(photo credit: Channel 2 news)
The Jewish Agency is working hard to bring bring all of Iran's remaining 25,000 Jews to Israel, an official told The Jerusalem Post as 40 immigrants landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport on Tuesday afternoon.
Tuesday's arrival is the largest-ever single group of Iranian immigrants brought by the agency to start new lives in a country that their now-former president has vowed to wipe off the face of the earth.
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.
The media has not been allowed to publish the name of a third country from which the immigrants arrived at the airport, nor the delicate and complex process by which the group was gathered and processed for aliya.
Nor have their names been released for publication.
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.
He added that he believed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was serious when he said Israel would be wiped off the map, and that most Iranian Jews also probably thought he was serious, but that neither he nor they expected this threat to become a reality.
"Ahmadinejad is a puppet. There are more extreme people in the regime, and they are capable of anything. They want power, and they're working to get nuclear power, but Ahmadinejad doesn't scare us - we believe him, but he doesn't scare us. They are a cunning regime. They show the world that they are anti-American and anti-Israeli because they profit politically from it," he said.
"Ninety percent of the Iranian people, even though they are exposed to anti-Israel incitement and propaganda, have no real problem with Israel and the Jews," the Iranian-Israeli said.
Shraga told the Post that the Jewish Agency, after a series of internal deliberations, had decided to publicize Tuesday's arrival in the hope that it would help other Iranian Jews to make aliya. He would not, however, go into details on how the actual decision was taken.
After several hours of delay while the new immigrants were processed at the airport by the Immigrant Absorption Ministry and handed their immigrant IDs and money, the group made its way through the gates of the arrival hall at the airport to the dozens of ululating and ecstatic family members who awaited their arrival.
Personal moments of hugs and kisses, some 20 years in the making, were shattered by the flashes of dozens of press cameras. One young lady waited for her grandfather to be reunited with her father in front of all the cameras, instead of rushing over to them. Sobbing, she said, "I am not one for the cameras."
Once the camera crews moved on to the next family of immigrants, the young lady moved to her grandfather, took him by the arm away from the commotion, hugged him and sobbed in his arms.
A woman by the name of Ala, who was waiting to greet family, lamented the lengthy wait imposed by the absorption process at the airport.
"After 20 years, I have to wait three hours. When I made aliya 20 years ago, they let us off the plane straight away and let us kiss our families," she told the Post.
Avraham Dayan, who had waited 11 years to be reunited with his son, finally ran toward him, embraced his head and said the Shema Israel. With tears in his eyes and a trembling voice, Dayan told the Post that he hadn't eaten or drunk anything all day. Avraham, who made aliya 11 years ago, was in jail in Iran until 14 years ago. During the Iran-Iraq war, the young Jews from his town did not want to join the army, and many of them fled the country.
"I didn't know that the authorities were listening to my phone, and they came to arrest me. They said I was a friend of [Menachem] Begin, that I was a Zionist, and they threw me in jail. I bribed my way out of jail, bribed my way to an Iranian passport and left Iran," he said.
It took Dayan's son 11 years to leave because his passport had been confiscated when he, too, had refused to serve in the Iranian army. Dayan said his son had then successfully bribed his way to a new passport and had finally been able to leave Iran.
According to Jewish Agency officials, all Iranian passports read: "The bearer of this passport cannot travel to occupied Palestine." An agency official told the Post that the new immigrants were still in possession of these.
The possibility that the Iranian regime may have also tried to plant spies among the immigrant group has been discounted by authorities, sources say, as each member of the group was known and has undergone a vetting process.
"It's not such a naÃ¯ve operation," a source told the Post.
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