Passover has always served as a symbol of redemption, a festival that inspires Jews everywhere to commemorate freedom and yearn for deliverance. For Neda Amin, an Iranian writer who was raised as a Jew in Tehran, the holiday and its themes have particular resonance.
Though just 34 years old, she has lived through a series of harrowing experiences, which have included being put on trial by an Iranian Revolutionary Court, detention and interrogation by Turkish intelligence officers and narrowly escaping deportation back into the clutches of the ayatollahs.
As a journalist who was critical of the Iranian regime, she had to flee Iran in 2014, making her way to neighboring Turkey, where she lived for three years before finally arriving in Israel in late 2017 with her beloved dog.
Due to the visa she holds, she is not allowed to work or to undergo formal conversion to Judaism, and finds herself in a bureaucratic limbo of sorts.
In an interview with the Magazine, she described her unusual and often painful journey, one that combined determination and fearlessness in the face of nearly insurmountable odds.
I understand that your grandmother was a Polish Jew who escaped the Nazis. How did she end up in Iran?
I was born in Tehran in 1984, and grew up under the ayatollahs in a half-Jewish, half-Muslim family.
My mother’s side is Muslim, but she is not religious and doesn’t believe in anything.
My father was Jewish, and his mother, my grandmother, was a Holocaust survivor from Poland. She was one of the “Tehran Children,” the 1,000 Polish Jewish children who escaped from the Germans to the Soviet Union, and then from there went to Iran. My grandmother was 14 years old when she arrived in Iran, where she was sent to an orphanage. An Iranian Jewish couple adopted her, and she grew up with them. She was originally from Warsaw, and she is buried in the Ashkenazi Jewish cemetery in Tehran.
We were raised in Iran as Jewish because in Islam the religion is decided by the paternal side, and my father was Jewish. My grandmother was religious, she prayed three times a day, and sometimes we would celebrate Passover and Rosh Hashanah with her, so I learned about Jewish culture and grew up with it.
Did you experience antisemitism growing up in Iran?
I had problems in school. I remember, when I was a child, I didn’t have many friends, and a lot of the other kids called me a “dirty Jew.” Not all the people in Iran, but there are some who believe that Jews and Baha’is are dirty. So when I first married in Iran, my ex-husband was Baha’i; so I was considered “double dirty.”
At what point did the Iranian authorities begin to give you trouble?
I went to university in Tehran, where I studied music and Persian literature and also learned to translate from Spanish to Farsi. I began writing books and speaking out about human rights and also animal rights.
When I was 17, three men from the Basij militia, which is part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, detained me and gang-raped me because of my activism. They moved me into a cell at the police station and beat me so badly that you couldn’t recognize my face. I remember they took me by my hair and beat me against the wall. As a result, the right side of my face doesn’t fully work even today.
I was arrested a number of times after that; and when I published my second and third books, I was arrested again and put on trial before a Revolutionary Court. They sentenced me to seven years and seven months in prison. I was scared because I knew they would hurt, beat and rape me. I knew this because I had experienced it before. So I decided that I had to escape from Iran.
How did you manage to do that?
My so-called crime was not a crime, it was political. I only wanted to help people and animals, so I wrote about protecting their rights.
But after my lawyer told me about the verdict of the court and said that, if I stayed in Iran, I would face more than seven years in jail, I knew had to leave.
I was advised to leave the country via train or bus, rather than on an airplane, because there is less security. I was told there was a 50% chance that I would be stopped or arrested while trying to escape. So I decided to do it.
Where did you go?
I went to Turkey because of my mother. I was told that Turkey was a democratic country, and that I could write my books there and also see my mother, since Iranians can visit Turkey. She did come to visit me, and I continued my work and lived in Turkey for over three years.
While there, I learned to hate the Turkish government and I didn’t want to stay there. I hate dictatorships and I didn’t know that Turkey was not truly democratic. I began to write about Israel, blogging about it in Persian for the Times of Israel website.
What problems did you encounter in Turkey?
At a certain point, Turkey decided that they wanted to deport me and they threatened to send me back to Iran. They had a problem with the fact that I worked as a journalist and that I also wrote for the Times of Israel, and they said that I was an Israeli spy.
The Turkish intelligence service MIT called me in several times to question me. They asked me why I work with an Israeli news agency. I told them that I love Israel, I am a writer and a journalist, and that this is my job.
The intelligence officers said to me that Israel kills all of our brothers and sisters. I told them it was not true and they should not think such things.
Then they asked me why I supported Israel, so I told them that it is because I am Jewish, Israel is my land, and I love to support it because I am a Zionist.
The MIT officer called me a “dirty Jew,” and it brought back memories of my childhood, when the other children used to call me that.
What happened next?
Finally, after calling me in for questioning six times, the Turkish intelligence officers told me that I should work for them, and they would pay me if I did not work for Israel. They said, “We can’t let you work for Israel in our country.”
So I asked them whether it was legal or not, and they said that while it is legal to work for Israel, they don’t like it and I should stop.
Then I told them, “Thank you very much. I thought you are a democratic country, but you are the same as the Iranian regime.”
Then they threatened to deport me to Iran. I told them they could not do so, because I had received political refugee status from the United Nations; but they said they did not care and they could do what they wanted.
My Iranian passport was due to expire in two months, and I didn’t know what to do. So I went to the UN office. I went to European and American consulates, to the British, German, Swedish, Norwegian [consulates] and others. And they all told me the same thing: Your problem is connected to Israel; we can’t help you, so go to Israel.
You must have been terrified. What did you do?
I was worried and confused because at that point my passport was going to expire in just one month, so I wrote on my Facebook page about what was happening. I knew that if I would be deported back to Iran, I would be finished.
Then I got calls from many countries, from friends and journalists, asking about me, like my friend Rachel Avraham. They wrote about me and raised awareness about my situation.
I also spoke to Hillel Neuer at UN Watch. He was very helpful, as well as his colleague Dan Smith. They contacted the Israeli government; and also David Horovitz, the editor of the Times of Israel, called me and asked about my situation, and said he would find a way to help. [The Jerusalem Association of Journalists also provided assistance.]
On August 6, 2017, when David called me and told me to go to the Israeli Consulate in Istanbul and get my visa. I was shocked, and asked him how it was possible, as I didn’t have the right documents with me proving that I was half Jewish. David told me it was not necessary, that everything was set. I should just go there and he will get me a ticket.
I was living in a town called Eskisehir, which is between Istanbul and Ankara, and was a seven-hour drive from Istanbul. I left right away and arrived at the Israeli Consulate at 11 p.m. They were very kind to me. David Horovitz bought me a ticket and sent it to me on email and told me I should come to Israel.
But that wasn’t the end of the story, was it?
No. I was stopped at the Turkish airport by the police and was told that I can’t exit the country. They said they had received an order from the Turkish intelligence service in Ankara that I should not be permitted to go and that I should check with them.
So I had to travel back to Eskisehir. I went to the police there and showed them that I had an Israeli visa, so they said they needed to check with their higher-ups in Ankara, and that I should come back to tomorrow.
The following day, when I went back, they said the computer system was down, so I should come back again the next day. Three times I went to the police station, and they just wasted my time.
I didn’t know what to do, so I called the Israeli Consulate. There was a lady there, and I told her what happened. She said she would take care of it. Three days later, she called and said that I should go to the police station to sign a paper, and then I would be able to leave. I have no idea what she did or how she did it, but it worked, and I was able to come to Israel.
What does the Iranian public feel about the ayatollahs?
I can say with certainty that at least 70% of Iranians hate the Iranian regime and they are demanding regime change. We have witnessed various demonstrations in Iran over the past 10 years, but they were all suppressed.
How does it feel to be in Israel? Are you happy here?
I feel like I am at home… and I love Jerusalem. I don’t want to go to any other city; and when I do go outside of Jerusalem, it makes me crazy, as I want to get back to Jerusalem.
But I have many problems because I want and need to work, but my visa does not allow me to do so. I want to study Hebrew, but I don’t have money…. My bills, insurance – all of it is paid for by a friend; if not for him, I would live in the streets.
I want to convert to Judaism… but I cannot do so, because of the type of visa that I have. I applied to make aliyah, but they give me many problems because I only have copies of documents which prove my father was Jewish. I cannot obtain the original documents, because they are in Iran….
But I love Israel, and I am still happy to be here, because I know that it will all be okay.
Reprinted with author’s permission from The Jerusalem Post