Was someone knocking on passenger’s door window? Yes, they were! I was heading home after dropping off Sharon, my oldest daughter, at the bus station. Waiting for the light to turn green an orthodox Jewish man knocked on my window. I rolled down the window, and as I expected, he asked for a ride.
“Where are you going?” I asked in Hebrew.
I told him to get in, and he produced his son with the same skill a master magician would a dove or rabbit (an ancient hitchhiking trick—never reveal how many people actually are asking for a ride) and they both got in.
Amazing Story of Escape
I told him I would take him all the way home, as it was not really out of my way. We began to converse. I asked him where he was from and he said Iran. His Hebrew was so good that I was stunned to find out he had only left Iran three years ago.
“What is life in Iran like for a Jew?” I asked.
“Very hard.” He produced a certificate from the Israeli government that confirmed he had been a political prisoner in Iran.
“How did you get out?” I asked.
“I left everything: money, a big house and all my [extended] family. Three years ago we received exit visas to go to Turkey for a vacation.”
The Iranian government levies huge fees on Iranian Jews wishing to travel abroad and they must obtain clearance to leave. Never will they let Jews travel outside of Iran with extended family members for fear of defection. So my friend had to leave his entire family behind, except his wife and young son.
“As soon as we landed in Istanbul, I contacted the Jewish Agency and told them I wanted to leave Iran and make Aliya(move to Israel). From there they took us to Israel.”
I wanted to hear more from my new Persian friend, but we arrived at his home. He and his son jumped out of the car thanking me, and that was that.
While there is a huge international focus on the Palestinian refugees, (Arabs who fled Israel in 1948 –see blog from 5/22/12), we rarely hear about the hundreds of thousand Jewish refugees. And the reason is quite simple. Israel absorbs her refugees! Whether it is 250,000 Moroccan Jews from 1956-1963, 50,000 Yemenite Jews just after Independence in ‘48, 130,000 Iraqi Jews around the same time or the 1,000,000 Russian-speaking Jews who came out of the former Soviet Union in 1991, Israel seeks to help these refugees and new immigrants integrate into Israeli life and culture.
My new friend- I didn’t even catch his name- is working and going to school. His wife works as well. He told me life here is hard, but he is happy. While life is a challenge in Israel—new language, new culture, etc., he knows Israel did not just throw him and his family into a refugee camp as Jordan, Lebanon and Syria did their Arab brothers who abandoned Israel.
There has been a Jewish presence in Iran since the time Cyrus conquered Babylon, setting the Jews free of Babylonian captivity. While only about 25,000 Jews remain in Iran, Israel has the largest population of Iranian Jews or Jews of Iranian descent—over 200,000.
Many of them have left everything behind like my hitchhiker, for the promise of a life free of persecution. Like Theodore Herzl, the father of Zionism, they understood Jews would never be free from maltreatment and oppression until we had our own country.
And while they may have thought the idea of a modern Jewish state was their own, born out of a need for independence, the Hebrew prophets spoke of this country long ago:
‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will bring my people Israel and Judah back from captivity and restore them to the land I gave their ancestors to possess,’ says the Lord. (Jer. 30:3)