Iranian Jews in Israel wary, hoping for the best

Iranian Jews in Israel discuss tensions
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Story highlights

  • Iran is largest Middle Eastern population center for Jews outside of Israel
  • Jews can practice faith freely in Iran without persecution, says one Iranian Jew
  • For Iranian Jews living in Israel, the debate about Iran cannot be escaped
Shamshiri in Tel Aviv is as busy as any restaurant might be during the lunch hour rush. Nestled in a part of the market area known as Little Persia, Shamshiri is run by Jews from Iran, providing a home away from home for other Iranian Jews.
Moluk, the matriarch of her family, is just one of tens of thousands of Iranian Jews who immigrated to Israel during the course of the last 60 years. She arrived in Israel in 1964 from Isfahan, where her sister still lives to this day.
In Iran there are an estimated 25,000 Jews remaining in the country, making it the largest Middle Eastern population center for the religion outside of Israel. Moluk, like many Iranian Jews in Israel, still keeps in touch with relatives back home.
She says there are no problems between Jews and Muslims in Iran. Jews, she explains, can practice their faith freely in Iran and are not persecuted.
But for most in Israel, talk of Iran focuses on the country's nuclear program and what the government here believes is Tehran's drive to develop nuclear weapons. The Iranian government steadfastly maintains its program is peaceful in nature.
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For Iranian Jews living in Israel, the debate about their homeland cannot be escaped and in their market community in Tel Aviv there's a keen awareness of the potential for an Israeli strike.
Take Mansour, a spice shop owner. He came to Israel from Iran forty years ago. He says the Iran nuclear issue is a big mess, hard to understand with both Israel and Iran waiting to see who will act first.
There are between 100,000 and 200,000 Iranian Jews and their descendants in Israel, and despite the hostile relations between Israel and Iran, they're still able to closely follow events in their country of origin through internet radio stations like Radis In which broadcasts from Tel Aviv.
One caller from Iran to the station says he won't be voting in the country's upcoming elections as he believes they will be rigged. Barouch Davidi, one of the station's presenters, says that after hearing stories from other callers, he believes the economic sanctions are really beginning to hurt the Iranian regime.
It's a view shared by analyst Meir Javedanfar, himself originally from Iran and who is now at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center college in Israel. He says the regime in Tehran is in danger because the economic price being paid for its nuclear program as a result of sanctions is actually "a bigger existential threat to the Islamic Republic of Iran than to the State of Israel."
The sanctions are beginning to bite, says Javedanfar. A strike by Israel, he continues, should be only as a last resort. A strike, he argues, would be "bad for two reasons. Number one, it would help the longevity of the Iranian regime. Number two, it could motivate it more to build the bomb."
Back at the restaurant, Moluk is not concerned about the tension over Iran's nuclear program. "I don't believe it," she says. "It's a bluff. We believe in good things. God told us to believe in the best."
On her wall, as if a throwback to earlier and presumably better times for Moluk and before the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, hangs a portrait of the late Shah and his son.
Iranian Jews like Moluk and Mansour may be hoping for the best but preparing for the worst as politicians negotiate the future in the corridors of power, far away from this bustling Tel Aviv neighborhood.