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With fond memories of native land, Iranian Israelis worried by talk of war

Molok Shamshiri, an Iranian-Israeli restaurant cook, left Iran in 1964. (Ben Lynfield)

TEL AVIV (JTA) — Avi Nobel lived in Tehran and is sure the Iranian people want peace.

“There are a lot of poor people there and what they want is food and to work, not a nuclear bomb,” says Nobel, a spice seller here whose goods include some imported from Iran through third countries.

Still, he believes that Iran’s nuclear program must be stopped — by an Israeli airstrike, if necessary.

“It will have to be done because if [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad has a bomb, there is no doubt he will use it,” Nobel says.

Nobel and others interviewed in this mini-enclave of Persian restaurants and spice shops in south Tel Aviv have a more nuanced — and cautious — view of a possible war with Iran than do many other Israelis.

Not only do they have tangible, often positive, memories of Iran and Iranians, but they also count relatives among the 25,000 Jews still living in Iran who, some fear, could face reprisals if there is an Israeli strike.

Molok Shamshiri, an Iranian-Israeli restaurant cook, says “It is hard for me to understand how things went so wrong. But I am sure the Iranian people are still the same people. Neither do the Iranian people want war. I know them.”

Shamshiri, whose sister still lives in Iran, left the country in 1964 but frequently made visits back home, sending her children to learn about their ancestral land. The visits ended with the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

She recalls the relations she had with Muslims in Iran as being “so good, it is hard to describe.”

“My Muslim neighbor would come make tea for me every Sabbath because she knew I could not light the fire” on the Sabbath, says Shamshiri, an Orthodox woman who covers her hair for modesty. “The Muslims would help us with parties, celebrations, weddings. They would help with everything and not for money. They would always ask if we needed anything.”

Her face lights up when she is asked where she lived.

“Isfahan, a city that has everything good in this world,” says Shamshiri, who takes pride in her ghormeh sabzi, a traditional herbal soup. “The four seasons there are like clockwork. In the spring you have the sunshine, the chirping of the birds and the flowers. It’s a calm city, a paradise.”

Yosef Melamed, who sells spices, apricots and dried mangos, describes Farsi as “a language rooted in poetry, poetry that speaks to the soul.”

Although it’s been 47 years since he left Tehran for Israel, he remains avidly interested in his native land and watches  three Iranian satellite television channels.

The decision as to whether to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities is beyond him, Melamed says, but he holds out hope it may be possible to reach an accommodation with the Iranian government.

“You have to take a religious approach in talking to them, not a political one,” he says. “The contacts need not be conducted by rabbis, but they should be done by believing Jews.”

Albert Moradian’s eyes tear up as he describes his feelings for Iran. “To sum up in one word, I feel longing,” says Moradian, who owns a clothing store.

“I am Iranian in my behavior, my accent and the demands I make of my children to respect everyone,” Moradian says as he turns up a CD of Iranian classical music singer Mohammed Shajarian.

Moradian, who had been a lieutenant in the Iranian army, left after the ’79 revolution, fearing reprisals against officers who served under Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

“Of course I have good memories. I think the Iranian people are a special people, not of wars, but of music, poetry and soul,” says Moradian, who says he visits Iran “through the Internet” and dreams of the day when he can take his children there.

“Unfortunately, the media here conveys a picture as if Iran is only Ahmadinejad. The media is mobilized and I don’t believe any report from it,” he says.

Moradian opposes an Israeli strike on nuclear installations and believes that the Iranian people eventually will overthrow the regime.

Some among the 250,000 Iranian Israelis fear an Israeli strike will cause the Iranian regime to retaliate against the Jewish community, one of the world’s oldest.

“This is an unstable and unpredictable regime that can behave differently from day to day,” says Kamal Penhasi, the editor of Israel’s Farsi language newspaper, Shahyad. “I can envision them using criminals to attack Jews while denying the regime is involved.”

But Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born specialist on Iran at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv, doubts there would be a backlash against Iranian Jews.

“The Iranian regime always tries to portray itself as anti-Israel and not anti-Jewish,” he says. “Hurting its own Jewish population would undermine that and be very counterproductive.”

Javedanfar also says that despite the regime’s demonization of Israel since 1979, the Iranian people’s views of Israelis are “far more positive than any other country in the Middle East.” An Israeli strike could affect those views, he says.

Prominent Israelis of Iranian descent include Shaul Mofaz, who last month took the reins of Kadima, the country’s largest opposition party. Mofaz recently has taken a more dovish stance than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, urging that Israel allow Washington to take the lead in handling Iranian nuclear ambitions.

At the restaurant, Shamshiri says she does not believe there will be a war.

“I hope we find a peaceful solution. The Muslims and we have all grown up on the same food,” she says. “At the end of the day, we know each other well.”