As tensions between Israel and Iran ratchet up, one community is caught in the middle: Iranian Jews living in Israel. There are some 250,000 people of Persian descent living in Israel, and they maintain strong ties with their homeland.
As a result, they are uniquely conflicted over the possibility of war between the two countries.
In a small cluttered apartment in Jerusalem, Naheet Yacoubi cooks a traditional Persian meal for her Shabbat dinner. Originally from Tehran, she came to Israel when she was a child.
That migration continues, though Iran still has the second-largest community of Jews in the Middle East.
Pulled In Two Directions
Despite the enmity between the two countries, the two communities are close, says Aaron Yacoubi, Naheet’s husband.
We can call them directly and they can call us, he says, noting that family members actually come and visit.
Iranian Jews travel to Israel via Turkey. The Israeli Embassy gives them special documents to be able to enter the country undetected by the Iranian authorities.
Aaron says his cousin came from Tehran just two months ago. Unfortunately, he says, they can’t travel to Iran because they have only Israeli passports.
Aaron says he is proud of his Persian ancestry, yet he’s also loyal to the Jewish state.
But he says lately because of the tension with Iran he feels conflicted over what could happen next.
There are fears that Israel could strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities. Israel says Tehran wants to develop nuclear weapons. Iran maintains its nuclear program has only civilian uses. There have been four rounds of U.N. sanctions against Iran as well as harsher measures taken by the U.S. and the European Union.
Aaron says it’s all taking its toll. He says he feels terrible for the people in Iran, where life is getting difficult.
On a recent day, he calls his cousins in Iran to see how they are. Speaking in Farsi, his relatives there tell him that they want to sell their house but can’t, the currency is devaluing, it’s a struggle to make ends meet.
Tears rolls down Aaron’s face as he hears their news.
After he hangs up, Aaron says that he feels that it’s not right to hurt the people. He says something should be done to hurt the Iranian government instead.
Those mixed feelings are pervasive among the Iranian Jewish community.
Meir Javadanfar is an Iran analyst of Iranian descent who lives in Tel Aviv and has written extensively on Iran-Israel relations.
“It’s not easy not to get emotional when talking about Iran and Israel, especially for people like me who’ve lived in Iran and in Israel,” Javadanfar says.
“The Iranian people don’t want another war. They are a great people and they want to live in peace. It’s just their leadership that’s aggressive, not them,” Javandanfar says. “And it hurts me to see how [the] people of Israel are being threatened by a regime which has called their country a virus, a cancer. I don’t want to see them get hurt either, so it’s a very difficult … scenario for Iranians.”
With the possibility of war looming, one of the few forums for direct discourse between Iranians and Israelis is a call-in show hosted every Sunday on Israel Radio’s Farsi service.
“There is no other way, no other media for Israel to bring its message to the Iranian people,” says Menashe Amir, who hosts the program.
He says there are about a dozen calls from Iran during each show to talk on a range of topics. The callers aren’t allowed to give their names in case of reprisals in Iran.
Amir, who was born in Iran, says most people talk about how hard daily life is under sanctions. He says the threat of war is also a hot issue.
“Of course most the Iranians are concerned. They demand Israel not to attack civilian targets, not to destroy the Iranian infrastructure, not to harm the economy of the country,” Amir says, though he adds that a strike on military targets might be acceptable to some there.
Amir says everyone in his community is watching events unfold.
“The actual situation is so fluid, it’s like chess, once you move one of the pieces, the whole picture changes,” he says.
We are all waiting, he says, adding that no one knows what will happen next.