Jews in Arab lands feared vulnerable as war heats up

NEW YORK — As the U.S. military pounds Iraq, Jewish communities in Muslim countries may become increasingly vulnerable.

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 and America.

As coverage from al-Jazeera and other Arab news 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 ideologues.

"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.

In anticipation of the war, the JDC has been working with Jewish communities in Muslim countries, along with their governments and non-governmental organizations.

The JDC, the North American 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 attending 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 countries have enough Jews to constitute a substantial community.

According to the JDC, Iran has 23,000 Jews; Turkey, 23,000; Morocco 5,000; Tunisia, 1,500; Yemen, 280; and Iraq, 60.

Hundreds of thousands of Jews who lived in Muslim countries fled their homes, and often prominent positions, during the last century, amid 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 governments have taken steps to secure their Jewish communities with added police protection in Jewish neighborhoods and institutions.

Still, with Muslim populations restive — demonstrators clashed with police recently 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."

Here is the situation 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 population 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.

The March 16 stabbing of a Jewish jeweler there — largely dismissed as a criminal, not anti-Semitic act — further rattled the community.

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 outbreak of the 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.

*In Yemen, the country's few Jews are scattered in small villages throughout the country. With no Jewish institutions, the community is considered less of a target.

*Anti-American sentiment is running high in Turkey, and its Jews have been warned of possible attacks. The well-organized community, which has varied Jewish institutions, has taken measures to secure itself, such as closing schools and dispersing 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-general of the Los Angeles-based Iranian-American Jewish Federation, said of the community: "We are always concerned about their safety and security, but there isn't any heightened sense of security 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 community. 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 vulnerable community in the Muslim world, due to their tiny number and the war that surrounds them. According to JDC, the possibility of an anti-Semitic backlash places them in even greater danger than other Iraqis who are suffering through the war.

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 country.

When Baghdad is safe for humanitarian organizations, JDC will assist Iraq's Jews in whatever ways they need, Schwager said.