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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Forty Iranian Jews make aliya (immigrate to Israel)

Forty Iranian Jews arrived at Ben Gurion airport today and declared themselves olim (immigrants) to Israel. The Iranians arrived by way of a third country which has not been named so as to leave open the possibility of being able to continue to transit Jews through that country in the future. The names of the Iranian Jews who have made aliya (immigrated) have not been published either. This was the largest single group ever brought here as olim from Iran.
The Jews of Iran were "starting to feel the earth burn beneath their feet" in a growing atmosphere of anti-Semitism, said Yossi Shraga, director of Middle East immigration at the Jewish Agency.


Many Iranian Jews left Iran in a steady stream after the fall of the Shah in 1979. Before that year's Islamic Revolution, there were approximately 125,000 Jews in Iran. Many of the well-to-do Iranian Jews who left Iran settled in Los Angeles, and a small percentage came to Israel. But in 2006, a total of 65 Iranian Jews came to Israel. This year, 200 new immigrants have arrived, not including Tuesday's group.

An estimated 25,000 Jews remain in Iran, most of them living in Teheran, Isfahan and Shiraz. Teheran has the largest Jewish community, comprising some 15,000 people.

Each Iranian oleh will receive a $10,000 gift from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews upon entering Israel, in addition to the usual basket of immigration benefits provided by the Immigrant Absorption Ministry. The money, part of a campaign launched by IFCJ President Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, will be given to each individual, and was, for some of the new immigrants, a deciding factor in making the decision to leave Iran and settle in Israel.

Iranians who choose to leave Iran can appoint legal custodians to manage their assets, but if they don't, their assets are transferred to the state. However, according to sources familiar with their immigration process, the 40 new arrivals - 10 families and three singles, mostly from a middle to lower-middle financial bracket - have not appointed any such custodian. Some will lose those assets entirely.

The new immigrants were taken to an absorption center Beersheba, where they will stay until they are ready to move out. Most of them are "traditional" when it comes to religious observance and keep kosher.

"The Jewish Agency has spared no expense in bringing the Jews of Iran and will work to bring the rest of them to Israel. The atmosphere in Iran has done the work for us. Anti-Semitism in Iran is growing from day to day. This is in total contrast to what the leaders of the Iranian Jewish community are saying. Jewish schools have been shut down; a ban has been ordered on the learning and teaching of the Hebrew language," Shraga told the Post. "This is not the place where they want to live. Through the Jewish Agency, I hope we can bring them all."

Several families waiting in the arrival hall of the airport for the immigrants hotly contested Shraga's statement. They claimed there was no ban on studying Hebrew in Iran, and that Jewish schools have not been forced to shut down.

The Post also contacted the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which said that there has been no discernible rise in anti-Semitism in the Iranian media, although they could not comment on what was happening on the ground in the Islamic Republic.

While Israel and Iran have no diplomatic relations, the Iranian authorities have not tried to stop Iranian Jews from leaving the country.

According to well-informed sources, imposing a travel or immigration ban on Iran's remaining 25,000 Jews would not be in the interests of the Iranian government, which is trying to show the rest of the world that despite its problems with the US and Israel, there is a humane regime in Teheran that treats its Jewish minority well.

Similarly, the Iranian authorities, fully cognizant of the latest group of 40 Jewish emigrants, can point to the relatively small number and say that the vast majority of the country's Jews have chosen to stay.

However, not all of the Iranian expat community or those still residing in Iran are happy about the slow trickle of Jews to Israel; some say this phenomenon endangers Jews who choose to stay in Iran.

An Iranian Jew who immigrated to Israel six years ago, however, said that families continued to communicate with each other by phone without too many problems. From Israel, one can dial directly to Iran, and from within Iran, many families are using VoIP technology to communicate with their relatives in Israel via the Internet.

The immigrant, who preferred to remain anonymous, said Persian Jews in Israel and in Iran didn't converse in Hebrew over the phone.
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