Jews have lived in Iran since biblical times, surviving 2,700 years of rotating dynasties from Persian kings and Mongol rulers to today’s ayatollahs, all the while building a community many are reluctant to leave.
So when a plane carrying 40 Iranian Jews landed at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport last week amid cheers and the glare of TV cameras, many hailed the new immigrants’ arrival as a sign that Iran’s remaining Jews may have had enough of life in the Islamic republic.
But others, Iranian Jews among them, point out that the relatively small number of Jewish emigrants from the country — despite the offer of a $10,000 gift plus immigrant benefits for each arriving Iranian immigrant to Israel — demonstrates just the opposite: that Iran’s Jews are reluctant to leave their home country.
“The question is, ‘Why should they leave, not why should they stay,'” said Eldad Paro, an Iran expert at Hebrew University’s Truman Center.
Before the Islamic revolution in 1979, about 100,000 Jews lived in Iran. Many of them fled, fearing for their futures under a fundamentalist Islamic regime. Some came to Israel but the majority headed to the United States, especially to Southern California. Those remaining in Iran have proven more difficult to uproot. The situation would have to become very dire for Iran’s Jews to abandon the country en masse, Paro said.
There are some 20,000 to 25,000 Jews remaining in Iran, where President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s repeated condemnations of Israel and a general air of repression and economic hardship has made life increasingly uncomfortable for Iranian Jews. Yet few have taken the financial incentives offered to them to immigrate to the Jewish state.
Iran’s Jews constitute the diaspora’s oldest Jewish community, represent the largest Jewish population in a Muslim country and — according to some accounts — have been treated well by the government.
Since the 1979 revolution, Islamic authorities generally have followed a policy that distinguishes between Zionism and Judaism, with a tacit agreement that they will guarantee the Jews’ safety so long as the Jews keep their distance from Israel.
But that understanding is being strained, some say, by Ahmadinejad’s repeated calls for Israel’s destruction, denials of the Holocaust and recent hostile messages in Iranian media against Jews.
One Israeli journalist, Ha’aretz’s Yossi Melman, argued in a recent column that the unusually public nature of the arrival of the 40 Iranians last week was dangerous in itself.
He excoriated the Jewish Agency for Israel and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which facilitated the mission and are bankrolling the $10,000 gifts, for not keeping the immigration a secret. In the past, other similar operations undertaken to bring Jews out of Muslim countries were kept quiet out of concern for the safety of the immigrants’ families and those left behind.
The Jewish Agency declined to respond to a request for comment on this story. Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder of the International Fellowship, said he feared the community was at risk.
“It’s like sitting on side of a volcano,” Eckstein said. “Lava is gathering, but you can still live there. But the haunting question is if the volcano were to erupt.”
For their part, Jewish leaders in Iran quickly spoke out against the operation.
“This is a misinformation campaign, a campaign of lies against Iran and its Jewish community,” Syamak Morehtzedek, the head of the Tehran Jewish Committee, told the Associated Press. “We are one of the oldest communities in Iran. We are free to practice our religion … Jews have never been in danger in Iran.”