By Amy Teibel / AP
JERUSALEM: All but lost amid the heated talk about a possible Israeli attack on Iran’s suspect nuclear program are the thousands of Jews who live in the Islamic Republic and could be caught in the middle.
Although Iran has a history of treating its Jewish minority fairly well, some Iranian Jews who have immigrated to Israel worry that an Israeli attack could expose family and friends still in Iran to retaliation.
Iran’s government is “unstable and unpredictable. If there is a war, you can’t tell what the response to the community will be,” said Kamal Penhasi, who runs Israel’s only Persian newspaper, Shahyad, and its companion website.
The level of worry among Jews in Iran themselves is harder to measure.
At a tomb in southern Iran said to be the grave of the biblical prophet Daniel — a popular pilgrimage site for Iranian Jews — those visiting on a recent day were reluctant to talk about politics or the rising tensions between Iran and Israel, preferring to talk about their visit.
“I prayed for peace in the world. I asked for health and blessing for all people, I prayed for all,” said Erieh Dina, after she recited prayers in Hebrew next to her husband in front of the grave.
The rising crisis illustrates the uneasy situation of Iran’s Jews, the largest community in the Middle East outside of Israel and Turkey. They are believed to number around 25,000, after two major waves of emigration following Israel’s founding in 1948 and the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
Before the revolution they numbered around 100,000.
Many in the community, centered in Tehran and the southern city of Shiraz, are affluent merchants. Publicly, they are supportive of a system that offers them protected minority status — though not equal access to certain government and military jobs — and assures them a seat in the Iranian parliament.
“No matter who dares to attack our country, we will stand against the threats like other Iranian people,” the current Jewish lawmaker in the Iranian parliament, Siamak Merehsedq, told The Associated Press in Tehran. “The Iranian Jewish community will stand by their compatriots under any circumstance, forever.”
In general, the community tries to lie low. Tensions between Iran and Israel have been high for years, and the leadership of hard-line Muslim clerics has not tried to retaliate against Iranian Jews, in part because it likes to tout their presence as proof of the government’s tolerance. The biggest exception to that was the trial in 2000 of 13 Iranian Jews on charges of spying for Israel, which raised heavy international criticism.
The ornate tomb of Daniel in Susa, 450 miles (750 kilometers) southwest of the capital Tehran, is cited by Iranians as an example of the historic bonds of Jews and Muslims in the country. The site is popular among both Muslims and Jews, and some of the pious credit their prayers at the site for healing sick relatives or bringing rain for crops. Hundreds visit ever day, including high school students on field trips from around the country.
The grave is in an underground crypt that is usually open only to Jews, while both they and Muslims can visit an above-ground shrine over it, dazzling with mirrored tiles. In a sign of respect to the Jewish community, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered an inscription put on the grave reading, “This is the shining tomb of the sagacious prophet Daniel, who directed believers while tolerating difficulties for the sake of God.”
But an outright Israeli attack against Iran would be unprecedented and could put a heavy test on the government’s policy toward the community.
Like the West, Israel is convinced Iran’s nuclear program is being developed to build bombs, and not to generate energy and medical isotopes as Tehran claims.
It sees a nuclear-armed Iran as threatening the Jewish state’s survival, and sparking a nuclear arms race in a region hostile to Israel’s existence.
In the US last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vigorously asserted Israel’s right to defend itself militarily against the Iranian nuclear threat.
Israeli officials say the presence of Jews in Iran won’t influence Israel’s decision on whether to strike.
Iran’s Jewish community is one of the world’s oldest centers of Judaism, its historical roots reaching back 2,700 years. One of Judaism’s most revered figures is Esther, the Jewish queen of Persia — and heroine of the Purim holiday — who foiled a vizier’s plan to annihilate the empire’s Jews.
Many observers think Iran would retaliate against an Israeli military strike by firing its large arsenal of missiles capable of striking Israel, or have its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza hit the Jewish state with short-range rockets and missiles. It could also strike Jewish or Israeli targets in other countries.
But Meir Litwak, an Iran expert at Tel Aviv University, said it is doubtful the government would lash out at Jews in Iran.
The regime “has to treat Jews well to show that Jews can live under a Muslim regime as a protected minority, so there is no legal or moral reason for the existence of a Jewish state,” he said. “If they start killing their own Jews, international pressure would be far more than before.”
Iranian Jews living in Israel are not so sure. There are an estimated 250,000 Jews of Iranian descent in Israel, including the jailed former President Moshe Katsav, the former military chief and current opposition lawmaker Shaul Mofaz and one of the country’s most popular singers, Rita, who recently put out a Farsi-language album.
Penhasi is afraid that even if the Iranian government doesn’t directly attack Jews, its police might stand aside if angry Iranian citizens decide to do so in the event of an Israeli attack.
“The government could say, ‘The people did it’ and police forces couldn’t stop them,” he said.
So far, there have been no reported cases of such attacks.
Shahram Shahrooz, an emigre who moderates Farsi-language community radio and TV shows here, said Jews visiting Israel from Iran are “fearful of attacks on Jews.”
“They are afraid there will be chaos in the Middle East,” said Shahrooz, who moved here with his family in 1989 at the age of 11. “They know it won’t end with a few booms. It will be a disaster for the region.”
The visiting Iranian Jews refused a request, passed through Shahrooz and Penhasi, to be interviewed by The Associated Press.
Iranian emigres here maintain ties with the Jewish community in Iran over the Internet and by phone. Some Iranian Jews even visit, traveling through third countries, though the visits have diminished sharply since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has called for Israel’s destruction, became president in 2005.
At the Daniel shrine in Iran, a 10-year-old Jewish boy Daniel Morim —
named after the prophet — played in the courtyard. A Muslim visitor to the site, Khalaf Dahani, watched the yarmulke-wearing boy and said, “Our God is the same. Let’s appeal for peace.”
Associated Press writer Nasser Karimi contributed to this report from Susa, Iran.