As the U.S. military pounds Iraq, Jewish communities in
Muslim countries may become increasingly vulnerable.
Jews not only are tiny minorities in the Muslim world, but
to some of their surrounding public, they represent the perceived twin threats
of Israel and America.
As coverage from Al Jazeera and other Arab stations rouses
the Muslim world with tireless coverage of the war — which many Muslims think
came at Israel’s behest — Jewish communities could become a whipping boy for
“There are indications that angry and instigated crowds
could turn violent and direct their anger and aggression toward individual Jews
and Jewish communal installations,” said Steven Schwager, executive vice
president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).
In anticipation of the war, the JDC has been working with
Jewish communities in Muslim countries, along with their governments and
The JDC, the North American federation system’s overseas
partner for relief and welfare, instructs Jews in Muslim countries to keep a
low profile and helps them assess risks, such as attending Jewish day school or
The World Jewish Congress also has heightened its contacts
with Jews in Muslim countries with a hotline, Web site and weekly conference
“We’re acting as a listening post,” said Israel Singer, the
Singer said there currently is no threat to Jews in Muslim
countries, “but we should watch and we should be alert.”
Only a handful of Muslim countries have enough Jews to
constitute a substantial community.
According to the JDC, Iran has 23,000 Jews; Turkey, 23,000;
Morocco 5,000; Tunisia, 1,500; Yemen, 280; and Iraq, 60.
Hundreds of thousands of Jews who lived in Muslim countries
fled their homes, and often prominent positions, during the last century, amid
the creation of Israel and its early wars for existence.
The rise of two “isms” at the time — anti-Semitism and
Zionism — prompted their move to Israel and elsewhere.
Today, Jews are free to leave these countries — although in
Yemen and Iran, Jews are not allowed to go to Israel.
In Morocco and Tunisia, the governments have taken steps to
secure their Jewish communities with added police protection in Jewish neighborhoods
and institutions. Still, with Muslim populations restive — demonstrators
clashed with police this weekend near the American embassies in Egypt and Yemen
— Jews are on high alert.
“Historically, whatever happened in the world has affected
the Jews from Arab countries, but it also depends very heavily on the current
Arab leader,” said Vivienne Roumani-Denn, executive director of the American
Considering the combination of factors, Roumani-Denn
admitted that if she were a Jew in an Arab country,”I would be a little
nervous, just because of our history.”
Here is the situation around the region:
In Tunisia, Jews already were uneasy after Al Qaeda exploded
a gas truck outside a synagogue in Djerba last April, one of the main Jewish
population centers. The explosion killed 18, most of whom were German tourists.
At its own expense, the Tunisian government rebuilt the
synagogue and added security guards. It also beefed up security at another
synagogue in Tunis.
The March 16 stabbing of a Jewish jeweler there — largely
dismissed as a criminal, not anti-Semitic act — further rattled the community.
But Tunisian Jews consider their home more secure than
places like Israel or France, likely points of immigration, he said.
In Morocco, King Mohammed VI has sought to reassure the
Jewish community since the outbreak of the war, with public announcements
warning citizens against harming each other. Still, the Jewish community is
said to be nervous. A visiting Jew in Morocco declined an interview with JTA,
fearing his phone was tapped. And Jewish schools closed early last Friday.
Sources say the holy Muslim day can lead to a higher risk of attacks.
In Yemen, the few Jews are scattered in small villages
throughout the country. With no Jewish institutions, the community is
considered less of a target.
Anti-American sentiment is running high in Turkey, and its
Jews have been warned of possible attacks. The well-organized community, which
has varied Jewish institutions, has taken measures to secure itself, such as
closing schools and dispersing Jews into small clusters for synagogue services.
Iranian Jewish leaders sent messages to friends and
relatives in Europe last week, indicating they did not feel threatened,
according to sources close to the community.
Sam Kermanian, secretary-general of the Los Angeles-based
Iranian-American Jewish Federation, said of the community: “We are always
concerned about their safety and security, but there isn’t any heightened sense
of security because of the war with Iraq that we know of.”
Despite the trials and imprisonment of more than a dozen
Iranian Jews on what were widely believed to be false charges of spying for
Israel in recent years, Iran hosts a thriving Jewish community. Tehran, where
most Iranian Jews live, hosts a Jewish old age home, a Jewish hospital, Jewish
schools and a Jewish community center.
The Jews of Iraq are considered the most vulnerable
community in the Muslim world. According to the JDC, the possibility of an
anti-Semitic backlash places them in even greater danger than other Iraqis who
are suffering through the war. About 40 Jews live in Baghdad, 15 of whom are
elderly and live in its synagogue. JDC recently learned of 20 Jews in other
cities throughout the country. When Baghdad is safe for humanitarian
organizations, the JDC will assist Iraq’s Jews in whatever ways they need,