Iranian Jews in Israel Fear for Relatives in Iran if Israel Attacks

Though 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.

All but lost amid the heated talk about a possible Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities are the thousands of Jews who live in the Islamic Republic and could be caught in the middle.

Though 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 Jews - AP - March 2012

Iran's government is "unstable and unpredictable," said Kamal Penhasi, who runs Israel's only Persian newspaper, Shahyad, and its companion website. "If there is a war, you can't tell what the response to the community will be."

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 one 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," said Erieh Dina, after she recited prayers in Hebrew 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.

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," Siamak Merehsedq, the current Jewish lawmaker in the Iranian parliament, told The Associated Press in Tehran.

The community tries to lie low. Iran's leadership has generally not retaliated against Iranian Jews over tensions with Israel, 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.

Iran's Jews constitute one of the world's oldest Jewish communities, with historical roots reaching back 2,700 years. The ornate tomb of Daniel in Susa, 450 miles southwest of Tehran, is cited by Iranians as an example of the historic bonds of the country's Jews and Muslims. Hundreds of both Muslims and Jews visit every day. 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.

But an outright Israeli attack against Iran would be unprecedented and could prove a severe test of the government's policy toward the community.

Still, Israeli officials say the presence of Jews in Iran won't influence Israel's decision on whether to strike.

Most observers think Iran would retaliate against an Israeli military strike either by firing long-range missiles at Israel through its proxies in Lebanon and Gazas.

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.

Iranian Jews living in Israel are not so sure. There are an estimated 250,000 Jews of Iranian descent in Israel.

Shahyad's Penhasi is afraid that even if the Iranian government doesn't directly attack Jews, its police might stand aside if angry Iranian citizens decided 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.

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."

An AP writer contributed to this report from Susa, Iran