Screen grab of the Israeli foreign ministry's Persian Instagram channel on June 2, 2020.
Screen grab of the Israeli foreign ministry's Persian Instagram channel on June 2, 2020.

WASHINGTON - Israel says it has been considering requests by thousands of Iranians seeking to leave Iran and receive asylum or medical assistance in the Jewish state, a longtime foe of Iran’s Islamist rulers.

In recent weeks, Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry has told local news outlets that its Persian social media channels have seen a surge in messages from Iranians asking for Israeli help as they face a second coronavirus wave that has further strained a shrinking economy plagued by U.S. sanctions and Iranian government mismanagement.

Responding to a VOA Persian question in a Wednesday briefing held via Zoom, the Israeli ministry’s Persian new media director, Sharona Avginsaz, said there have been cases in which her team has referred requests from Iran for travel to Israel to “relevant” government bodies.

“Obviously, it's a very sensitive issue, because Iran is an enemy country of Israel. And so, it's not a simple matter for somebody to immigrate from Iran to Israel,” Avginsaz said, speaking through a translator. “But we look at each case specifically, and where we can, we refer onward.”

Avginsaz said some of the travel requests have come from Iranians seeking refuge in Israel from political or religious persecution in Iran. Israel enjoyed friendly relations with Iran before the 1979 Iranian revolution that brought to power Islamist clerics hostile to Israel.

The ministry official said she also has received questions through her social media channels from Iranians seeking Israeli medical expertise in dealing with the coronavirus.

“Where we can pass on information that helps people, we do that,” Avginsaz said.

500,000 Instagram followers

Instagram is by far the most popular of Israel’s four Farsi-language social media channels, which also include Twitter, Telegram and Facebook. The Instagram channel reached 500,000 followers as of May 31.

Israel’s Persian Twitter account has 228,000 followers, while its Facebook page has 193,000 followers and the Telegram channel has 25,000 members.

The ministry has said some of the requests from Iran for Israeli assistance have been sent in private messages to those channels, while others have come in public comments posted by people using pseudonyms as their account names.

Avginsaz said Instagram is the most followed of the channels because it is the only one that is not blocked by Iran’s government and is accessible for Iranians without having to use VPNs.

She said Israel has determined that at least 90 percent of the Instagram channel’s followers are inside Iran and more than 40 percent of those people are in the capital, Tehran, with the remainder located mostly in other large Iranian cities. As many Iranians use VPNs to access the other channels, like Twitter, she said it is hard to know if those users are inside Iran or elsewhere.

“The majority of our Instagram followers are opposed to the Iranian regime and not happy with how things are going in Iran these days,” Avginsaz said, through the interpreter. “As a result of that, most but not all of the responses that we see to our posts are positive messages from people who would like to see a different reality between Israel and Iran, and a different future for themselves and their country.”

Gaining entry difficult

Few Iranians have been able to make it to Israel in recent years. In one high-profile case, Israeli authorities granted entry in August 2017 to Neda Amin, an Iranian journalist who fled Iran in 2014 and moved to Turkey, where she contributed blog posts to Israeli news site Times of Israel. At the time, she had appealed to Times of Israel and Israeli authorities for help, saying Turkish authorities were threatening to send her back to Iran in retaliation for her collaboration with the Israeli news site. Turkey and Israel have had tense relations for years while maintaining official ties.

Almost three years after entering Israel, Amin, whose father was Jewish, told Jewish content website AISH.COM last month that she still was awaiting government approval of her asylum application. Amin said she was frustrated that her lack of asylum status has prevented her from getting an Israeli work permit or applying for conversion to Judaism. However, she also expressed gratitude for the friendly greetings she said she had received from Israelis and was hopeful of being allowed to remain.

This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service.