The unnecessary media to-do surrounding the arrival of 40 Jews from Iran last week might harm immigration to Israel and the 28,000 Jews still in Iran. The Jewish Agency, the military censor and the government agency who contributed to these festivities, or who did not prevent them, might be sorry afterward.
At the moment the response from Tehran has been minor. The leaders of Iran's Jewish community, obviously on the instructions of their government, quickly denounced the efforts of the "Zionist regime" to entice them to immigrate. But people familiar with the Iranian regime's behavior patterns say it will be difficult for them to act as if nothing has happened regarding an act they perceive as a callous Israeli provocation.
Immigration to Israel from the Arab countries, Iran and the Soviet bloc became a key issue for all Israeli governments. For this reason two espionage organizations were put in charge of it: the Mossad (via the Bitzur unit) in Arab countries, and Nativ in Eastern Europe.
Bitzur and Nativ organized impressive but secret immigration operations over the years. They were assisted by Jewish organizations like the American Joint Distribution Committee in bringing Jews to Israel from Morocco, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Sudan - and according to foreign sources, from Iran as well.
Their methods were essentially similar. Preparatory work was done in the community. Arrangements with the local government were preferable, so international pressure and pressure by Jewish organizations was used, and if necessary money changed hands. Only when an accommodation could not be reached to bring Jews out were other means invoked, such as smuggling them out. The Israeli press, and in many cases the foreign press as well, were in on the secret and knew how to keep it, recognizing that any report on the details might cost lives.
The leaders of Muslim countries are ready to let Jews out as long as this does not become public knowledge. The moment details are leaked, their adversaries accuse them of strengthening the Zionist state and its army. That was the case when news of the immigration from Sudan leaked, and the country's president, Jaafar Nimeiri, had to fend off accusations by his opponents about cooperation with the Zionist enemy.
The Jews of Iran enjoy reasonable treatment. They have an organized community life and are free to conduct their religious rituals and businesses. Like most Iranian citizens, they are also allowed to go abroad, and when they return they are not asked what they did on their vacation. It may be assumed that the Iranian authorities know that most of them have relatives in Israel.
In other words, as long as things remain quiet and do not appear on the public agenda, the Iranian authorities can come to terms with the situation. When the relationship between Iranian Jews and Iran becomes vociferous and public, they must respond. That is what happened when Rabbi Yehiel Eckstein's International Fellowship of Christians and Jews announced in 2007 that it would pay tens of thousands of dollars to every Iranian Jew who came to live in Israel. Iranian spokesmen responded angrily and the heads of the Jewish community had to distance themselves from the rabbi's initiative.
It is clear to all concerned that a monetary incentive will not make the Jews of Iran come live in Israel. For this reason, too, the recent publicity is another unnecessary step a la Eckstein, who is known for his connections with Christian fundamentalists in the United States.
It may perhaps be understood why Eckstein wants to aggrandize himself; it is much more difficult to understand why the Jewish Agency and government officials are cooperating with him when they know that hanging in the balance is the fate of an entire Jewish community in a Muslim country hostile to Israel. There was no change in policy. The prime minister did not know about it, and the Jewish Agency and that government agency which helped out last week should go back to the old pattern that proved itself so well.