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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

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 U.S. 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 has 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."

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Associated Press writer Nasser Karimi contributed to this report from Susa, Iran.

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