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The Group Trapped in the Middle of Israel and Iran's Conflict

Posted: 09/06/2012 3:45 pm

Nobody can be sure what the growing conflict between Iran and the West will lead to. Speculation over a possible Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear sites is precisely that, no matter how informed.

The analysis over pros and cons of striking Iran are endless. Will Israelis and the West be safer in the short term, the long term or both? How will Iran and its proxies Hezbollah and Hamas react? Will they retaliate against Israelis, Jews, America? The stakeholders and angles that this analysis considers is almost endless.

One group, however, is conspicuously absent from most of the discussions of an attack on Iranian nuclear sites: the 25,000 Persian Jews living in Iran.

The 1948 creation of the State of Israel brought an abrupt and unpleasant end to Jewish communities that had been living throughout the Arab world for thousands of years. Over 800,000 fled. Iran's Jews, on the other hand, have never faced the same exile. Yes, tens of thousands have left, but today in Iran 25,000 Jews live as Jews continuing a 2,700 year Jewish presence in Persia.

Iran's Jews are in an incredibly precarious position. The Iranian regime's hateful and inciting vitriol against Israel does not make their lives easy. However, an Iranian Jew who recently emigrated and wishes to remain anonymous told me, "They don't confuse Zionism from Judaism. Everyone understands that we are separate from Israelis."

After a few years living in America, this individual's best analogy was to liken Iran's Jews to present-day African Americans. "Every once and a while they are treated inappropriately by other people." "Most people," he says of his life there, "were respectful, at least in public."

Regardless of what one thinks about the wisdom of Persia's Jews remaining in their ancestral home amidst today's developments, that is not a judgement call for anyone but them to make.

The presence of 25,000 Jews in Iran is not going to be a make-or-break calculus in an Israeli decision to strike Iran, alone or in partnership with other countries. Nor am I advocating it to be -- that is far beyond my expertise.

But a decision to attack Iran's nuclear facilities is intertwined with more than just protecting Israel and the West. The speeches coming out of the Israeli government and Jewish communities around the world leave no doubt that a nuclear Iran is a threat to Jews around the world.

It is for this reason that I am advocating for more consideration, especially within Jewish circles, for the even-more precarious position a strike on Iran puts its Jewish community in and the possible effects of such a strike on the community. It would not be completely truthful to suggest that attacking Iran will protect Jews if such discussion fails to mention those in Iran.

No one can be sure of what an attack on Iran will mean for its Jewish communities. Calling Iran's government "unstable and unpredictable," Kamal Penhasi, the editor of Israel's Persian newspaper Shahyad, says "you can't tell what the response to the community will be."

Meir Litwack, an Iran expert at Tel Aviv University thinks that Iran would have to restrain any official reprisals against its Jews in order to illustrate that Jews can live freely in Islamic states, proving no need for a Jewish state.

The Iranian I spoke with agrees and does not believe the safety of Iran's Jews would be in question. However, he did point out that Iran's Jews, living under a regime that does not tolerate dissent or free speech, are too afraid to talk and have to an extent been influenced by years of living under the regime's propaganda.

Thus, much like with talk over whether a strike will or will not come, no one can be certain as to what Iran's Jews are thinking about and fretting over. All the more reason for their silence to have a voice in this debate.

Iran's Jews consider themselves to be descendents of Queen Esther, the wife of King Ahashvuerush, presumed to be King Xerxes, who ruled Persia during the 5th century BC. Esther is a celebrated heroine for her intervention to stop a plot by one of the King's vizers to destroy the country's Jews. Jews around the world celebrate her during the holiday of Purim.

If the life of a Jewish community in Persia mattered so much that 2,500 years later Jews celebrate its survival, the least we can do is acknowledge that they matter just as much today and that whatever tomorrow brings, their safety and well-being needs to be a priority.

 
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