Posted by: sean | August 7, 2007

Politics and the Diaspora

Lately, we’ve been hearing an awful lot about the Iranian threat to Israel. Much of this has been couched in alarmist rhetoric that implies (or even sometimes explicitly says) that Iran is the new Nazi Germany. One of the more problematic facts for this narrative is the existence of the Middle East’s second largest Jewish community. After Israel, more Jews live in Iran than in any other country in the region.

It seems, however, that Jewish groups are trying to entice Iranian Jews into moving to Israel — but without much luck, it seems:

Iran’s Jews have given the country a loyalty pledge in the face of cash offers aimed at encouraging them to move to Israel, the arch-enemy of its Islamic rulers.

The incentives – ranging from £5,000 a person to £30,000 for families – were offered from a special fund established by wealthy expatriate Jews in an effort to prompt a mass migration to Israel among Iran’s 25,000-strong Jewish community. The offers were made with Israel’s official blessing and were additional to the usual state packages it provides to Jews emigrating from the diaspora.

However, the Society of Iranian Jews dismissed them as “immature political enticements” and said their national identity was not for sale.

“The identity of Iranian Jews is not tradable for any amount of money,” the society said in a statement. “Iranian Jews are among the most ancient Iranians. 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.”

The Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv reported that the incentives had been doubled after offers of £2,500 a head failed to attract any Iranian Jews to leave for Israel.

Iran’s sole Jewish MP, Morris Motamed, said the offers were insulting and put the country’s Jews under pressure to prove their loyalty. “It suggests the Iranian Jew can be encouraged to emigrate by money,” he said. “Iran’s Jews have always been free to emigrate and three-quarters of them did so after the revolution but 70% of those went to America, not Israel.”

Similar efforts have been made to attract French Jews, with Sharon’s remarks that they should move to Israel because of anti-Semitism in France. That call, however, was met with similar results (translation mine):

Jewish associations in France also announced their indignation and expressed unequivocal disapproval of Ariel Sharon’s remarks. Haïm Korsia, the representative of the Grand Rabbi Joseph Sitruk declared that the question of the Jews of France is “a moot point” because, for him, to speak of “the Jews of France doesn’t mean anything; there are French citizens who are Jews, like others have another religion.” Richard Prasquier, member of the executive office of CRIF (Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France) affirmed that the call to immigration made by Ariel Sharon threw “oil on the fire in an unacceptable way.” Patrick Klugman, former president of the Union of Jewish Students of France (UEJF) and vice president of SOS Racism said that the Israeli Prime Minister was “very ill informed of what is happening in France.” As for Theo Klein, the vice president of CRIF, he concluded with a message to Ariel Sharon: “He should let the Jewish community in France deal with its own problems.” 

As far as efforts to get European Jews to emigrate to Israel, it seems that, if anything, the current trend is in the opposite direction. With 20% of Israelis eligible for an EU passport, more and more are applying for the bordeaux-colored passports. Ironically, the Jewish Agency for Israel has been pressuring the German government to stop making it easy for Jews from the former Soviet Union to settle there. (In 2003, for example, more Russian Jews chose to go to Germany than to Israel.)

The attempt to encourage Diaspora Jews to make aliyah in general is fairly normal and linked, to my mind, to Israeli and Palestinian demographics. The attempts to target Jews in Iran and France in particular, however, might be an attempt to disprove that Muslims and Jews can live together. In addition to having the largest Jewish community in western Europe (600,000), France, after all, also has the largest Muslim community in the region, making up 10% the French population (mostly from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Senegal). And the claims that Iran is equivalent to Nazi Germany seem kind of silly when it has its own 25,000-strong Jewish population that resists emigrating to Israel and which has a Jewish representative in the Iranian Parliament.

In addition to endangering the case for war with Iran, the Jewish Diaspora weakens the argument for the need for a Jewish state in the first place. Because if Jews can live without fear in the US and Europe, or even in Iran, why shouldn’t there be a binational state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean where Jews and Arabs can live with equal rights, regardless of race or creed? 



  1. “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.”

    What makes you think that the Iranian Jews have the freedom to speak their mind or to decide whether to stay or go? It is entirely possible that it’s too dangerous for Jews in Iran to be seen as anything but fervent Iranian patriots. I’m just guessing, but it’s an educated guess: I grew up in a totalitarian regime (USSR) and I know a thing or two about freedom of speech in such countries (or rather, a lack thereof).

    Granted, France is a different story altogether.

  2. Rina: You’re right to bring up these concerns, because it is true that although Iran has a popularly elected parliament in which Jewish Iranians have a seat, many of the liberties that exist in liberal democracies are obviously lacking in Iran.

    However, this article in the BBC shows that Jews are allowed freedom of speech (even when it contradicts the official line of the government) and are also free to go to Israel to visit family. Moreover, Iranian Jews who immigrated to Israel are free to travel to Iran, according to the article.

    On a personal level, one of my former colleagues is an Iranian Jew. I don’t know her story, but she lived in France with her French husband.

    This is not to say that Jews (or any other religious minorities) have it easy in Iran. Despite the fact that Iran is a country that is ethnically and religiously varied, it lacks the fundamentals of minority rights, like most non-Western countries, including, to a lesser extent, Israel. But I believe that it is interesting that even during this time, when we are being told to demonize Iran (which is much more democratic than the gulf states and many other US allies in the region, for that matter), most Jews there refuse to move to Israel.

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