How Some 1,800 Jewish Children Escaped Iran to Brooklyn during the Revolution

Feb. 21 2019

In 1978, as the revolution that overthrew the shah of Iran was beginning, Chabad-Lubavitch Ḥasidim launched Operation Exodus, in which they brought hundreds of Persian Jewish children to their enclave in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights. Dovid Margolin explains how this came about:

This unlikely story of rescue began the late 1970s, when an Italian-born Chabad yeshiva student named Hertzel Illulian was studying in New York. His parents were successful Persian Jewish immigrants . . . and he had grown up in comfort in Milan. [As a teenager], Illulian became more religious and eventually came to New York to study at the Lubavitch yeshiva there. . . . Illulian dreamed of traveling to his ancestral homeland, Iran, to try to [missionize to the Jewish community there]. Iran was safe; he spoke Farsi—it was a good match. In . . . the summer of 1978, Illulian [met with] Sholem-Ber Hecht, then the rabbi of the Sephardic Jewish Congregation in Queens [and] broached the idea of their going to Iran together. Hecht was intrigued. . . .

The details were then worked out, and both Illulian and Hecht raised the funds needed to cover the trip. “Our original intention was to establish a liaison with the community there, and then to see if it made sense to send an official emissary there,” says Hecht. They landed in Tehran on a calm day in August of 1978. Revolutions and refugees were the last thing on their minds. . . .

While Hecht and Illulian had come to what was still a stable Iran, street demonstrations against the shah had already begun. . . . Hecht recalls sitting in the home of the Tehran rabbi Netanel Ben-Haim after Shabbat had ended and seeing the television screen flash images of street demonstrations turned violent. The sudden violence frightened the Jewish community. Whereas the Chabad rabbis had hoped perhaps to meet a handful of Jewish boys who would be interested in coming to America to study in yeshiva, by the second week of their trip Iranian parents began approaching them about the possibility of sending their children with them. . . . In October, during the intermediary days of the holiday of Sukkot, Illulian returned to Tehran alone, this time armed with I-20 visa applications.

Illulian and the network of Chabad rabbis with whom he was working were soon inundated with requests from worried Jewish parents, as revolutionary violence intensified and the revolutionaries adopted increasingly anti-Semitic rhetoric. The result was that by 1981, some 1,800 young Persian Jews had been settled in the U.S under Chabad auspices. Although when they left their homes they expected to return as soon as the upheaval subsided, it soon became clear that their relocations would be permanent.

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More about: Brooklyn, Chabad, History & Ideas, Immigration, Iranian Revolution, Persian Jewry

What Egypt’s Withdrawal from the “Arab NATO” Signifies for U.S. Strategy

A few weeks ago, Egypt quietly announced its withdrawal from the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), a coalition—which also includes Jordan, the Gulf states, and the U.S.—founded at President Trump’s urging to serve as an “Arab NATO” that could work to contain Iran. Jonathan Ariel notes three major factors that most likely contributed to Egyptian President Sisi’s abandonment of MESA: his distrust of Donald Trump (and concern that Trump might lose the 2020 election) and of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman; Cairo’s perception that Iran does not pose a major threat to its security; and the current situation in Gaza:

Gaza . . . is ruled by Hamas, defined by its covenant as “one of the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.” Sisi has ruthlessly persecuted the Brotherhood in Egypt. [But] Egypt, despite its dependence on Saudi largesse, has continued to maintain its ties with Qatar, which is under Saudi blockade over its unwillingness to toe the Saudi line regarding Iran. . . . Qatar is also supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, . . . and of course Hamas.

[Qatar’s ruler] Sheikh Tamim is one of the key “go-to guys” when the situation in Gaza gets out of hand. Qatar has provided the cash that keeps Hamas solvent, and therefore at least somewhat restrained. . . . In return, Hamas listens to Qatar, which does not want it to help the Islamic State-affiliated factions involved in an armed insurrection against Egyptian forces in northern Sinai. Egypt’s military is having a hard enough time coping with the insurgency as it is. The last thing it needs is for Hamas to be given a green light to cooperate with Islamic State forces in Sinai. . . .

Over the past decade, ever since Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power, Israel has also been gradually placing more and more chips in its still covert but growing alliance with Saudi Arabia. Egypt’s decision to pull out of MESA should give it cause to reconsider. Without Egypt, MESA has zero viability unless it is to include either U.S. forces or Israeli ones. [But] one’s chances of winning the lottery seem infinitely higher than those of MESA’s including the IDF. . . . Given that Egypt, the Arab world’s biggest and militarily most powerful state and its traditional leader, has clearly indicated its lack of confidence in the Saudi leadership, Israel should urgently reexamine its strategy in this regard.

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More about: Egypt, Gaza Strip, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign policy