Jewish Journal

Project to lure Jews out of Iran proves unsuccessful

by Karmel Melamed

Posted on Dec. 20, 2007 at 7:00 pm

Australian TV news crew visits Jews in Tehran Following the revelation in October that $10,000 per person was being offered by a Chicago-based Christian-Jewish nonprofit to encourage Jews to leave Iran and immigrate to Israel, organizers of the project in Israel and the United States admitted to being disappointed with the lack of response to their efforts.

The offer will end this month at the conclusion of the one-year project.

Begun in January by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), which has offices in Chicago and Jerusalem, the program offers funding through the Jewish Agency in Israel, which spearheaded it. IFCJ officials reported that of the 20,000 Jews still living in Iran, only 125 have accepted the funds.

As tensions between Iran and the United States and Israel have become increasingly heated, the IFCJ has stepped up efforts to promote Jewish immigration, said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, IFCJ director in Jerusalem.

"If there is an attack by either the United States or Israel on Iran, it seems clear to me that even the Iranian Jews know it would be too late at that point for them to get out or not be persecuted," Eckstein said. "In my opinion, they are playing a very dangerous game of not committing to come out to Israel."

During a visit to Orange County last month, Eckstein said his organization initially offered $5,000 a person but increased the amount to $10,000 when the response among Jews in Iran was tepid.

The Jewish Agency has an ongoing program offering $13,000 for every Jewish family leaving Iran, but Eckstein said his organization was asked to provide additional funds per person as a bonus incentive to help those Jews who would otherwise be unable to support themselves if they left the country.

"I think there are some stereotypes [in the greater American Jewish community] that these [Iranian Jewish] people are rich; that they'll only come to Israel to be rich -- when in fact, these people come out with nothing because of the inflation," Eckstein said. "And their money is worthless when they leave Iran. But the $10,000 has been enough to tip the scales for them to make the move, because it will help them get on their feet in Israel."

For the past 25 years, the IFCJ has given millions of dollars solicited from evangelical Christians in the United States to help Jews immigrate to Israel from the former Soviet Union, India, Argentina and the United States. Some evangelicals believe that the return of Jews to Israel will hasten Christ's second coming.

For their part, Los Angeles-based Iranian Jewish groups said they were unaware and not involved in the project undertaken by the Jewish Agency and IFCJ. While local Iranian Jewish leaders declined to comment on the immigration project for fear that their statements might be used by the Iranian government to seek retribution on their brethren in Iran, they said they were concerned for the safety of Iran's Jews.

"Considering the rhetoric that emanates from Iran, anyone who knows anything about Jewish history should be extremely concerned about the future of that community," said Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation based in Los Angeles.

Eckstein said the Jewish Agency only approached Iranian Jewish groups in New York for assistance, and the community provided $200,000 for the project. Iranian Jews in Los Angeles were not approached for any financial support.

Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian Jewish activist and director of the L.A.-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, said a substantial number of Jews continue to stay in Iran because they feel they will face economic and cultural challenges if they leave the country.

"Some successful and resourceful Jews [in Iran] have either a false sense of security or are willing to take risks, hoping to outlast the regime," Nikbakht said, "while some have converted to Islam or other 'safer' religions, such as Christianity, to help them survive."

According to a 2004 report prepared by Nikbakht, since 1979 at least 14 Jews have been murdered or assassinated by the regime's agents, at least two Jews have died while in custody and 11 Jews have been officially executed by the regime.

The issue of Jewish immigration from Iran is particularly sensitive for local Iranian Jewish leaders. Since the early 1980s, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) has helped thousands of Jews escaping Iran to resettle in Israel and the United States. For the most part, its work has gone on under the media radar in order not to embarrass the Iranian government. The process varies for different people and can take anywhere from nine months to a couple of years.

Eckstein said his organization did not go to the media about the project until after Jewish Agency officials gave interviews to the Israeli newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, in October. A Jewish Agency spokesperson in Israel downplayed the potential danger of publicizing efforts to bring Jews out of Iran.

"Publicizing this project does not jeopardize the lives of the Iranian Jews; the opposite is true, and it shows that Jews worldwide care about their situation," said Michael Jankelowitz, a Jewish Agency spokesman.

Eckstein said the Iranian government did not object to the Jewish Agency and IFCJ efforts after seeing that the Jewish community in Iran was unwilling to leave the country. In fact, members of Iran's regime have used the lack of Jewish emigration to Israel for propaganda purposes, including releasing stories on state-run television and wire news outlets, showing Jews speaking favorably about the regime.

Jewish leaders in Iran criticized the offer made by the IFCJ in a statement, saying, "The identity of Iranian Jews is not tradable for any amount of money. Iran's Jews love their Iranian identity and their culture, so threats and this immature political enticement will not achieve their aim of wiping out the identity of Iranian Jews."

Local Iranian Jewish leaders said any comments made by their brethren in Iran to the international media lacks credibility, because such statements are often made under duress from the Iranian regime."People should be aware that what is stated publicly about their [Jews'] conditions [in Iran] is not necessarily an accurate reflection of their realities," Kermanian said.

Eckstein said that while he was disappointed with the lack of progress in motivating Jews to leave Iran, he would not comment on whether the IFCJ would help fund a similar immigration project in the future.

"In my opinion, the only thing that will cause it to change in 2008 is either the situation of Jews in Iran will take a turn for the worse, and they'll realize they're living on borrowed time," Eckstein said. "Or perhaps the Israeli government would find a solution to back mortgages for them, or a philanthropy would back mortgages on apartments for them."

Representatives at the Iranian mission to the United Nations and leaders in the Jewish community in Iran did not return calls for comment.

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