Targets Of Wrath?
Jews in Muslim lands feared vulnerable as war intensifies.
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
New York City
s the U.S. military pounds Iraq, Jewish
communities in Muslim countries may
become increasingly at risk: 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
As coverage from Al-Jazeera television 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 feverish ideo-
"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 worked with
Jewish communities in Muslim countries, along
with their governments and non-governmental
The JDC, the North American Jewish 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 attend-
ing Jewish day school or synagogue.
The World Jewish Congress also has heightened
its contacts with Jews in Muslim countries with a
hotline, Web site and weekly conference calls.
"We're acting as a listening post," said Israel Singer,
the WJC's chairman.
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 coun-
tries have enough Jews to constitute a substantial
5 3 , 000 Jews
According to the JDC, Iran has 23,000 Jews;
Turkey, 23,000; Morocco 5,000; Tunisia, 1,500;
Yemen, 280; and Iraq, 60. Hundred's of thousands
of Jews who lived in Muslim countries fled their
homes, and often prominent positions, during 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 gov-
ernments have taken steps to secure their Jewish
Iranian refugees await Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society
assistance at a Vienna processing center in 2002.
communities with added police protection in
Jewish neighborhoods and institutions.
Still, with Muslim populations restive — demon-
strators clashed with police last 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 Sephardi Federation.
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.
Around the region:
• In Tunisia, Jews already were uneasy after Al-
Qaida exploded a gas truck outside a synagogue in
Djerba last April, one of the main Jewish popula-
tion 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.
"There's a real feeling that the government is try-
ing to protect them," said Jerry Sorkin, a
Philadelphia-area businessman who has operated
tours to Tunisia since the mid-1980s and has close
ties with its Jewish community. Sorkin said Tunisia
genuinely wants to protect its Jews, but also is con-
cerned with its image abroad and relies heavily on
The March 16 stabbing of a Jewish jeweler there
— largely dismissed as a criminal, not anti-Semitic,
act — further rattled the community. "There's the
underlying insecurity that goes with these types of
times," Sorkin said.
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 out-
break of the Iraq 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,
fearing his phone was tapped. And Jewish schools
closed early March 21. Sources say the Muslim
Sabbath 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
• Anti-American sentiment is running high in
Turkey, and its Jews have been warned of possible
attacks. The well-organized Jewish community,
which has varied institutions, has taken measures
to secure itself, such as closing schools and dispers-
ing 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-gen-
eral of the Los Angeles-based Iranian-American
Jewish Federation, said of the Iranian community:
"We are always concerned about their safety and
security, but there isn't any heightened sense of secu-
rity 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 communi-
ty. Tehran, where most Iranian Jews live, has a
Jewish old age home, a Jewish hospital, Jewish
schools and a Jewish community center.
• The Jews of Iraq are considered the most vul-
nerable community in the Muslim world, due to
their tiny number and the war that surrounds
According to JDC, the possibility of an anti-
Semitic backlash places them in even greater dan-
ger than other Iraqis who are suffering through the
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
When Baghdad is safe for humanitarian organi-
zations, JDC will assist Iraq's Jews in whatever ways
they need, Schwager said. ❑