Solidarity rallies support Iran 10, cry out for reversal of the verdict

NEW YORK — Among the thousands who turned out in New York this week to show support for 10 imprisoned Iranian Jews was one woman who knows the true value of Jewish solidarity.

Sarah Benyaminova, a Jewish immigrant from the former Soviet Union, learned firsthand the importance of signaling to those who live in a totalitarian regime that they are not alone.

Benyaminova joined a number of other former Soviet refugees at a "solidarity gathering" Monday on behalf of the 10 Jews convicted of spying for Israel. They were sentenced July 1 to prison terms of four to 13 years.

Dozens of similar rallies were held Monday across North America and Europe.

But few protesters relate to such rallies as personally as Benyaminova, who was once on the other side, in need of international solidarity.

"When the Iranian Jews hear about this outpouring of support from around the world, it will help them emotionally and morally. It also puts pressure on the Iranians, that this issue cannot be ignored."

Indeed, despite being billed as a "solidarity gathering" for the 10 prisoners and the rest of the 27,000 Iranian Jews, some Jewish officials conceded the aim was also to send powerful messages to both Tehran and Washington.

From Iran, they want justice and the verdict reversed.

Speaking on behalf of the Clinton administration, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke said, "We hope, we implore and we demand that there be a re-examination and a reopening of this process."

Joining Holbrooke on stage was Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, half a dozen members of the U.S. Congress and a bevy of Jewish leaders, church officials and local politicians — both Jewish and non-Jewish.

Despite the outcry, Iran still seems far from backing down.

In fact, a judiciary spokesman announced Monday that an arrest warrant has been issued for Eshaq Belanas, an Iranian Jewish rabbi who settled in New York nine years ago. The fervently Orthodox of Iran view Belanas as their spiritual leader, while the Iranian spokesman painted him as the mastermind behind the alleged spy ring.

There is concern for Belanas' safety, although he is not under police protection, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

As for Washington's role, protesters expect the handling of the "Iran 10" to be a litmus test for future U.S.-Iran relations. There were many calls Monday for the repeal of the minor trade concessions on Iranian luxury goods made in March.

"Governments like ours respond when people take to the streets," said former Berkeley activist Louise Stoll, who is now executive vice president of the United Jewish Communities, a co-sponsor of the rallies.

"This is to put our government on notice, that we also expect them to respond to this injustice."

With the well-being of the prisoners and the rest of Iranian Jewry in mind, rally organizers were loathe to use the terms "demonstration" or "protest," to not antagonize Iran and further endanger its Jews.

Wiesel — often described as the Jewish "voice of conscience" — cautioned the crowd to speak up, but to "speak without rage."

"We believe they are innocent, and innocent they are," Wiesel said. "Therefore, what happened to them is an offense to any person in the world with a sense of decency."

He then proceeded to brand the devoutly religious prisoners as "hostages, hostages in the hands of the Iranian regime."

Jewish activists vowed to step up the pressure — both in the streets and diplomatically — until Iran budges.

In Los Angeles, home to the largest Iranian Jewish community in North America, some 400 people gathered Monday evening at Hollywood Temple Beth El for a solidarity rally.

The emotional high point of the rally was a talk by a tearful Rabbi David Shofet, son of the former chief rabbi of Tehran.

Shofet, speaking in Persian to the predominantly Iranian American audience, including relatives of some of the prisoners, contrasted the current American and international support for the prisoners to the universal silence when European Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

In Boston, approximately 200 people, including representatives of Greater Boston's 150-family Iranian Jewish community, gathered at City Hall Plaza on Monday. Among the speakers was Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, who called the trials "kangaroo courts."

In Philadelphia, about 200 supporters rallied near the Liberty Bell where they said prayers, carried signs and listened as Jewish community leaders, Jewish and Christian clergy, and politicians called on Iran to free the prisoners and to restore the religious liberty of all Iranians.

In Toronto, a crowd of 300 attended a protest downtown. Eddie Greenspan, a criminal lawyer and vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, called upon Canada's prime minister, Jean Chretien, to recall his ambassador to Tehran and to expel Iran's charge d'affaires.

For more JTA stories, go to