Iranian American Jews make strides in politics on both coasts, relishing their US freedom

Karmel Melamed

August 08, 2022

Originally published in JNS Jewish News Syndicate on August 08, 2022.

Following local and statewide elections in the past few months, members of the sizable Iranian Jewish community living in Southern California have again made inroads into elected political offices after more than four decades since their arrival from Iran. In particular, younger generations of Iranian Jews who have achieved tremendous success in the private sector are now increasingly looking to serve in public office.

The most surprising development came following the Beverly Hills city election in June when psychologist Dr. Sharona Nazarian was elected and became the city’s first female Iranian Jewish council member.

“I was truly humbled and honored to see our community come together, she said. “I ran a grassroots campaign, went door to door to more than 3,700 residents, and I even had a couple of people tell me that this was the first time that they voted in 43 years of living in the United States,” said Nazarian.

Her win on the Beverly Hills city council was welcomed by the local Iranian Jewish community who had last seen one of their own, Jimmy Delshad, leave office 12 years ago.

In 1990, he became the first Persian Jew to be elected as president of Sinai Temple, the oldest and largest Conservative congregation in L.A.

He then again made history in 2003 by becoming the first Iranian American and first Iranian Jew elected to public office in Beverly Hills. That was followed by his serving as the city’s first Iranian American mayor, beginning in 2007, during his eight years on the city council since the city’s charter permits the mayoral position to rotate among different council members every year.

“I was so happy to see Dr. Nazarian win because now the torch has been passed to the new generation of Iranian Americans to make a difference in the city,” said Delshad, who currently serves as a goodwill ambassador for Beverly Hills. “I left office many years ago but I’m so pleased to see so many Iranian Americans of different religions, especially the young ones running for elected offices and looking to give back to the larger community.”

After more than 20 years of involvement in the city’s various civic activities, Nazarian said she was motivated to run for Beverly Hills city council in order to tackle pressing issues that concern residents, as well as the increase in anti-Semitism that has spread throughout Southern California in the last few years.

“As Iranian Jewish immigrants, we were taught [in Iran] to keep our heads down and keep quiet,” said Nazarian. “Now is the time to encourage our community to recognize, stand up and come together to combat anti-Semitism.”

‘Comprehensive policy plans to address’ city issues’

At the same time, Los Angeles area Iranian Jews noted that they were pleased with local Iranian Jewish attorney and community leader Sam Yebri for winning one of two slots in a primary election for an L.A. city council seat covering the area of West L.A.

George Haroonian, a longtime Iranian Jewish activist living in L.A., said he has known Yebri for years. “Sam is one of the brightest among our community, and we must ask our friends in the general community to vote and support him because he offers new solutions to the challenges we face with a rise in crime and homelessness in this city.”

Yebri first made a name for himself in the community 15 years ago when he and a handful of successful L.A. area Iranian Jewish professionals established “30 Years After,” (30YA) a nonprofit organization that has encouraged younger Iranian American Jews to get involved in civic life in the United States. Over the years, 30YA has inspired young Iranian Jewish professionals to get politically active, a fairly new phenomenon for this community, which had largely been barred from any political activity while living in Iran for centuries.

Yebri, who still needs to win a general election race in November to secure his spot on the L.A. City Council, said he felt compelled to run for public office in order to help the city overcome the challenges it faces and has put forth unique new proposals to take on the serious local problems.

“I have developed comprehensive policy plans to address our city’s public safety, homelessness, housing, corruption and climate crises,” he said. “My plans are rooted in a pragmatic, common-sense approach that leverages the private and nonprofit sectors to solve these problems that career politicians have been unable to solve.”

Interestingly, Yebri’s candidacy has also attracted widespread support from the larger non-Jewish Iranian Americans living in the Westwood Village area of L.A.—long a hub for the city’s Iranian population.

“Our community supports Sam Yebri because many of us are small-business owners, and he’s offered great ideas that could really help struggling small businesses in this area,” said Roozbeh Farahanipour, an L.A.-area non-Jewish Iranian American restaurateur and president of the West L.A. Chamber of Commerce. “More importantly, he is not an apologist for the terrorist Islamic regime in Iran which we all strongly oppose.”

Bijan Khalili, an L.A. area Iranian American book publisher and longtime advertising entrepreneur, said he wasn’t surprised that the new generation of Iranian Americans was getting increasingly involved in local politics since the number of attorneys and other professionals in the community has also increased in the last four decades.

“When we see the cream of the crop from our community, like Dr. Nazarian in Beverly Hills or Mr. Yebri, have success in their political races it gives us tremendous pride,” said Khalili. “It’s only a natural progression to see these highly educated Iranian Americans who are success stories in their own right now wanting to give back to the areas where they’ve lived for so long and to help turn things around in the political realm.”

While Delshad, Nazarian and Yebri are all registered Democrats, a growing number of Southern California-area Iranian American Jews have also been drawn to Republican candidates for local and state and federal elected offices. They do so because of their own conservative values and their strong opposition to any foreign-policy position that favor negotiations with Iran’s current Islamic regime.

In fact, in June, Jonathan Elist, an Iranian American Jewish businessman and political unknown, ran in the statewide race to become the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. While he didn’t win, he placed fifth in the election and drew attention to his campaign from the larger Iranian American community in the state.

“Elist coming in fifth place in such a wide field of candidates throughout California was impressive, and he made a huge push within the Iranian American to get the vote out by advertising in Persian-language radio programs and publications,” said Khalili. “He’s a young man in his 30s and has a bright future ahead of him if he still wants to run for public office.”

Elist said he threw his hat in the Republican primary race for Senate because he was turned off by the policies of various Democrat elected officials over the years that have largely dominated politics in California.

“The issues we face are the direct result of an unaccountable, one-party rule that we have had in California for a generation,” said Elist who lives in Beverly Hills. “Given the terrible outcomes for taxpayers, business owners, parents, and nearly all Californians, it’s clear we need a change.”

At the same time that the Iranian Jewish community living in Southern California has had success in serving in government, so have some members of the community living in New York. In 2018, Anna Kaplan became the first Iranian Jewish woman elected to public office in the United States after her victory in a race as a New York state senator. Kaplan, a former attorney, was born Anna Monahemi to a Jewish family in the Iranian city of Tabriz. She is now serving her second term as New York’s state senator for the 7th District.

Perhaps the most successful Iranian Jewish community member from Southern California to delve into government and the political realm has been attorney Makan Delrahim. In 2017, he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate and served as Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division at the U.S. Justice Department during the Trump administration.

“I felt quite proud of the work I was able to accomplish while serving in the Justice Department in order to make a difference at a critical time when there were several mergers going on between major corporations in the country, particularly those in the high-tech sector,” said Delrahim. “I’ve been very fortunate in my career to be involved in causes I was passionate about in both the public and private sector.”

His previous post as a deputy assistant to the president and deputy White House counsel in the Trump administration made a splash in the larger Iranian American community due to his direct involvement in helping U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch with his 2017 Senate confirmation process.

“Justice Gorsuch was someone I had known and was friends with before President Trump nominated him for the Supreme Court,” said Delrahim. “Since I had had previous experience working as the staff director and chief counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee, I was very familiar with the confirmation process, and it was a great honor for me to advise him at that time.”

Delrahim, who last month returned with his family to live in L.A. and now works in private practice, said he was pleased to see many younger Iranian Americans running for public office.

“I’m a huge fan of anyone getting involved in politics because they have a better idea of solving problems, and they want to genuinely make a real difference instead of just doing it for self-promotion,” said Delrahim. “The more we in the Iranian community get involved in government, the more integrated we become into the fabric of this country.”

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