October 1, 2000
Israel Seeks to Uncover Fate of 11 Jews Lost Fleeing Iran
By DEBORAH SONTAG
AT YAM, Israel, Sept. 27 — In her immaculate apartment here, Farahnaz Rabizade, an Iranian immigrant, was tempted to set an extra place at the Rosh Hashana table for her missing husband. But she did not let herself be that maudlin, she said, because she did not want to upset her children, who have been waiting four years for their father to show up in Israel for the Jewish New Year.
Mrs. Rabizade's husband is one of 11 Iranian Jews who disappeared while emigrating. The men set off from Iran at different times — three groups in 1994 and Mr. Rabizade's group in 1997. Lacking travel documents, they all chose to leave illegally, presumably by hiring smugglers to help them across the perilous Iranian border, where many travelers disappear in kidnappings. None of the Jews have been heard from since.
"My father sacrificed himself for us," Dahlia Rabizade wrote in a 10th- grade essay at her new Israeli school. "He was like a candle that lights the way while he himself is the wax that melts."
The 11 missing men came to the attention of human rights and American Jewish groups only in the last month. Until then, Iranian Jews, who prefer to handle sensitive issues with the Iranian government very quietly, had used back channels to search for the men.
Recently, Israeli officials, frustrated by the lack of response, decided to push for an international campaign on behalf of the 11 men. Given Iranian governmental hostility toward Israel, some Jewish groups and experts on Iran did not think that this was wise.
One expert here said that he was personally told by a Jewish member of the Iranian Parliament that the government was working hard to locate the men.
"I think they might get some good results," the expert said, "and maybe the Israeli authorities should be a little more patient."
But the Israeli officials believe that, on the heels of the recent convictions of 10 Iranian Jews on espionage charges, which the American government and others condemned as unjust, the time was ripe to develop international sympathy for the men. Iran might be more receptive than imagined, the officials added, having become more sensitive about its image and eager to portray itself as tolerant of minorities.
"The original assumption was that it would be easier for the Iranians to respond positively when they were approached discreetly," said Sallai Meridor, chairman of the Jewish Agency. "But this assumption has not been proven correct. And we don't think the families should have to wait any longer. It's time for answers."
Whether the men were arrested and imprisoned by the authorities or fell prey to the violence of the no man's land that exists in Iran's border zones is unclear. The frontier with Pakistan, in particular, is treacherous territory for a stranger, with tourists and others — including many Bahais from Iran — disappearing in kidnappings.
But Israeli officials and Iranian Jewish leaders outside Israel say they have reason to believe that at least some of the men are alive and in prison; there have been recent reports of sightings by other prisoners, they said.
If they were behind bars, the men would be in the company of thousands of Muslims and other Iranians who have also been apprehended while fleeing the country. A senior Clinton administration official told an American Jewish leader that the case of the 11 men should be treated as part of a broader human rights problem.
Emigration from Iran is restricted in general and, an Amnesty International official noted, record numbers of Iranians are seeking political asylum elsewhere, even in this time of peace and relative openness in Iran.
But world Jewish leaders say the issue of emigration is particularly resonant for Jews because of a history of flights from peril.
"The idea of Jews in this day and age seeking safety and being intercepted is a horror story and even worse," said a senior official at an American Jewish organization, who requested anonymity because he has not decided that going public with the case is a good idea.
Mrs. Rabizade, 37, has taken a Hebrew first name, Urit, a job as a nanny, and an apartment in this immigrant-filled town near Tel Aviv. Her children have assimilated very rapidly. But the whole idea of coming to Israel was her husband's dream, not hers. So, she said, she cannot help but feel displaced in her new life, especially when her old one, in the southern Iranian city of Shiraz, was quite nice.
Her husband owned a clothing shop, and she was a sales clerk, she said. Their Jewish life was open and free, she said, with plenty of kosher food available and a lovely old synagogue in walking distance from their home.
Jews are a protected minority in Iran; although they do suffer official discrimination, the case of the 13 convicted of spying for Israel on what many believe were trumped-up charges was an anomaly in their history.
Still, Mrs. Rabizade's husband, who is 18 years older than she is, set his sights on a life in Israel after several trips here, and she, too, believed it was "our land."
Generally, the Iranian government did not permit all members of a Jewish family to travel abroad at once. But in late 1996 the Rabizades decided to try.
After their farewell parties, they packed a few suitcases and, with four children ranging in age from 7 to 15, presented themselves to the immigration authorities at the airport. Mr. Rabizade's passport was seized.
Her husband told her to "go, go," that he would follow the family as soon he could arrange it, she said. Mrs. Rabizade said that she felt, psychologically, that she could not turn around; she had already left Iran. To this day, she said, she regrets what she now calls that wrong- headed feeling.
Within days, Mrs. Rabizade and her children, having presented themselves to Israeli consular officials in Turkey, had landed in an immigrant absorption center in Mevasseret Zion, outside Jerusalem. Several months later, her husband told her by telephone that he had arranged passage through the Iranian-Pakistani border town of Zahedan, a difficult and dangerous route that traverses desert and drug-trafficking terrain.
He would leave on Feb. 15, 1997; later she learned that he left with two other Iranian Jews, brothers, Syrous and Ibrahim Ghahremani.
After two weeks, when she had not heard from her husband, Mrs. Rabizade said, she was certain that something had befallen him. "Maybe the police caught him," she said, "but until this day, they haven't said word one about him."
Alone with her children in a new country, she did not know where to turn. Eventually, she went to an Iranian community group, and, she said, "they made a tremendous effort," but she acknowledges that she does not really know what they did.
The wife of one of the brothers who traveled with her husband did not handle the disappearance as well as she did, said Azriel Nevo, a retired general who is serving as the Jewish Agency's point man on the case of the missing 11 men.
That woman remains in the immigrant absorption center four years later, not ready to take the step into Israel itself without her husband.
In contrast, Mrs. Rabizade, presiding over an elegant display of pastries and soda pop, looks very composed. But she said she was sleepwalking through her days, "limbo days," as she called them.
At night, she dreams of her husband and does not feel as lonely, she said. In the dreams, he is behind bars, and she is pleading with the guards to release him, telling them that she needs him and that he does not deserve a heavy punishment "for being an innocent, just a Jew who wanted to come to Israel."
"That's why I say to myself that he's alive," she said. "Because I dream so much about him."
©Copyright 2000, The New York Times