday by Rabbi Avi Weiss of

the Coalition for Jewish Concerns-Amcha, are not constructive. "Anything that has more of a political leniency, anything that leans more toward political statements, toward provocations is not the sort of thing that would be constructive at this point," Mr. Kermanian said.

"We feel that the more one speaks out for a besieged community, the more protected they are," said Rabbi Weiss, whose protest outside the Iranian U.N. mission in New York on Sunday drew more than 100 demonstrators. Additional protests are planned for this Sunday at the same site and at Great Neck, a Long Island town that is home to a large Iranian-American Jewish community.

A co-founder of the Committee for Religious Minority Rights in Iran, George Haroonian, who has advocated since the time of the arrests for a public outcry, said that if people believe that public protest "is the right thing to do, then they should do it."

Rev. Jackson is known for his past successes in negotiating the release of prisoners - from the rescue in Syria of an American shot down over Lebanon, to his more recent trip to Yugoslavia where he gained the release of three American soldiers. Rev. Jackson is also known in the Jewish community for identifying New York as "Hymietown," as well as for trying to build bridges to the Jewish community since then.

The arrested Jews are: Javeed Beit Yakov, 40; Navid Bala Zadeh, 16; Nejat Broukhim, 35; Ramin Farzam, 35; Nasser Levi Haim, 45; Faramarz Kashi, 34, and his brother Farzad Kashi, 30; Ramin Nemati, 22; Shahrokh Paknahad, 29; Farhad Saleh, 30; Dani Teffilin, 28, and his brother Omid Teffilin, 25, and Asher Zadmehr, 48.

The Israeli and American governments have said the espionage charges are baseless.

Iranian radio stations have said that President Khatemi claimed that he is personally responsible for the religious minorities in Iran.

Iranian radio broadcasts have also attempted to tie the issue to the case of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, who is in an American prison. America hasn't released Pollard, so Iran should not have to release its 13 "spies," according to this argument.

The JewishCommunity Relations Council of New York is encouraging letter-writing campaigns on behalf of the prisoners to European countries, the Vatican and the United Nations.

At least 17 Jews have been executed in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.