‘The world is changing; it could happen in Iran, too’

May 24, 2022 by Yoav Limor - JNS
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Major M. was just 3 years old when he fled Khomeini’s Iran with his father and older siblings.

IDF Maj. M. Photo by Oren Cohen

They risked their lives to reach Israel, via a long and roundabout route, and his acclimatization in the country was rough—until he joined the military. It was in the Intelligence Corps where he found his vocation, first as a Persian language analyst in Unit 8200, and following that, for the past 17 years, training the next generation of intelligence personnel.

The country he fled still plays a major role in his and his family’s life. He sees himself as having a dual mission: to help Israel fight its greatest enemy and to help the Iranian people escape the claws of the tyrannical regime in Tehran.

“We understand what Iran is. We know what its intentions are. From my perspective, we are saving Iran and we are trying to help it return to what it once used to be. I would love to return there for a visit, but Iran is no longer my country. Israel is my home,” he said.

M. was born in 1985, the youngest of three children. His father had been a senior figure in one of the Shah’s security apparatuses. Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, his father went underground, working in the medical services field.

“Anyone who had worked for the security services of the previous regime was persecuted,” said M. “If you were caught, you would be hanged in the town square.”

A knock on the door

The family tried to live a normal life, but found it too difficult.

“It was forbidden for us even to sing, and if we did sing, then only certain songs. In Jewish schools, some kids converted to Islam. What kept us going was our family, which remained in Iran, and so we stayed behind,” said M.

“My father would speak all the time about making aliyah to Israel. He broke when my brother returned from school and showed him what he had learned: Koranic Surah. He heard that and said, ‘Enough, I can’t go on with this anymore. I will not let our Jewish tradition and everything I have raised my children on come to nothing.’” But M.’s mother didn’t want to leave her family behind. In the end, after many arguments, his parents divorced.

“My father told her that if she wants to stay, she can, but he wouldn’t let his children waste their lives in Iran. In retrospect, he was right of course,” said M.

Following the divorce, his mother took the property and his father took the children.

“Think about it; a 35-year-old man on his own with three children. It’s crazy. And it’s not like you just go to the embassy, arrange for a visa and get on a plane. We had to arrange to be smuggled out of the country—and I didn’t even know, we didn’t even know when it would happen. You were told to be ready in a certain window of time and to take with you only what you could carry.”

M.’s grandparents also decided to flee. His grandfather stayed behind a little longer to get rid of as much property as possible so as not to begin life in Israel empty-handed, while his grandmother left with M., his father and his siblings. The smuggling operation was handled by what he calls a “terror organization” that had found an easy way to make money by smuggling Jews across Iran’s long borders.

“On a Shabbat evening, they knocked on our door, identified themselves and said we needed to leave immediately. We got on a truck with other people, also Jews, and we left.”

They travelled light, said M.

“My big sister took a few souvenirs from our mother, and we took some clothes, some jewelry, and some money my father had put together. They took a toy for me, and that was it.”

The truck led them to Iran’s east, and when they reached the border the driver told them to get out because they were making too much noise and could endanger the lives of the other passengers.

“We were afraid and we began to run on foot through the desert. My grandmother, who was already quite old, my father, who took me on his shoulders, and my brother and sister. I remember that I told him I was cold and he said, ‘Put your hands on my body and you will warm up.’

It was pitch dark and at one point, all the souvenirs my sister had taken from our mother fell into a ravine. The smugglers were pushing us all the time to move quickly because they were afraid that the Iranian border police would turn up and arrest us. When we stopped to eat, one of the group lit a fire and the smoke gave us away. The smugglers decided to split up the men and the women. The men took one route as a diversion and the women went another way. The Iranians chased after the men; they started shooting and my father suffered head wounds.

“The smugglers took advantage of the fact that the men had left and ordered all the women to kneel on the ground. It was the most traumatic experience that I remember,” he said. “All the women were on their knees and the smugglers went one by one and asked each woman what she had and what she would give them. If a woman didn’t give them money or jewelry, they shot her in the head. We were among the last and my father, who was in the other group with the men, had all the money. When they reached my grandmother, she started pulling her hair and screaming that she had small children with her. Then a wealthy woman who was on the way to the United States saw me, a small boy, and paid for us,” he continued.

“Many people who fled Iran disappeared along the way. No one knows what happened to them. But that woman saved us. When we met up with my father again, he repaid the woman. I remember seeing him with a bandage on his head, and he was bleeding. … We reached the eastern border and they put us up in a sand house and from there we continued to a hostel in another town. We didn’t  go outside because if you were caught, you could be sent back to Iran, and if you went back to Iran you were dead.”

M.s’ family waited in the hostel for two months.

But “my grandmother had kidney stones and my father decided that enough was enough,” said M. “He grabbed hold of the person in charge and told him that if we didn’t leave now he would break his arm. That was the only way things worked there. People paid money to be first in line. So my father had to kick up a fuss for them to send us.”

In early 1988, the family left for Europe, and from there to Israel.

“When we landed in Israel, they took my father to a side room for questioning because of his past in the state security services. I had lost my shoes on the airplane and so I was running around the airport barefoot. In the meantime, my uncles were waiting for us outside until my father was released. I assume that he was followed for a while until people understood that he wasn’t an Iranian agent,” said M.

M.’s family was sent to an absorption center. His father insisted they be sent to Ashdod because that was where his brothers lived.

“I didn’t know a word of Hebrew. My father knew a little bit because he had studied Torah in Iran, but apart from him, nobody spoke Hebrew. We lived four people in one small room; even my son has a bigger room today. Nevertheless, from my point of view, it was a very happy period.”

M.’s grandmother lived in the absorption center until his grandfather made it out of Iran several months later and moved with her to another absorption center in Ashdod.

“My sister had to keep the house; she would cook and clean and my father would do odd jobs at factories, night shifts. My sister would look after us, prepare food for us,  iron our father’s clothes for work,” said M.

It took him years to adjust to his new country, he explained.

“I think that I never quite managed to get used to Israel until I was 18, when I was drafted into the army,” he said.

M. recalls a lonely childhood. Because of the language, because of the culture and because of identity.

“I was a polite kid and a good student, but I never had any friends apart from one other kid, an Ethiopian who I would hang out with. It wasn’t an easy time. Kids would bully me. I was a naive and foreign child, an easy target,” he said.

His father insisted, too, that the family maintain their Persian culture.

“Everything around us was Persian. We watched Persian films and we ate Persian food. My sister got married at 18, just like in Persia,” said M. “I also keep a Persian home. Even though my wife is Israeli, I only speak Persian with my kids, who are completely Israeli. I think it’s wrong for them to lose their cultural identity. Aside from that, it’s important to learn other languages; it develops them cognitively. Persian is a beautiful and rich language. English … they’ll learn English in school anyway, so let them learn Persian now,” he said.

One day, when they were living at the absorption centre, M.’s father saw a family he knew that had just arrived from Iran.

“They were sitting in the street, crying. He went up to them and asked what had happened. They said they had arrived in a truck and been left in the street and had no idea what to do. My father took them to the offices of the absorption center and arranged a room for them.”

That gesture of kindness was to have far-reaching implications for M.’s family.

“One of the girls from that family, Esther, who was 18 or 19, would come to our house all the time to help us with the housework. She and my father fell in love, but he told her that he was 35 with three children and that he wasn’t the right one for her. … She insisted, even though her mother was against it and had tried to lock her up at home, and forbade her from coming to see us,” said M.

“When that didn’t help, Esther’s brother was sent to confront my father. There was a fracas in the street, with everything going on in Persian, and the police were called. They started questioning everyone … and then they told Esther’s mother, ‘Your daughter is 18 already, she can decide for herself to live with whoever she wants, wherever she wants.’ Her mother told her, ‘If you move in with him, we will cut you off, we will cut all our ties with you and you won’t be our daughter any longer.’ And that’s what happened. Esther left her family to be with my father and with us. They got married and had two children, who are my brothers,” he added.

The IDF years

When he reached enlistment age, he asked to serve in Unit 8200, the IDF Intelligence Directorate’s signals intelligence (SIGINT) unit, where his elder brother had served. He took an intelligence course and then served as a monitor in Persian, his mother tongue. He dealt only with the Iranian arena, which was beginning to become significant. That was in 2004-05.

“When we began to understand that there was a big gap in our understanding of the nuclear issue, we had to close it, and it was then that resources began to be thrown at the Iranian issue,” he explained.

“I was in a department that dealt with the Iranian nuclear project and with their conventional and unconventional weapons. That was one of the most significant periods in my life. I dealt with projects that I wish I could talk about, things that until I went into the army I was sure existed only in the movies,” he said.

After two-and-a-half years on the operational side, M. insisted on becoming an instructor.

“The course that I was in after being drafted wasn’t good, and I wanted to come back and take all the mistakes that were made with us and do things differently, better. I understood that intelligence is important, but the core is how you train people.”

He was recently given an award by the head of Military Intelligence for a project he developed on smart classrooms introduced into the Intelligence Corps training regime.

“The classrooms weren’t suitable for our current era. We created a new training environment, we introduced multimedia platforms and technologies, and we changed how students learn, to one in which they get a completely different experience and where it is fun to learn,” he said.

M. has been training Persian speakers for intelligence work for many years. He became an officer and received a degree, but decided to remain in the field of training, which, from his perspective, is the key to ensuring the qualitative edge of Israeli intelligence.

While there are “still quite a few youngsters” in Israel who know Persian from home, for those that don’t “we have developed methodologies that enable us to teach them,” he said.

“We don’t just teach the language from a book, we teach tradition and culture, even the Persian holidays. We make them fall in love with the profession and with the language,” he explained.

‘My mother was a stranger’

Married to Chen and a father to Aviv (4) and Shaked (18 months), M. lives in Beer Yaakov. His mother remarried in Iran and had two children. They didn’t keep in touch with her after the family made aliyah, said M.

“Once, we called the number at our old home. I remember it like it was yesterday; I was perhaps 7. We sat on the bed waiting to talk to her. Somebody answered the phone, and we said to her, ‘Mother, how are you,’ and she said, ‘You’re confused, you have a wrong number,’ and hung up.”

The family believes that she was afraid and “didn’t want to take any risks,” he said.

Finally, after most of the family had left Iran, M.’s mother also decided to leave. She tried to contact her children, but M., who was 18 by then, refused to talk to her.

“I was very hurt by her. My siblings spoke to her, but I didn’t want to. When I was 24, a little older already, I came home one day from the army. My brother was about to get married and my father said, ‘Listen, your mother is here in Israel on a visit, go and see her.’

“I went to see her with my siblings. My sister went in, they embraced and cried; my brother went in, and the same happened. I went in, and I just smiled because I didn’t really have any feelings for her. From my perspective, she was a stranger. She hadn’t seen me since I was 3 years old, and the next time she saw me I was in uniform,” he said.

However, over the years, the two have managed to bridge the gap to some degree, he added.

“Today we are much closer. We have remained in touch, even though she hasn’t yet seen my children, her grandchildren. Now we’re trying to persuade her to make aliyah,” he said.

The way M. sees Iran is very different from the way the average Israeli sees it. His take on the country is nuanced.
“Just like people here speak about ‘First Israel’ and ‘Second Israel,’ there is also a first Iran and second Iran. Young people want to live differently. They are very active on social networks. You see a lot of rich kids, having parties and leading a completely western life. And then there are the poor as well,” he said.
He also emphasized that while most Jews had left Iran, the Iranian regime has no problems with Jews as such.
“There is a lot of misunderstanding on this issue. The Iranian regime has a problem with the State of Israel, not with Jews,” he said. “The Jews live in a closed community that continues its life as normal. They even have kosher food and people go to synagogue, and as long as they don’t speak against the regime or act against it, they’re fine,” he added.

Regarding the future of Iran, M. believes there is a chance that one day, things will be different.

“History proves that things like that can happen. Take the ‘Arab Spring.’ [Former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak, did anybody think Mubarak could fall? There is an evolution here. Things are changing. The world is changing. It could happen in Iran as well,” he said.

He “very much” would like to return to Iran for a visit, he said and has “no doubt” all the Jews who left the country feel the same way.

“It’s an incredible country, with incredible nature and views,” he said.

“Nevertheless, when I ask my father if he would do it all over again, come to Israel alone with nothing, with three small kids, he replies, ‘Absolutely, yes. Israel is our home,’” he added.

His father, said M., “feels pain that the country he loves, where he grew up, has gone mad. The radical regime, out-of-control inflation, and the drug problem among youths. He would like to see a different Iran.”

He recalls that the last time his mother came for a visit, he brought her to meet his cadets.

“I told them my life story and they were shocked. They had tears in their eyes. And then I introduced them to her. That was in Jerusalem, and she had seen the Western Wall and soldiers sitting and singing Israeli songs on a Shabbat evening in uniform. She said to me, ‘It’s the best thing that has happened to me, to see you like this. I’m sorry I didn’t come with you. I made a mistake.”

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

(Israel Hayom via JNS)


One Response to “‘The world is changing; it could happen in Iran, too’”
  1. Liat Kirby says:

    What an incredible story. And how brave Major M.’s father was. This deserves a book and a film. Kol Hakevod to the family.

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