Cheers and jeers for Iran U. Md. Jews celebrate Iranians, scorn their leader

This is a republication of an original article written by Richard Greenberg in the Washington Jewish Week on Wednesday, April 18, 2007.

Pro-Israel students at the University of Maryland are intent on voicing their concern over the strategic threat posed by Iran to both the Jewish state and the United States.

“We wanted to make it clear, however, that our beef is not with the Iranian people, but with Ahmadinejad,” cautioned Avi Mayer, president of PITA, the Pro-Israel Terrapin Alliance.

He was referring to the nuclear-ambitious and Israel-scorning president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is the focus of a purportedly unique PITA political initiative that began earlier this week and is scheduled to end today.

In an effort to protest publicly the actions of the Iranian leader ‹ while drawing a distinction between him and the Iranian people ‹ PITA has partnered with the Iranian Students’ Foundation at Maryland to organize and cross-promote a series of cultural, political and informational events known collectively as Iran Awareness Week.

Although the commemoration known by that name is a longstanding annual campus celebration of Iranian peoplehood, this year it carries the PITA-inspired tagline: “Coming Together in Celebration of a Nation and Against Hatred and Extremism.”

PITA representatives said this confluence represents the first time that Iranian and pro-Israel student groups have combined forces in this way at U. Md. and possibly at any U.S. campus.

Mayer, who noted that the Jewish and Persian (that is, pre-Iranian) historical narratives are “closely intertwined,” said, “We see this as an opportunity to engage in positive discourse on matters of common concern and to start seeing things from each other’s perspective.”

Acknowledging that the students may not agree on all points, “the most important thing is that we’re starting the conversation,” he said. “It’s unprecedented, but I have little doubt that the bond we form this week will continue to instruct relations between our two groups for a long time to come.”

A representative of the Iranian Students’ Foundation, who asked not to be named for fear of possible repercussions in Iran, said the collaborative event “shows that both groups of students can get along together, and maybe that will spread out into the larger world and show that these two peoples don’t hate each other. Maybe governments need to grow up, too.”

The Jewish presence in Persia-Iran dates to late biblical times; the Book of Esther is set there. Although many Jews left the country following the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran’s Jewish community ‹ now estimated at less than 40,000 ‹ remains the largest in the Middle East outside of Israel. That community is the focus of a 2005 documentary film, Jews of Iran, that was scheduled to be shown yesterday as part of the Iran Awareness Week offerings.

Mayer said PITA representatives initially approached the Iranian students with the goal of contextualizing a “pro-peace,” anti-Ahmadinejad initiative by juxtaposing it with presentations exploring the richness of Iranian national heritage and culture. Still, “there was timidity on both sides at first,” Mayer added. “There was hesitancy in the beginning; we were entering uncharted waters. I think they were wary of our agenda and we were a little confused about theirs.”

Another PITA spokesperson, Jennifer Cogan, added, “When you’re talking about the Middle East, things can usually get pretty heated. But in this case, it wasn’t really heated. There was a lot of Q and A, but it was very civil.”

It soon became apparent, Cogan said, that the Iranian students agreed with PITA representatives that “Ahmadinejad is not serving their country very well.”

Once common ground was established, the two parties assembled a joint program that would divide the proceedings: PITA would focus on geopolitics and the Iranian Students’ Foundation would focus only on cultural matters.

Cogan explained that the Iranian group is precluded by its constitution from taking political positions. Nevertheless, students allied with the two groups promoted each other’s Iran Awareness Week activities through word of mouth, group listservs and a jointly created Facebook event page, according to Mayer.

Although Iran Awareness Week was being billed as a joint exercise, some events were staged unilaterally. For example, Sunday’s opening session was a Jewish communal commemoration in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, a 24-hour on-campus vigil featuring the reading of the names of Holocaust victims.

Sunday’s Yom Hashoah-related lineup also featured a showing of the 2006 film Ever Again, produced by Moriah Films, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s documentary film division. The movie examines the widespread resurgence of anti-Semitism as well as Islamic extremism.

Monday’s schedule included an informal Iranian-Jewish “coffee chat” at St. Mary’s Hall, a student residence building, that attracted an estimated 20 participants, both Iranian and Jewish. “The idea is this: Here’s what a Jewish student looks like and here’s what an Iranian student looks like,” Mayer said with a chuckle. “How can you come to a semblance of common good?”

Tuesday’s scheduled lineup featured a jointly organized panel discussion on Ahmadinejad that was to be moderated by Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, as well as a representative from the Persian Studies Center at Maryland whose name had not been released as of Tuesday afternoon.

In a pre-discussion interview, Clawson said his remarks would focus on the fact that, contrary to popular belief, the Iranian president is not the country’s most important political figure.

“He’s the cheerleader in chief,” Clawson said, adding that Iran’s supreme leader, Sayyid Ali Khamenei, is “the one with the real power.” Although Khamenei’s political philosophy is not radically different from Ahmadinejad’s, the former is more cautious than the latter and therefore might be amenable to an agreement on nuclear arms, according to Clawson.

The final two days of Iran Awareness Week were scheduled to be devoted primarily to pro-Israel, “pro-peace” and anti-Ahmadinejad lobbying organized by PITA in conjunction with the campus chapters of the Union of Progressive Zionists, the Zionist Organization of America and TerPAC (the Terrapin Israel Public Affairs Committee).

Pro-Israel students were slated to lobby their cause on Capitol Hill yesterday and on Embassy Row today. The message in both cases: Endorse almost any measure short of military action to prevent Iran from developing nuclear armaments.

On the cultural front, today’s closing session was to include a display of Iranian food, literature, artistic performances and other cultural elements in a “Tour of Persia: A journey through the sights and sounds of Iran.”

About the Author

Richard Greenberg is an associate editor.