Israeli-Iranians worry for former homeland

TEL AVIV, May 18 (Reuters) – Tehran-born Israeli Meir Javedanfar fondly recalls sitting around a television set with his Muslim friends back in Iran drinking copious cups of sweet tea while proudly watching the national soccer team play, Jonathan Saul reports.

With a growing crisis between the West and Iran over its nuclear programme, Javedanfar is among many Iranian Jews living in Israel who fear a possible attack on their former homeland.

“I am strongly against any war with Iran as I do not want to see Iranian people hurt,” said Javedanfar, a 32-year-old Iranian analyst, staring at the lapping waves on the beachfront of Tel Aviv, an Israeli city where many Iranian Jews live.

The history of Iran’s Jewish community, once over 100,000 strong, stretches back over 2,500 years to the ancient Persian empire. They are sometimes called “Esther’s Children” after a Jewish queen of Persia.

Jews faced intermittent persecution in Iran for centuries but flourished with the ascent of the pro-western Pahlavi dynasty in the 1920s.

Since Israel’s creation in 1948, more than 40,000 Iranian Jews have moved to the Jewish state, with the last big wave arriving after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.

Tel Aviv shop owner Siyamak Shirazi, 37, who was born in Tehran and moved to Israel in 1979, said he hoped ordinary Iranians would not be caught up in any military action.

“We are Israelis but we are still Iranians. I hope there are no air strikes,” he said. “I would prefer the ruling leadership being removed by U.S. or Israeli special forces. Perhaps then the people there will be able to breathe again.”

The United States and other countries including Israel accuse Iran of wanting to build nuclear bombs. Iran says its nuclear programme is aimed at generating electricity.

Washington has not ruled out military options if diplomacy fails to curb Iran’s atomic ambitions.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has ratcheted up tensions in recent months by calling for Israel to be “wiped off the map”. He has also described the Jewish state as “a decaying and crumbling tree that will fall with a storm”.

Close allies when Iran was ruled by a U.S.-backed Shah, Iran and Israel have been implacable foes since the 1979 revolution.

Tehran has said its armed forces would retaliate for any attack. Earlier this month, an Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander said Israel would be the first target, a comment later played down by the deputy chief of military staff.

Israel, considered the only nuclear power in the Middle East, is within range of Iranian ballistic missiles.

Israeli officials have said Iran’s nuclear programme is the most serious threat faced by Jews since the Nazi Holocaust. Israeli Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres said Ahmadinejad should bear in mind that his own country could also be destroyed.

“I miss my friends in Iran and Tehran very much,” said Morris Moradiyan, 42, originally from Iran’s capital.

“At the same time, Israel faces an existential threat from a nuclear Iran,” he said. “I know ordinary Iranian people will suffer like us. I just hope if it comes to any attack, it can be done quickly with as little bloodshed as possible.”

The Jewish community in Iran now numbers some 25,000 out of a population of around 69 million.

Jews in Iran are often regarded with suspicion by the government. Earlier this year, the Jewish community in Iran took a dramatic step in criticising Ahmadinejad’s description of the Holocaust that killed 6 million Jews during World War Two as a myth.

Despite the growing tensions, contacts between Israel’s Iranian Jews and friends and family in Iran continue in secret.

E-mail and telephone calls over the Internet have made it easier to stay in touch without alerting Iranian authorities. Some Iranian Jews in Israel call over regular telephone lines but use code words as a precaution.

“When I speak with my family in Iran we never mention the word Israel,” said Shaharzad Amin-Zadeh, 45, who moved to Israel from the Kurdish Iranian city of Sanandaj. “People over there are worried.”

Since the 1950s, Israel Radio has run a daily Farsi language service, which it says is widely listened to in Iran.

The service hosts a weekly phone-in talk show with people in Iran via a link through Europe. In the past, Israel’s Iranian-born president, Moshe Katsav, has been a guest on the programme, which gets on average 10 callers a week from Iran.

“Listeners have called the programme saying they were embarrassed by Ahmadinejad’s comments,” said Menashe Amir, who works in the Farsi service.

“They also said they were happy for the U.S. to confront Iran but hoped it would not hit ordinary citizens and only target nuclear sites,” Amir added.

Toronto-based Iranian activist Hossein Derakhshan, one of the best-known Farsi “bloggers” on the Internet, visited Israel this year — a trip he described as a good opportunity to break “a long-established taboo” about the Jewish state.

“Because of the anti-Israel propaganda of the Iranian regime there is a backlash and people have become curious,” said Derakhshan, who left Iran five years ago after working as a journalist with a reformist newspaper.

On his Web site, he wrote about his recent experiences in Israel and posted video clips of his visit, especially his meetings with Iranian Jews. He said more than 4,000 people, many of them in Iran, have viewed the recordings.

“People in Iran are intrigued by the idea of Israel and want to visit it,” he said. “Tel Aviv could easily be the sister city to Tehran if Iran becomes open and democratic.”

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