Leaving the hard-line regime of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad behind, 40 Iranian Jews landed in Israel after a secret journey to new homes in the Jewish state and reunions with family they had not seen in years.
Relatives screamed in delight and threw candy at the newcomers as they emerged into the airport reception hall on Tuesday evening after lengthy bureaucratic processing.
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.
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 US$10,000 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 Ahmadinejad, who has repeatedly called for Israel to be "wiped off the map." Despite a recent US 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 US or Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear program for them to come down strong on the local Jewish population."
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 this year than in any other year since the 1978 Islamic revolution there, and the group of 40 was the largest.
Iran's Jewish community is protected by the Islamic Republic's Constitution, and has one representative in a 290-seat parliament.
Nonetheless, the Jewish community has led an uneasy existence under Iran's Islamic government.
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