TEL AVIV, Israel – Greeted by joyous relatives and a crowd of Israeli TV reporters, about 40 Iranian Jews landed in Israel Tuesday, leaving behind their lives in an increasingly bellicose Islamic regime for new homes in the Jewish state.
The new immigrants took a covert route, facilitated by the Israeli government and backed with funding from American evangelical Christians who see their efforts as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
Relatives screamed in delight and threw candy at the newcomers as they emerged into the airport reception hall after a long bureaucratic procedure.
Two brothers, Yosef and Michael, said they were glad to be in Israel. They declined to give their family name in order to protect relatives.
"I feel so good," said Yosef, 16. "I just saw all of my family. You can't put that into words."
Michael, 15, said he told all his friends where he was going, and they wanted to come along. "I was scared in Iran as a Jew," he said. "I would never be able to wear a skullcap in the streets there." Others said they felt safe in Iran, discounting warnings that Jews could become targets.
The brothers arrived with their parents and a sister and were greeted by their grandparents, whom they had not seen since the grandparents left for Israel six years ago.
The sensitivity of the operation was in evidence throughout. No details about their route of exit from Iran were given, but it was assumed they came through a third country.
"I'm in heaven," gushed Avraham Dayan, 63, waiting for his son, daughter-in-law and grandson. He said he had not seen his 38-year-old son in 11 years, missing his son's wedding and the birth of his grandson.
The newcomers were also mobbed by Israeli reporters and TV camera crews. Their arrival was the top story on the evening newscast of Israel's Channel 2 TV. TV pictures broadcast locally did not show their faces, reflecting concern that publicity could lead to harm of Jews still in Iran.
The operation was sponsored by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a charity that funnels millions of dollars from evangelical donors each year.
Yehiel Eckstein, a rabbi who founded the Jewish-evangelical International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, said each immigrant receives $10,000 (euro6,950) from the group to help get them started in Israel because they "start in Israel with nothing," leaving behind all their possessions.
Interviewed by telephone from Chicago, Eckstein warned that the situation facing Iranian Jews is critical, because of the attitude of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has repeatedly called for Israel to be "wiped off the map." Despite a recent U.S. intelligence report that found Iran has stopped its nuclear weapons program, Israel believes Iran is still trying to build a nuclear bomb. It already has long-range missiles.
"Our feeling is that this is very similar to the situation of Jews in Germany in the 1930s," Eckstein said of the threat facing Jews in Iran. "By the time they realize it's not going to blow over, it'll be too late. All it needs is a U.S. or Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear program for them to come down strong on the local Jewish population."
Benjamin Yakobi, 16, has lived in Israel seven years. Waiting for his cousin, he said Israel is safer than Iran. "Here we are all Jewish, and we are not worried that someone will do something," he said.
Other experts, as well as Jews who have arrived quietly from Iran in recent months, discount the dire warnings, saying Jews are living relatively comfortable lives in Iran now.
Altogether this year about 200 Iranian Jews have arrived in Israel of a total of about 25,000 Jews in Iran. Michael Jankelowitz, spokesman for the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, which deals with immigration, said more Jews have arrived in Israel from Iran in 2007 than in any other year since the 1978 Islamic revolution there, and the group of 40 was the largest.
"Jews have been coming to Iran over the years in discreet and secret ways," said Yossi Shraga, the Jewish Agency official in charge of immigration from Middle East countries.
Iran's Jewish community is protected by the Islamic Republic's constitution and has one representative in the 290-seat parliament.
Nonetheless, the Jewish community has led an uneasy existence under Iran's Islamic government.
In 2000, Iranian authorities arrested 10 Jews, convicted them of spying for Israel and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from four to 13 years. An appeals court later reduced their sentences under international pressure and eventually freed them.
No comment was available Tuesday from the Iranian government or the Jewish lawmaker.
"Generally, Jews are free to practice Judaism inside Iran," said Meir Javedanfar, an Israeli analyst whose family emigrated from Iran in the 1980s. Iranian Jews, however, are increasingly concerned about the intensity of attacks on Israel by the Iranian press, which they view as bordering on anti-Semitism, he said.
Evangelicals explain their support of Israel in terms of keeping Israel strong, following a biblical prophecy that creation of a Jewish state here is a step toward the Messianic Age.
However, the involvement of evangelicals is a sensitive issue in Israel. Evangelicals are considered among Israel's staunchest allies in the United States, but some Israelis are uncomfortable with their hard-line views and the religious basis of their support, saying their ultimate goal is to convert Jews to Christianity. The evangelicals deny that.