As tensions mount between Iran and Israel, an Iranian Jew is asked to pick a side

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Mosque in Damascus“So are you on team Iran or Israel?”

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’ 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.

At the Western Wall in JerusalemI’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 Israelis.

Roxana Norouzi has worked with immigrant and refugee populations in the Seattle area for the past 10 years. Currently, she provides strategic guidance around education policy and implementation for OneAmerica, Washington State’s largest immigrant right’s organization. She's also president of The Seattle Globalist Board of Directors. In 2010, Roxana was awarded the University of Washington’s Bonderman Fellowship which allowed her to travel to the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, East Africa, West Africa and South America. Roxana's views are her own and don't necessarily represent OneAmerica or the Seattle Globalist.

71 COMMENTS

  1. Well-meaning people in both countries–the great majority–are miserably served by inept, corrupt and bigoted leaders. Thanks, Roxana.

  2. Well-meaning people in both countries–the great majority–are miserably served by inept, corrupt and bigoted leaders. Thanks, Roxana.

  3. Very interesting and thought provoking article, Roxanne. Never thought about something like your situation and don’t know where my allegiances would be if it was me who had to decide one way or the other. That’s a hard one.

  4. Very interesting and thought provoking article, Roxanne. Never thought about something like your situation and don’t know where my allegiances would be if it was me who had to decide one way or the other. That’s a hard one.

  5. Your perspective shows this conflict is more complicated than of us realize, and forces us to empathize with the actual people involved. Your article elequently humanizes this issue and makes it relatable.

  6. Your perspective shows this conflict is more complicated than of us realize, and forces us to empathize with the actual people involved. Your article elequently humanizes this issue and makes it relatable.

  7. I believe this is exactly how thousands of Iranian Jews feel.
    No one could say it as beautiful as you though.
    Looking forward to many more articles from you.

  8. I believe this is exactly how thousands of Iranian Jews feel.
    No one could say it as beautiful as you though.
    Looking forward to many more articles from you.

  9. Hi Roxana
    I fill you Pain .I em in the same Situation .Born in Yugoslavia mother Croatian Father Montenegro,and me born in Serbia Tree Country.Tree Passport
    Two Religions.Cant take side Lowe them All.You are very Brave.Steve

  10. Hi Roxana
    I fill you Pain .I em in the same Situation .Born in Yugoslavia mother Croatian Father Montenegro,and me born in Serbia Tree Country.Tree Passport
    Two Religions.Cant take side Lowe them All.You are very Brave.Steve

  11. One of the most moving accounts of what it is like to struggle with dichotomous and often conflicting identities. So many people all over the world can relate to this – thank you for providing a voice for us and shedding light on the challenges we face.

  12. One of the most moving accounts of what it is like to struggle with dichotomous and often conflicting identities. So many people all over the world can relate to this – thank you for providing a voice for us and shedding light on the challenges we face.

  13. Dear Roxana:

    What you said , is the true emotions of every Irnaina Jew, whose every cell of his/her body loves Iran . I agree with all you comments except your last one. Hopefully there will never be a war between our religious and national homelands.
    Yet let us not forget that first of all the current regime, has no legitimacy and does not represent our homeland Iran. So a line should be drawn there.

    However, I wish you would differenciate between the motives of each side. One is aggressive and one is defensive. That should be clarified and emphasized on. The motivation of Irnain government is offensive, wanting to erase a sovereign nationoff the world map. A nation that has all the rights to exist like any other one. Whereas, Israel is concered about its own existense and has a responsibilty towards the protection of its own citizens. That also justifies the three hours you had to spend going from West Bank to Jerusalem!

    Of course this does not justify any side to start the war and hopefully reason and diplomacy can take care of the problem, but I would always make the motivations clear to anyone who asks me the question.

    • Both countries are using aggressive rhetoric. Israel is hardly lily-white in its oppression of the Palestinians. The IDF has done plenty of unprovoked attacking. I am an Israeli/American who opposes war in all forms. Let us not portray one country as totally innocent and the other as totally guilty.

  14. Dear Roxana:

    What you said , is the true emotions of every Irnaina Jew, whose every cell of his/her body loves Iran . I agree with all you comments except your last one. Hopefully there will never be a war between our religious and national homelands.
    Yet let us not forget that first of all the current regime, has no legitimacy and does not represent our homeland Iran. So a line should be drawn there.

    However, I wish you would differenciate between the motives of each side. One is aggressive and one is defensive. That should be clarified and emphasized on. The motivation of Irnain government is offensive, wanting to erase a sovereign nationoff the world map. A nation that has all the rights to exist like any other one. Whereas, Israel is concered about its own existense and has a responsibilty towards the protection of its own citizens. That also justifies the three hours you had to spend going from West Bank to Jerusalem!

    Of course this does not justify any side to start the war and hopefully reason and diplomacy can take care of the problem, but I would always make the motivations clear to anyone who asks me the question.

    • Both countries are using aggressive rhetoric. Israel is hardly lily-white in its oppression of the Palestinians. The IDF has done plenty of unprovoked attacking. I am an Israeli/American who opposes war in all forms. Let us not portray one country as totally innocent and the other as totally guilty.

  15. Really, I feel like you and I’m an American of Iranian descent who’s not Jewish- at least not recently. After 2009, any sympathies or apologies I may have had for Iran disintegrated. Certainly I do not want any loss of life, etc., and am wary of being brainwashed by the media but push moes to shove, I have to side with the “freer” country. I really hope Israel does not attack and start something terrible. But if war starts then quick regime change is the only step: can’t just wound a crazy animal.

  16. Really, I feel like you and I’m an American of Iranian descent who’s not Jewish- at least not recently. After 2009, any sympathies or apologies I may have had for Iran disintegrated. Certainly I do not want any loss of life, etc., and am wary of being brainwashed by the media but push moes to shove, I have to side with the “freer” country. I really hope Israel does not attack and start something terrible. But if war starts then quick regime change is the only step: can’t just wound a crazy animal.

  17. Your article brought back so much negative feelings for me as someone that grew up in Iran! You did an amazing job writting from your heart and soul Roxana! I think we ll always be connected to both identities!! Israel is not just a symbol of jewish nation, it’s our first home and Iran was our home away home!

  18. Your article brought back so much negative feelings for me as someone that grew up in Iran! You did an amazing job writting from your heart and soul Roxana! I think we ll always be connected to both identities!! Israel is not just a symbol of jewish nation, it’s our first home and Iran was our home away home!

  19. I am also an iranian jew as are thousands who live in my neighborhood in new york. I can say with 100% positivity that we all agree with israel’s standpoint. Along with my parents, I enjoy watching iranian television and listening to persian music. We even speak farsi at home, but the new regime in Iran has as you said, severed its ties. How can we agree with this. The Iran that you and I enjoyed was friends with the country that our religion has told us to admire. Today’s Iran is not the Iran that I loved prior to 1979, and I can’t agree with the islamic regime in place that threatens my religion in Judaism, and the two countries which I wholeheartedly back, The USA and Israel.

      • Is it wrong to feel hatred towards a regime that has no consideration international law and sanctions and is acting in a manner that affects the lives of millions of people around the world. I think not I think you missed the point as you are blinded by indifference

        • My dear kamran, maybe read the article one more time. Is Roxana concerned about the regims in different countries?
          Step off your horse a minute.
          This is about humanizing an issue that is too frequently treated without, as Emerald pointed out as well.
          take it easy…

      • How is that helpful? Can you elaborate on how you feel she misses the point. She does not seem to me like someone who is blinded by hate.

  20. I am also an iranian jew as are thousands who live in my neighborhood in new york. I can say with 100% positivity that we all agree with israel’s standpoint. Along with my parents, I enjoy watching iranian television and listening to persian music. We even speak farsi at home, but the new regime in Iran has as you said, severed its ties. How can we agree with this. The Iran that you and I enjoyed was friends with the country that our religion has told us to admire. Today’s Iran is not the Iran that I loved prior to 1979, and I can’t agree with the islamic regime in place that threatens my religion in Judaism, and the two countries which I wholeheartedly back, The USA and Israel.

      • Is it wrong to feel hatred towards a regime that has no consideration international law and sanctions and is acting in a manner that affects the lives of millions of people around the world. I think not I think you missed the point as you are blinded by indifference

        • My dear kamran, maybe read the article one more time. Is Roxana concerned about the regims in different countries?
          Step off your horse a minute.
          This is about humanizing an issue that is too frequently treated without, as Emerald pointed out as well.
          take it easy…

      • How is that helpful? Can you elaborate on how you feel she misses the point. She does not seem to me like someone who is blinded by hate.

  21. Hey, excellent piece. As a Lebanese-American, though, let me apologize for the fool who suggested that if you were Jewish you weren’t “one of us.” Geez, there are Jewish Lebanese, too! Here’s hoping you won’t have to choose sides!

  22. Hey, excellent piece. As a Lebanese-American, though, let me apologize for the fool who suggested that if you were Jewish you weren’t “one of us.” Geez, there are Jewish Lebanese, too! Here’s hoping you won’t have to choose sides!

  23. I’m a non-Jew Iranian (married to a non-Iranian Jew), and I have to say this. Iran stopped being my homeland after the Islamic revolution. That terrorist state is not the Iran of my ancestors or yours… I’m guessing that’s why you don’t live there anymore.

    • Smart observance. You are one of the very few who stop to ask: “What do we have in common with the glorious Iran of the ancient times? The religion? The language? The DNA?”

  24. I’m a non-Jew Iranian (married to a non-Iranian Jew), and I have to say this. Iran stopped being my homeland after the Islamic revolution. That terrorist state is not the Iran of my ancestors or yours… I’m guessing that’s why you don’t live there anymore.

    • Smart observance. You are one of the very few who stop to ask: “What do we have in common with the glorious Iran of the ancient times? The religion? The language? The DNA?”

  25. Life is full of choices, sometimes we make good ones and sometimes bad ones. I have never felt I chose wrongly when I did it with my heart and my mind. You will make the right decision no matter what.

  26. Life is full of choices, sometimes we make good ones and sometimes bad ones. I have never felt I chose wrongly when I did it with my heart and my mind. You will make the right decision no matter what.

  27. Dearest Roxana, Your article was beautiful, and I am sure that it is sincere and speaks the hearts of many Iranian Jews. What you decide is intuitive, and this is why your article is flawed. You take many things for granted. Political rhetoric aside, it has never been in Israel’s interest to attack Iran. Israel has never declared the desire to wipe any country off the map of the world, and people of Israel are mostly against war, they have had enough. In your trip to the middle east, you did not visit Iran. It is clear that you have left Iran at such a young age that you cannot remember the requirements of living in Iran as a Jew. We all lied! Being Jewish was not something you would admit to, it was not easy. Your parents, like many others, enjoyed a good life, but your grandparents, and their ancestors, would tell you a different story. If Iranian Jews, such people in your family, feel thorn between the two countries, it is because of the glorious lives they lived for the short period after Quajar in Iran. I urge you to study the history of Iranian Jews. I also urge you to look at the realities of an anti-Semitic nation. The majority of Iranians are against the existence of Israel. They will be too happy to see its destruction, and they support Hamas and Hezbollah, even if they are at odds with their own government. I ask myself how could the liberal faction of Iranians, who are affluent and educated, be so blindly anti-Israel??? Rest assured, Israel is not the one to strike first. Let’s deal with the dilemma of Iranians who do not know their true enemy and are victims of their own cultural blind-spots!

  28. Dearest Roxana, Your article was beautiful, and I am sure that it is sincere and speaks the hearts of many Iranian Jews. What you decide is intuitive, and this is why your article is flawed. You take many things for granted. Political rhetoric aside, it has never been in Israel’s interest to attack Iran. Israel has never declared the desire to wipe any country off the map of the world, and people of Israel are mostly against war, they have had enough. In your trip to the middle east, you did not visit Iran. It is clear that you have left Iran at such a young age that you cannot remember the requirements of living in Iran as a Jew. We all lied! Being Jewish was not something you would admit to, it was not easy. Your parents, like many others, enjoyed a good life, but your grandparents, and their ancestors, would tell you a different story. If Iranian Jews, such people in your family, feel thorn between the two countries, it is because of the glorious lives they lived for the short period after Quajar in Iran. I urge you to study the history of Iranian Jews. I also urge you to look at the realities of an anti-Semitic nation. The majority of Iranians are against the existence of Israel. They will be too happy to see its destruction, and they support Hamas and Hezbollah, even if they are at odds with their own government. I ask myself how could the liberal faction of Iranians, who are affluent and educated, be so blindly anti-Israel??? Rest assured, Israel is not the one to strike first. Let’s deal with the dilemma of Iranians who do not know their true enemy and are victims of their own cultural blind-spots!

  29. Enjoyed reading your article very much, though I don’t agree. It surely is not a war on soil. Wished we could discuss in person..

  30. Enjoyed reading your article very much, though I don’t agree. It surely is not a war on soil. Wished we could discuss in person..

  31. Thought this is a little Pollyanna-ish. You’ve got a country (Iran) who sponsored Hezbollah a group that often (and that is a mild description) plots and succeeds in bombing and killing Israeli citizens, Iran also arms the majority of the terrorists in and around Israel (why? don’t they have anything better to do?) and now they are in the stages (yes they are) of developing a nuclear weapon. Their purpose with this weapon is to use it offensively whereas Israel has nuclear weapons as a defense because they are being threatened constantly. You have to look at the the governments in power. MOST IMPORTANT POINT: Israel if they attack Iran will be specific and targeted to the sites of the nuclear areas, Iran on the other hand will do anything and everything to attack civilians. You are comparing an educated gov’t vs. Iran (barbarian officials and Mullahs not the civilians). War is never the answer but if Iran has a nuclear weapon it’s like Jerry Sandusky teaching preschool in a closed classroom.

  32. Thought this is a little Pollyanna-ish. You’ve got a country (Iran) who sponsored Hezbollah a group that often (and that is a mild description) plots and succeeds in bombing and killing Israeli citizens, Iran also arms the majority of the terrorists in and around Israel (why? don’t they have anything better to do?) and now they are in the stages (yes they are) of developing a nuclear weapon. Their purpose with this weapon is to use it offensively whereas Israel has nuclear weapons as a defense because they are being threatened constantly. You have to look at the the governments in power. MOST IMPORTANT POINT: Israel if they attack Iran will be specific and targeted to the sites of the nuclear areas, Iran on the other hand will do anything and everything to attack civilians. You are comparing an educated gov’t vs. Iran (barbarian officials and Mullahs not the civilians). War is never the answer but if Iran has a nuclear weapon it’s like Jerry Sandusky teaching preschool in a closed classroom.

  33. בס”ד
    The difference here is that Israel isn’t against Iran or the Iranian people. Israel has never had any desire to “annihilate” the Iranian people. If Israel strikes it is to destroy the nuclear threat. It is against a regime that keeps it’s Jews in their “place”. And not only the Jews but anyone : Bahai, Sunni, Kurd and any Shia who doesn’t buy into their brand of Islamic observance.

    Your choice isn’t so difficult. It is good against bad. You complained about the Israeli soldier who questioned you at a checkpoint. Can’t you see it is a matter of security. If you tried to cross the boarder between Canada and the US or (G-d forbid) Mexico and the US with or without a Lebanese stamp in your passport you would have been questioned. If you had gone into Iran with an Israeli stamp on your passport, you might never be heard from again or at least not without connection to ransom, prison and the State Department.

    I also am Iranian born, Jewish and Israeli. Yet I have none of the difficulties you describe as to where my loyalties belong.

    Your animosity towards the young Israeli soldier is better placed against a government that threatens destruction of any opposed to it and would destroy you as a Jew wherever you are.

  34. בס”ד
    The difference here is that Israel isn’t against Iran or the Iranian people. Israel has never had any desire to “annihilate” the Iranian people. If Israel strikes it is to destroy the nuclear threat. It is against a regime that keeps it’s Jews in their “place”. And not only the Jews but anyone : Bahai, Sunni, Kurd and any Shia who doesn’t buy into their brand of Islamic observance.

    Your choice isn’t so difficult. It is good against bad. You complained about the Israeli soldier who questioned you at a checkpoint. Can’t you see it is a matter of security. If you tried to cross the boarder between Canada and the US or (G-d forbid) Mexico and the US with or without a Lebanese stamp in your passport you would have been questioned. If you had gone into Iran with an Israeli stamp on your passport, you might never be heard from again or at least not without connection to ransom, prison and the State Department.

    I also am Iranian born, Jewish and Israeli. Yet I have none of the difficulties you describe as to where my loyalties belong.

    Your animosity towards the young Israeli soldier is better placed against a government that threatens destruction of any opposed to it and would destroy you as a Jew wherever you are.

  35. super duper article…. thats it ..i am all over again in love with judaism….it just clicks somewhere when cousins talk good of each other….!!love hussain tabrizi!!!

  36. super duper article…. thats it ..i am all over again in love with judaism….it just clicks somewhere when cousins talk good of each other….!!love hussain tabrizi!!!

  37. Thank you for writing this column and exploring the ideas of having to choose “you are either with us or against us” mentality.

    Yet, it is interesting for me to read it because I do not understand why the identity of being Jewish or Jew is tied to supporting Israel. Since Israel is an occupying state and, if justice is ever to privale, it will one day have to no longer exist is its current form and Palestinians would get their homes back. The plight of the Jewish people is not that of Zionist Israel. I do think these two must be separated so that Jews would be freed from being tied to a violent, racist, and occupying state.

    Additionally, I do find it incredible how un-accepting the world is of the reality that we all carry multiple complex identities. I recommend reading ‘On Identity’ by Lebanese-French author Amin Maalouf.

  38. Thank you for writing this column and exploring the ideas of having to choose “you are either with us or against us” mentality.

    Yet, it is interesting for me to read it because I do not understand why the identity of being Jewish or Jew is tied to supporting Israel. Since Israel is an occupying state and, if justice is ever to privale, it will one day have to no longer exist is its current form and Palestinians would get their homes back. The plight of the Jewish people is not that of Zionist Israel. I do think these two must be separated so that Jews would be freed from being tied to a violent, racist, and occupying state.

    Additionally, I do find it incredible how un-accepting the world is of the reality that we all carry multiple complex identities. I recommend reading ‘On Identity’ by Lebanese-French author Amin Maalouf.

  39. The animosity for Israel in the Middle East has more to do with politics than religion, as evidenced by your poignant telling of the cross-over between Jews in Iran and Iranian Jews in Israel. As a human, I am against a lot of Israel’s policies and especially its treatment of the Palestinians and its un-diplomatic relations with the region, but as an Iranian, I am not against Jews (which, frustratingly, is something that is automatically assumed by many people).

  40. The animosity for Israel in the Middle East has more to do with politics than religion, as evidenced by your poignant telling of the cross-over between Jews in Iran and Iranian Jews in Israel. As a human, I am against a lot of Israel’s policies and especially its treatment of the Palestinians and its un-diplomatic relations with the region, but as an Iranian, I am not against Jews (which, frustratingly, is something that is automatically assumed by many people).

  41. Beautifully written, thank you for being so honest and open about the effect that identity has! I pray that neither side choose violence!

  42. Beautifully written, thank you for being so honest and open about the effect that identity has! I pray that neither side choose violence!

  43. Hi,
    Roxana
    I am no way related to IRAN & ISRAEL but i closely folllow iran & related development. I liked your article .
    I am bit confused , i need to understand why as a jew you assosiate equally with israel as you assosiate with iran. At first you may find my question stupid but still apart from religious affiliation what is the reason you support israel.
    Please put some light.

    Well i have so many question but for now i ll happy if you answer the above question.

    Regards
    Ronak vijayvergia
    Bangalore- India
    Skype id : ronak.vijayvergia1

  44. Thanks you so much for this article. I got to see the human side of this struggle. When I was college, some of my best friends was Iranian. So I remember the great foods their mother prepared. As a African American Muslim, It really affirms me the importance of reaching out to each other.. I am because you are.

  45. EVERY government tires to convince the people that they are on the right side. But the final decision rest within the people. As I reflect on my ancestors who fought for civl rights here in America and were brought over as slaves. The government thought it was ok and legal to house slaves. My point is look to the people for their decision what is right and wrong. Not the extremist. Often right does not need anyone to stand up for it. It is just right.

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