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From Iranian Exile to Mayor of Beverly Hills

The new mayor of Beverly Hills is a Persian Jew.  This is a watershed moment: For decades Beverly Hills was a city populated and run entirely by Ashkenazi Jews, people descended from the Great Wave migrants who left Europe and … Read More

By / January 10, 2008

The new mayor of Beverly Hills is a Persian Jew.  This is a watershed moment: For decades Beverly Hills was a city populated and run entirely by Ashkenazi Jews, people descended from the Great Wave migrants who left Europe and straggled into Ellis Island in early 20th century. But America's entrenched Jewish population has recently swelled with the addition of all sorts of "new Jews" from places like Russia, Israel, and Iran.  They've got their own ambitions, their own priorities, and their own ideas about what it means to be Jewish in America. Delshad's mayorship sends a big fat honking message: The contours of American Jewry are changing. Get used to it. Becoming mayor has put the spotlight on your background. Is that a good thing? A bad thing? Exhausting? For my wife it is exhausting. If you ask her, it’s too much. But it’s what I expected, so it doesn’t bother me. I enjoy talking about my mission to elevate the status of Jews and Persians in America — to bring more tolerance, more acceptance, more equality. Don’t say that all the Jews are like this, or all Iranians are terrorists.

I’m a typical Persian and a typical Jew. For example I'm the first mayor in the history of Beverly Hills to put a mezuzah on my door, which I did because I’m proud of my Jewish heritage. At the same time, I give interviews to Persian papers and magazines. I go on TV programs in Farsi. I encourage people in Iran to show their intolerance to that regime. Are you in touch with the Iranian community?
Yes, through TV. I go on many different programs. I get a lot of emails from people who are dissatisfied and want to get out. What do you tell them? To be vocal about their situation, and not accept the pressure that’s on them. If you accept everything they put on you, then they’ll keep on doing it. But if you force the government to take a stand, sometimes they have to take a position that would look very bad. What kinds of positions? Like if you and your wife are on a bus, and they separate you. They say, your wife goes on the back of the bus. Don’t accept it. Sit together, hold hands together. Let them take a situation like that and make it big. Show intolerance to their unjust way of running your life. You left Iran in 1959, because you felt you had no opportunities as a Jew. I grew up as Jew and I could only go to a certain level. It was a glass ceiling that you could never really break. I could become a good businessman or a doctor, but I wanted to be in politics and I couldn’t represent anyone other than the Jews. I wanted to be president of organizations, but I was being held back, so I decided to go to a country that gives me opportunity and freedom. I moved on to higher levels here, much more than I could have in Iran. How old were you when you left? Nineteen. What made you decide to run for City Council?
I became president of Sinai Temple, which was groundbreaking — there’s never been a Persian or Sephardic president of any Ashkenazi temple like this — so when that broke ground, and it felt good, I decided maybe I’d extend it to a higher level. Right after 9/11, immigration officers asked all immigrants to come to their immigration office to present their visas and passports, to declare where they are. A lot of Persians who voluntarily went to show their visas were held for weeks at a time, almost like prison. They were victimized in Iran, and they left Iran, and they’re getting victimized again.

So they needed somebody to speak on their behalf. No senator or congressman would interfere with what was happening. So I said, that’s what I want to do. I decided to run for City Council, and after that I could become the mayor, and it made a difference. Forward magazine, I’m one of the 50 to watch. Can I ever imagine that?! So I must have touched people’s lives. I must have made a difference.

Why aren't more Persian-Americans involved in politics? In Iran you are afraid to put your name on any list. The government will be watching. It’s like living under communism. You don’t want your name to be known by anybody. Because of that, those who came to America didn’t want anything to do with politics. It took me a long time to convince them to vote. As a result, they are involved now. I’m hoping that will set an example for Iranians, and other immigrants in America.

Is there racism against Persians in Beverly Hills? There’s jealousy. Some people think that Persians all came from Iran with a lot of money, which is not true. A lot of them left everything they had. But Persians work hard here. They’re very intelligent. They are very educated. And so there is a resentment toward newcomers who are successful. There was a controversy over the McMansions, and the City Council passed new requirements.
A lot of Persians were building houses that were very large — too big for the lots that they were on. Our City Council created a new commission to look at all new homes – whether Persians or non-Persians will live there – to evaluate whether the homes are in the character of the city and the neighborhood, and not too large. What did you think about that? I was very much in support of it. We didn’t want to stereotype people and say that all Persians’ homes are like this, but because of the commission and the architects' ideas on how to change the houses – change it here, change it there – people are happier with their finished homes than with the blueprints.

You didn’t feel like any of it was an underlying racism? No, it was more of being new and not understanding. There was some jealousy involved — like, how can they afford big homes like that? Iranians didn’t come here poor, but they came with knowledge and education. If you come with education, you advance — you open the doors. What was it like for you, being here, during the 1979 revolution in Iran? It was very tough because I was looked down on. It didn’t matter if I was a Jew or a Muslim — they looked at me only as a Persian. I wore an American flag pin for years so everyone would see that I was proud to be an American. I shaved my moustache and my beard, so I won’t look like some of them. I wanted people to feel comfortable knowing me. My first name was Jamshid in Farsi, so I added Jimmy. So they’d be more friendly. It was very difficult for a long time.

Would you go back to Iran? Not to stay. I tried to go back for a visit to take my wife and kids, but I lived in Israel when I was 16, so it was very difficult to go back to Iran because that hatred for Israel remains. If the regime changes, I would be happy to go back and visit. I would love to. There’s talk now that maybe the U.S. will bomb Iran. What do you think?
I’m not in favor of another war. I don’t think it’s good for America or Iran. But I think the situation can be handled through moratoriums and divestments from Iran’s businesses. I proposed divestment of all of our money from any companies that invest in Iran — European or anything — that are in the nuclear sector. And that proposal was passed by state of California, by the senate and the assembly; the governor signed it. I was the only mayor who promoted that. Mayors don’t usually have a foreign policy, but I wanted to get that message across — you’re not dealing with Washington, but the people of America, who are very much against your regime and the nuclear bomb you are trying to develop.

Instead of building an atomic plant, Iran should build refineries. You don’t have refineries there — less refineries than 30 years ago. No one would mind that. Refine your oil, run your country. It’s so obvious you’re not after energy; you’re after the power of a bomb in order to force other governments to follow you. Who do you think they would say that to?

They would love to be able to control the Arab countries in the neighborhood. How do you think there could be regime change in Iran? America alone is not enough. If the Europeans put economic sanctions on Iran, then people will revolutionize — if they have to stop working, stop getting paid. Do most Iranians support Ahmadinejad? No, not at all. They laugh at him. But when he was here in New York, his respectability at home went up. Sure, because stood up to a government — because we gave him the freedom to say it. So people say, “Wow our president, a little guy, went over there and stood up to the big giants.” It was totally wrong for him to take advantage of our freedom. He wouldn’t allow us to go over there and talk like that. What do you like best about being mayor? I can make people feel proud that somebody of their background and their culture reached a high position. People in Iran feel proud, people in Europe feel proud — that’s the best thing. What’s the worst thing about being the mayor? The amount of calls I get asking for personal favors. Most of them have to do with building something or coming to this country. A lot of people write me and say, "We want to leave Iran." And I have to be silent. Here, Jewish culture is so defined by Ashkenazim – the food, the culture. Is that a perception you would like to change?
A big part of my mission is to create bridges — between Persians and non-Persians, between Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi. My wife is Ashkenazi and I'm not, so I created a bridge.

It’s important to teach others that family is important. But it’s also important to understand that your child can have a relationship with someone who’s not from the same background as your family, and learn from that. As a Jewish Persian, do you have many Muslim Persian friends? Every Persian thinks of me as one of them. I use that opportunity to create harmony and acceptance. They welcome me and I welcome them. Again, to create a bridge.

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