The IDF's Iranian soldiers

The tale of two young Jews who escaped Iran – and chose to enlist in the IDF.

iran.soldiers 521 (photo credit: Courtsey: IDF)
iran.soldiers 521
(photo credit: Courtsey: IDF)
Prior to the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran was home to approximately 120,000 Jews, making it the largest Jewish community in the Middle East after Israel. However, today Iran’s Jews number somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000, according to a 2007 report from the US State Department. A 2007 census numbered Iran’s population at 70 million.
Since 1979, waves of Iranian Jews have emigrated, with a large number settling in Israel. One of these emigrants is Barak (not his real name), who enlisted in the IDF a mere four months after arriving in Israel, and today serves as an officer in a combat unit. Barak describes the 3,500-person community in which he grew up as warm and – “like most Jewish communities in the Middle East, very traditional.”
Barak, who moved to Israel in 2007 at the age of 23, says that he grew up as a “member of his community,” rather than as a “member of his family.”
“Integrating with our Muslim neighbors mostly happened at school,” Barak says. “However, my friendships began and ended there. I didn’t go to their homes, and they didn’t come to mine.”
He describes school as suddenly “connecting me to the larger world. We learned the same subjects as any other pupils: we studied the Koran, Islam. We were told that it was something we would one day use – not as something that we would believe, but as information we would know.” Barak and his Jewish classmates had a government-appointed teacher who taught them Judaic studies on Fridays, which is common practice in Iran for non-Muslim students.
David (not his real name) emigrated from Iran in 2000 with his parents and younger brother at the age of 16. Like Barak, David attended a Muslim primary school, where he was one of two Jewish pupils, and the only Jew in his grade. In seventh grade, Iranian pupils are split into one of three schools based on a national placement exam. David found himself in school for the gifted, where he was the only Jewish pupil.
“Most of my friends were from school,” David says, “and they were all Muslim. Aside from my family and cousins, all of my friends were Muslim.”
His first memories are from the time when his father was studying engineering. “We lived in the university student dorms, and at four or five, you don’t have much of a Jewish identity.” However, after his father finished his studies, David and his family moved back to the city where he was born.
In a city of 700,000 to 800,000, the Jewish community numbered somewhere between 800 and 900. “That was when I began to really learn about Judaism. On Fridays we would study in the synagogue, where we learned to read Hebrew, pray and read from the Torah. All the kids – we were a class of between 15 and 20 pupils – would go.”
Like Barak, David describes his community as being tight-knit and traditional: “I do not think there are any secular Jews in Iran,” David notes. “Nor are there any ultra-Orthodox. Everyone is deeply connected to tradition.”
Most Jews in David’s community had private businesses, such as selling shoes or clothing, with very few community members employed by government offices. Though Jews are technically permitted to work in government and public service positions, a certain level of discrimination unquestionably exists. David’s mother is a teacher, but she stopped working in the Iranian education system when he was a few years old. “My mother definitely experienced discrimination at school. For a Jewish woman to be teaching the next generation of Iranians struck some as unacceptable.”
David’s father ironically did work in a government office, but had trouble being paid upon completion of a major project.
David says this incident was the first time that he personally felt anti-Semitism.
Army service in Iran Like Israel, Iran has a mandatory draft, with all men required to serve in the military for a minimum of two years. In the last year of high school, Iranian students take a mandatory college placement test, akin to the psychometric exam in Israel. Based on their scores, male students then either immediately begin their army service or have the option of first attending university.
David – whose own father was an officer in the Iranian army – says that a large number of Jews served in the Iranian military, such as in the recent war between Iran and Iraq (1980-1988). “There were those who were killed or wounded [in our community], just like many other Iranian soldiers,” David recalls.
However, when asked if he would have served in the Iranian military, David answers that his parents “would have done everything they could so that I would not have to serve.”
In fact, his parents’ decision to emigrate from Iran when they did was partially due to David’s age.
“If they had waited another year or two, it’s likely that I would not have been permitted to leave the country,” David explains. Intriguingly, a new law in Iran makes it possible to legally evade enlisting. For a significant cost, a limited number of Iranians can now purchase a military exemption.
Barak describes a slightly different military culture in his home community. He says the majority of his community chose against serving in the Iranian military for three primary reasons: One, it is possible to be based a great distance from the Jewish community, and unlike in Israel, you sometimes only can return home every six months; two, for practical reasons related to religious observance, as “it would be nearly impossible to keep kosher”; and three, because of the possibility of Iran entering into a military altercation with Israel.
However, choosing to enlist has far-reaching consequences on one’s later life. Barak explains that there are certain social benefits that are impossible to receive – once past a certain age – without having completed military service. “You can’t apply for a passport, you can’t get a driver’s license, you can’t pursue a degree and you can’t own property,” Barak says. And not being able to receive a passport definitely presents difficulties for one hoping to leave the country.
Living the dream Barak recounts that from the age of seven, he knew he wanted to make aliya. “I remember my parents telling me regarding my friends at school: ‘You’re friends with your Muslim classmates, but don’t connect with them.’ And I asked, ‘Well if that’s the case, why are we staying here? Let’s move to Israel. Why aren’t we moving to Israel?’ “I asked the question, ‘Why aren’t we moving to Israel?’ many times over the course of my childhood, but no one ever answered me until I was in my early 20s.”
Barak says that he came to understand that it is no simple decision to pick up and leave your life. “But my decision to move started in first grade,” he asserts.
“And when I came, I fulfilled a dream. Two days before I left, I couldn’t sleep because I was so happy.”
That being said, Barak’s journey to Israel was not without difficulty. After paying three million rials ($3,000) to a physician, Barak received a medical waiver for the army. Had he been discovered, both Barak and the physician would have been severely punished.
However, with the waiver in hand, Barak was able to apply for a passport.
To move to Israel, Iranian Jews must have family or community members living in Israel who can vouch for their Jewish origin. Barak’s uncle went and spoke for him at the Jewish Agency, and was told that Barak was able to come to Israel, but that he could not tell anyone in Iran that he was leaving. It was too dangerous.
Barak, an only child, left Iran without being able to tell anyone in his community, including his parents and grandparents.
“Two friends and I had owned a clothing store, which we had recently sold, so for a couple of weeks before I left I slowly brought the little I was taking to our old storage room,” Barak says. “On the one hand it was nice, a man alone with God. But on the other, not being able to say goodbye was extremely difficult.”
Barak taught in the Jewish school and recalls not being able to say goodbye to his pupils, who were outside when he left. “It was not easy for me to accept, nor for my cousins, nor for my mother.”
On a Wednesday at 4 a.m., Barak found himself at the airport. Police officers stood checking passports, and Barak recalls his first passport check. “The police officer looked at my passport, then my face, then the screen. He did this three times. Then he looked at me and said: ‘So you also didn’t go to the army?’ I told him that I was not 100 percent healthy. He replied that I looked all right, looking at my picture again, then at the screen.” Barak says that when the police officer ultimately stamped his passport, it was so loud that he “can still hear it ringing.”
Barak’s mother and grandmother ultimately joined him in Israel, and his father followed shortly thereafter.
However, upon arrival, Barak stayed in an absorption center in Jerusalem while studying Hebrew and preparing for enlistment, spending weekends with his uncle.
“I wanted to be in Jerusalem. At home we were always praying to return to Jerusalem, and here I was. It was an incredibly special experience.”
Four months after his arrival, Barak joined the IDF, and – as a lone soldier – was connected with a host family in Ein Tzurim. “My host family were so giving, and really took care of all of my needs from A-Z.” Coming from a Mizrahi background, Barak explains that he had been under the impression that Ashkenazim were cold. “I quickly realized that this was assuredly not the case. I still feel like they’re my family, and visa versa.”
David’s move to Israel – while slightly less dramatic – was no less memorable. At 16, David says he came “with a lot of energy and a lot of expectation.” He recounts that while his parents were nervous about being able to provide for their two children, he and his brother were not concerned. “Leaving my friends was not easy, but we left with this expectation that everything would be good.”
David says that for his a father, a structural engineer, “moving meant leaving everything he had built professionally and starting from scratch. This was particularly difficult as people here treated him like a builder when he went to interviews, offering commensurately low salaries.”
David continues that there “was definitely a time when my father said, ‘Maybe this move was a mistake; I won’t be able to support my family here,’ but he ultimately was able to find work in his field. Once he found work, my father concluded that things would be hard, but that we had a future here – that we could continue and slowly move forward.”
David and his family initially stayed in Karmiel with his grandparents, who had immigrated to Israel in the 1970s. There, David began ulpan, where he says that he was “in a class of Russian immigrants; people often laughed at my accent. I had a hard time with it then,” David admits in a confident Hebrew, “but today when it happens, I laugh along with them.”
Several months after their arrival, David’s family settled in Rishon Lezion, where he began 10th grade in a high school for the gifted. “That was really the beginning of our official lives in Israel,” David says. “I was a fairly typical high-school student: homework, basketball with my friends. And in 11th grade, like many highschool students in Israel, we began to talk about the army.”
Enlisting in the IDF David says it never was a question that he would serve in the IDF. Because of his fluency in Arabic, he received several invitations to join Military Intelligence. “However, I grew up in a culture where if you succeeded in high school, you went to university immediately thereafter.”
This was a large component of why David chose to first get his bachelor’s degree, studyi n g electronics at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.
“Though technically in the army while in the Technion, aside from a few meetings, I didn’t really feel like a soldier. But when I did officially begin my army service after graduation, I started an officer training course almost immediately.” Joining a communications unit, David had a number of difficulties with his security clearance. “It took three years for me to receive the necessary security clearance for my current position, which was frustrating, but that is now behind me.”
An IDF spokesman says that David, who serves as a team leader in electronic warfare systems research, now has one of the highest security clearances available to IDF soldiers.
Through the army, David completed a master’s degree at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, where he is currently pursuing his PhD in electricity. Earlier this year, David was nominated for an award in technology by the IDF chief of staff.
At 23, Barak did not have to enlist when he arrived in Israel, and was told he could serve for six months in an IDF education base. “But I wanted to do something that would be personally meaningful,” he says, “and so I asked to serve a full three years.”
Barak began his service in a paratroopers unit, where he asked to enter an officer training course. As a lone soldier, Barak was not initially given clearance to join the course, which led him to ask to speak to the chief rabbi of the army.
“There are some things you just want to talk to your rabbi about, and when I did, I told him the whole story – how I had arrived in Israel, and that I wanted to be able to move forward.”
This meeting bore fruit, and Barak completed an officer training course shortly thereafter. “When we returned from the course, everyone went to sit with their families. There was no one there for me. I was depressed when suddenly I saw the rabbi, who was walking around among the soldiers. I approached him and he saw that I was there alone. He embraced me and didn’t let me go for a couple minutes.
I’ll never forget that.”
Barak says that later that night he cried for 15 minutes, for the simple kindness of having someone who was there for him.
“This is an experience from the army that I’ll always remember: that someone in a high-ranking position could care that much about a simple soldier, and make him feel like he was part of a family.”
Barak was unable to remain a paratrooper after being injured. However, he continued his service in a combat unit, while fixing army computers in the evenings.
Looking back For David, returning to Iran would be an opportunity to see the places where he grew up and how things have changed. “In another world, perhaps, but today I don’t think about that.”
He says that over 80% of his former Iranian classmates are studying in universities outside Iran, seeking to escape harsh government mandates. Though these mandates do not currently make visiting Iran a realistic option, David says that as he is very curious, perhaps one day he will be able to return.
In contrast, Barak feels he has no reason to go back to Iran. “Of course it’s the place where I grew up, but in my opinion, everyone should leave. We now have Israel, and we have to come and grow our own country. Our exile is over. After the Jews left Egypt [in biblical times], you didn’t see them return.”
While it is not always easy, Barak says he loves living here. “The time has come for Jews to return here as a united people. Aliya is an experience that I highly recommend.”