TEL AVIV — Few nations have watched the talks over Iran’s nuclear program more closely than Israel, which views the Islamic republic as an existential threat. And within Israel, among those especially unsettled by the idea of a final agreement are Iranian Jews.
“We are the Persians,” Avi Hanassab, a cook in a Tel Aviv market where many Iranian Jews sell spices and dried fruit, said darkly. “We know how to negotiate.”
Hanassab, like many Israeli Jews with Iranian roots, said he still feels a deep bond with Iran, which his parents left in 1964. Yet, like others in the community, he said he thinks his knowledge of Iran gives him reason to be fearful as an Israeli.
“They sent their best negotiators to negotiate with the States and Europe,” he said, adding that the Iranians would surely dupe the world powers. “The Persians are very smart.”
Hanassab is among about 140,000 Jews of Iranian descent in Israel, according to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics — a population that dwarfs the 30,000 or fewer Jews who remain in Iran. Iranian Jews are prominent in Israeli public life: Rita, one of the country’s most famous singers, was born in Iran, as was former Israeli president Moshe Katsav.
Israeli officials have denounced the preliminary agreement reached this month between world powers and Iran. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called it a “dream deal for Iran and a nightmare deal for the world.” In interviews, several Iranian Jews echoed those sentiments, saying they believe that Iran can’t be trusted to keep its end of the bargain.
Many Israeli Jewish families of Iranian origin speak Persian and celebrate Iranian holidays. While most cannot visit Iran, they often keep in close contact with relatives who stayed behind by phone calls or, fearful of surveillance, by using messaging apps such as WhatsApp or Facebook.
“I don’t know a single person that hasn’t any relatives in Iran,” Soli Shahvar, a Iranian-born history professor at Haifa University, said of Iranian Jews in Israel.
Those ties don’t endear the Iranian regime to Iranian Jews living in Israel, however, many of whom fled the country before the Islamic revolution in 1979 and remain deeply wary of the country’s religious authorities. In fact, many said that it is precisely their deep ties to Iran that allow them to see the situation clearly.
Shamshiri, the restaurant Hanassab runs with his mother in a dense Tel Aviv neighborhood known as Levinsky Market, is praised by many Iranian Jews as the city’s best Iranian eatery. Over steaming bowls of soup and plates of Persian kebabs, the two explained why they have reservations about the prospect of a nuclear deal with Iran.
“I am both excited and worried,” said Molouk Hanassab, Avi’s mother.
Avi Hanassab, who was born in Israel, was more pessimistic.
“What the Nazis have done, [the Iranians] are saying that they will do,” he said, referring to the comments some Iranian leaders have made calling for the elimination of the Jewish state.
Analysts say such doubts are widespread among Iranian Jews in Israel. “I think it’s safe to assume that they are skeptical,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Israeli journalist and a professor of Iranian politics. Javedanfar, who was born in Iran, has criticized what he sees as an overreaction to the deal from Israeli politicians.
Many Iranian Jews came from conservative religious communities in Iran, Javedanfar said, and often they remain politically or religiously conservative in Israel. Those political leanings probably made them natural supporters of Netanyahu’s hard stance on Iran, said Meir Litvak of Tel Aviv University’s Alliance Center for Iranian Studies.
“Historically, most Iranian Jews have voted for Likud in the past 30 years, so they are not likely to dispute Netanyahu’s position,” Litvak said, referring to the prime minister’s political party.
At Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Market on a recent day, opposition to a nuclear deal with Iran was not hard to find.
“We are a very small country. They are a very strong country,” Aharon Davidi, who works as an accountant for many of the market’s traders, said of Iran, adding that he is “100 percent” sure the Iranians are lying about their intentions.
Some said they worry that even if Iran never develops a nuclear weapon, a deal that ends economic sanctions against the country could lead to other problems.
“If they lift all the sanctions, the Iranian economy will bloom,” said Baruch Davidi, Aharon’s brother. “Then the money will go to Gaza and to Hezbollah,” he said, referring to the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the Palestinian militant group Hamas, and to the Lebanese militia. Both have attacked Israel, and both receive support from Iran.
Some were critical of the United States’ leading role in the negotiations.
“The Americans don’t understand this region,” said Reuven Haimpir, a fabric-cutter. “That’s their main problem.”
But despite their opposition to the Iranian regime, they don’t seem to fear the Iranian people, the vast majority of whom are Shiite Muslims.
“I have family living in Iran now,” said Izhak Makani, a shop worker whose parents moved to Israel before he was born. “They are friends with the Muslims. The Muslims over there, they like the Jewish. They don’t hate them.”
Such mixed feelings are not unusual, Shahvar said. Many Iranian Jews in Israel left the country before the Islamic revolution in 1979 and have fond memories of their homeland, he said.
Menashe Amir, a Persian-
language radio host who moved to Israel in 1959, is one example. He has not been to Iran in decades, he said, yet loves both countries equally.
“I was born in Iran, and Iran is like my mother,” he said. “I live in Israel, and I am a Jew. [Israel] is like my father. You cannot ask anybody if they like their father or mother more.”
Some feel less divided. “I consider myself more Iranian than Israeli,” Shahvar said with a laugh. “My Israeli friends don’t like it when I say that.”
In Shamshiri, where Avi Hanassab spends every day making Iranian meals for a largely Iranian clientele, the pull of the homeland isn’t quite the same.
“It’s not Israeli or Iranian,” Hanassab said. “I have a Jewish identity. No matter where I am, I’m a Jew.” That, he explained, was why he had to be worried about a nuclear deal.