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Worries over Iranian Jews if Israel attacks

By Amy Teibel

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, March 15 2012 2:15 a.m. MDT

In this picture taken on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012, Iranian Jewish and Muslim women pray at the tomb of biblical prophet Daniel, in the city of Susa, some 450 miles ( 750 kilometers) southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran. 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.

Vahid Salemi, Associated Press

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 emigrated 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.

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