Torn between two worlds

Iranian-Israelis watch with trepidation the tensions between their native land and adopted country.

Radio Iran 521 (photo credit: KSENIA SVETLOVA)
Radio Iran 521
(photo credit: KSENIA SVETLOVA)
Debating a strike on Iran has almost become a national pastime in Israel. Not just among the pundits, journalists and politicians, but also by a population that has become intimately familiar with the Iranian rocket arsenal, the size and location of the country’s nuclear facilities and even President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s code name. With the exception of a viral “Israel Loves Iran” campaign this summer, the atmosphere is mostly one of caution and anxiety.
But within the general population of Israel is a sector of society that knows Iran better than most defense experts and political officials – Iranian-born Israelis. For them, Iran is not solely a threat, but a great source of nostalgia, childhood memories and love.
There are approximately 50-60,000 Iranian Jews living in Israel today, according to Menashe Amir, a veteran Iranian-born Israeli journalist. Some came in the early 1950s, motivated by Zionist ideals; others arrived in Israel immediately after the 1979 Islamic revolution; and a few left Iran only recently, feeling that the situation in the country had become unbearable. They speak Farsi, tune in to Persian programs on Israel Radio and on the web, read Shahyad Magazine and closely follow the news from their troubled homeland.
So how does it feel when your beloved mother country and adopted homeland are at such loggerheads?
Late every night, when the house is quiet, Babak Eshaghi goes online to talk to Iranians.He argues, explains, agrees and mostly listens to what his peers – Iranians born shortly before or soon after the Islamic revolution – have to say. Eshaghi is a poet, philosopher and journalist still enchanted with Iran, especially Tehran, where he was born and grew up. “Can you imagine a child whose parents are divorced and hitting each other? He is afraid, he is in pain, he is helpless. This is what I feel nowadays,” he tells The Jerusalem Report. Eshaghi writes poetry and songs in Farsi, which he posts on YouTube and Iranian websites dedicated to politics and culture.
One of his most provocative songs is Atomic Bomb. The images that accompany the song on YouTube are graphic – poverty in Iran, repression of protests and even an atomic mushroom cloud against blue skies. In the comments underneath, people have responded with calls for the deaths of the ayatollahs controlling Iran.
“I feel as if Israel is my father, and my beloved Iran my mother. How would you feel if your father was hitting your mother?” he says. “It’s a terrible thing and I hope that this war will not happen.” Eshaghi is very active online, explaining the Israeli perspective and clarifying Israel’s stance on Iran. “I do whatever I can to explain to young Iranians that Israel is not the enemy, but their own regime. But it’s difficult when our government constantly flies the flag of threat and attack. After all, Iran has until today never started a war. Even during the Iran-Iraq war in 1980 it was Saddam [Hussein] who invaded Iran. So why do they do it? Until now, Israel has never threatened - it has executed its plans and dealt with the consequences, and I just can’t figure out what all this talk is for.”
Farah, an attractive woman in her forties sits in her living room, watching television. She flips between official Iranian channels, where black-clad women read the news, and Iranian channels from the US and Europe. One channel is showing an old Iranian movie, a reminder of what Iran looked like some 50 years ago, before the revolution. Most Iranians today are younger than the movie, and have hazy memories of pre-revolution life. Like many others, Farah is learning about the other Iran from the media.
There are several dozen Muslim Iranians living in Israel today. They came with their Jewish spouses, building their lives far away from their homeland, unable to even return for a visit, and are now consumed with anxiety for the loved ones who stayed behind. Farah, who only agreed to speak to the Report on terms of anonymity, is one of them. She met her husband, an Iranian Jew, in Tehran, and the couple decided to move to Israel 15 years ago. Since then, Farah has been unable to visit her home. Islam forbids a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man, and in many Arab countries such a union would be met with animosity and even punishment, but Farah says that Iran was and still is different.
“The Iranian people are kind and tolerant, and there was never any problem with the Jewish community. They lived among us and coexistence was truly harmonious. My family didn’t object to my marriage, although our religion forbids it,” she says. Farah, who now lives in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon, says that she never knew much about Israel growing up in Tehran.
“When the revolution began I was just a baby, so I grew up knowing that Israel is an enemy, but no one knew exactly why. For what reason is this country, so far away and not our immediate neighbor, our enemy? I believe that even today most people have no idea. Certainly the politicians say that all problems stem from Israel and the West, but not many believe that this is indeed so.”
Farah, who keeps up with her family in Tehran via the Internet, tells of the devastating effect of international sanctions on the daily life of the Iranian people. “Just a few days ago, my brother went to the bazaar to exchange dollars for Iranian rial, and even as he made his way to the bazaar, the exchange rate went up by a few percent. Iran used to be the land of plenty and now it is in ruins. There are over a million drug addicts; there is poverty, people can’t make it to the end of the month. As for an attack, you won’t believe it, but many people I know say that if Israel wants to attack, let them attack and get it over with. You can’t live with constant tension all the time.”
Every Sunday at 6 p.m. a suit-clad Amir sits in his studio at the Israel Radio building in Jerusalem, and chats with Iranians. He asks them about Israel and Iran, life and politics. Hundreds of caricatures of Ahmadinejad stare down at him from the walls.
“Once a man who said he was a pilot in the Iranian army called in. He said that he would gladly drop a bomb on the nuclear facilities in Natanz or Qom in order to get rid of this menace,” he tells the Report. Yet Amir, who came to Israel from Tehran in 1953, doesn’t sound optimistic regarding the chances of an “Iranian Spring” anytime soon.
“Certainly I heard the prognosis of [Foreign Minister] Avigdor Liberman, who said that he expects Iran to have a revolution within a year. Unfortunately, I don’t share his optimism despite the recent protests at Tehran’s bazaar. Outside of Iran there is no leadership that is acceptable to the majority of Iranians, and inside the country the oppression is so brutal it doesn’t allow for the development of strong leadership capable of change,” he says. “Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, who were behind the wave of protests in 2009, were put under house arrest more than a year ago. Ayatollah Seyyed Hossein Kazemeyni Boroujerdi, who demanded the separation of religion and state, has been in jail for three years and nobody talks about it out loud, for people are afraid.”
Amir believes that there is only one solution to the Iranian problem – replacing the regime that is threatening not only Israel but also neighboring Arab countries. “I can’t stress it enough – instead of focusing on attacking the Iranian nuclear program, Israeli and world leaders should focus on one thing only: getting rid of the Iranian regime. We need to help the Iranian people complete this mission, and I’m positive that every other solution, even military, will be just a temporary one.”
Seated in his small office on the outskirts of Holon, Kamal Penhasi is busy laying out the next edition of the bi-monthly Shahyad Magazine. The publication is read by members of the Iranian communities in Israel and abroad, mostly in the United States. It is also uploaded to the Internet, making it available in Iran. Penhasi is the magazine’s publisher, as well as chairman of the Iranian- Israeli Friendship Association, founded in 2008. Photos of the late shah Reza Pahlavi and an old, pre-revolution Iranian flag adorn the small room.
“I thought we should promote this initiative when the situation between our countries began to deteriorate,” says Penhasi of the association. “We were met with suspicion – after all Iran is regarded as an enemy state and some wondered what our true intentions were. Our goal is to tell the people that our enemy is not the Iranian people; it’s the oppressive and hateful regime that governs the country, which I also consider my country. I love Iran, it’s my home. If I were able to visit it now, I would go to my old house, my old school, see all our neighbors.”
Penhasi also believes that there is no merit to the threats that have dominated Israeli and global newspaper headlines. “I can’t think of anything more harmful, actually. Because you have to understand Iranians: When there is an external threat, Iranians tend to unite no matter what the differences between them. On September 22, 1980, when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, even those army leaders who were against the regime put aside their criticisms, and joined the military effort against Iraq. This is exactly what is happening now.” He also maintains that although the change must grow from within Iranian society, the West should support and nurture this sentiment until a capable leader can emerge and lead the long-awaited revolution.
“The West still thinks that it can contain this obscene regime if only it stops its nuclear program, or if a more moderate person becomes president. Obviously this is a mistake. Iran will only change when this regime is gone forever.”