Fearful Jews emigrating from Iran

Maurice Motamed

In the latest batch of released Wikileaks documents is a 2009 cablerevealing that the wife of the former token Jewish MP in the Iranian parliament, Maurice Motamed, was emigrating to the US. Emigration of fearful Jews was on the rise, and the community numbered no more than 20,000. Via the always excellent Elder of Ziyon (emphasis is his).

Motamed said that the consensus of the community is that only about 20,000 Jews now remain in Iran and noted that emigration has increased over the past two years following President Ahmadinejad’s increasingly strident rhetoric against Israel and his public questioning of the Holocaust. Though Jewish Iranians “continue to love Iran” they are being compelled to leave, mostly out of fear that they will become targets of a government backlash should Israel confront Iran militarily.

Motamed said he lives in fear of an Israeli strike because the Jewish community has no ability to protect itself from what he believes would be a wide-scale attack on Jews and Jewish interests. He said that while economic opportunity and the chance to live somewhere as a “first-class citizen” do factor into decisions to leave, the uptick in departures is driven mostly by fear of the future. Motamed noted that as a community leader, he has been asked for many years his opinion by Jews weighing their options. Until two years ago, he told people they had to make the decision themselves. Now, he said, he recommends moving out of Iran to every Jew who asks his opinion. He estimated that 80 percent of Jews emigrate to the United States, while the rest relocate to Israel or Europe. (Note: Motamed’s wife is emigrating to the U.S. and he is considering his options.)

Of the Jews left in Iran, Motamed said 11,000 to 12,000 live in Tehran, 6,000 in Shiraz, and about 1,500 in Esfahan, with the balance scattered over ten other smaller cities. He noted that only eight rabbis remain in Iran, three of whom are based in Tehran, three in Shiraz, and two in Esfehan. He said that training new rabbis is increasingly a problem as the rabbinical population dwindles. Recently the “informal yeshiva” in Yazd closed and now there is only a small program run by the rabbis in Shiraz. Motamed reported that the community’s efforts to import rabbis have met only modest success, in the form of a London-based rabbi who recently visited Iran for a short period. The Iranian government rejected a proposal to have a rabbi from New York City make regular visits to Iran.

Motamed is a well-established contact who plays a unique role as a bridge between Iran’s vulnerable Jewish minority and the Shia Muslim political establishment. His increasing concern that his community will be scapegoated as a result of the political infighting between conservatives and reformers is especially meaningful since many of the key figures he credits with providing “cover” for the Jewish community against radicals – including Khatami, Karrubi, and even Rafsanjani – are now themselves in a desperate struggle for their own political survival.

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