Smelly Little Orthodoxies of Iran’s Left

It is generally admitted that anti-Semitism is on the increase, that it has been greatly exacerbated by the war, and that humane and enlightened people are not immune to it.—George Orwell, 1945

On a pleasant afternoon in early September of 1987, I was among a group of Iranians gathered under the overpass on the southeast corner of 42nd Street and First Avenue in New York City to protest President Ali Khamenei’s visit to the United Nations for the annual meeting of the General Assembly. Those were the good old days when the opposition spoke out, when their fury with the regime surpassed self-pity, nostalgia, and empty patriotism. Back then I was a welcome anomaly in the midst of activists whose politics ranged from moderate socialism to radical Maoism. I was the youngest and a new arrival in their group, most of whom had come to America as students in the mid-1970s. To their botched hope of a revolution, I had been a witness, a promising poet to serenade the lost cause. That I was a Jew went unmentioned. We were above such banalities. We were revolutionaries.

As we began the rituals of protest, our leader picked up a bullhorn and began shouting slogans, and the rest of us circled him, holding our shabby placards, chanting in refrain. Quickly amassing across the street on the north side of 42nd was a much larger crowd, there to demonstrate for the freedom of Soviet Jewry. We were all of 40 at best, equipped with only a bullhorn—they were hundreds who sounded like thousands because they had a truck loaded with loudspeakers and a marching band complete with drums and cymbals. Within minutes after they began, our voices became inaudible to ourselves, and we had to stop. Leaning against the police barricade, we lingered awhile to watch the competition. Then a fellow protester took his eyes off them and said wistfully: “Hitler should have killed all of them when he’d the chance.”

Tablet Magazine, September 4, 2014