Moving beyond politics

An inside look at Israel’s community of civilian relations-building initiatives dedicated to bridging the divide with Iranians.

Israelis hold placards with graphics from the popular Facebook campaign ‘Israel loves Iran’ during a protest against a possible attack of Iran’s nuclear facilities, in Tel Aviv March 24, 2012. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israelis hold placards with graphics from the popular Facebook campaign ‘Israel loves Iran’ during a protest against a possible attack of Iran’s nuclear facilities, in Tel Aviv March 24, 2012.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
“I have given leave to as many of the Jews that dwell in my country as please to return to their own country, and to rebuild their city, and to build the Temple of God at Jerusalem on the same place where it was before.”
– Cyrus the Great (Translated by William Whiston)
In 539 BCE, after conquering Babylon, Cyrus the Great liberated the Israelites from Babylonian captivity and helped fund their endeavor to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. Since then, for thousands of years, Jews and Persians have often enjoyed both friendly and fruitful relations with one another.
Today, however, the relationship between Iran and Israel is characterized by the fierce words and policies of their respective governments. Close relations that had once unified the Persian and Jewish peoples and enabled them to live side by side with one other – in peace and prosperity; freedom and equality; security and happiness – seem to have become close to forgotten among the Iranians and Israelis of our time.
However, a deeper look at the Israeli side – moving beyond what activists call daily, menacing sound bites by the media and leaders towards Iran – shows that despite the conflict among the two governments, the bonds of affection between these two historical peoples are still strong and vibrant.
In the past decade, during perhaps the most electrifying time in Iranian-Israeli memory, the Jewish state has seen the emergence of a number of civilian relations- building initiatives (CRBIs). The objectives and functions of these initiatives vary, yet all share a common goal: to rebuild the friendly relations once enjoyed by the Persian and Jewish peoples, and to help prevent a devastating war between Israelis and Iranians.
In addition to the well-known “Israel Hearts (Loves) Iran” Facebook campaign, we have seen the sprouting of radio stations, social media campaigns, blogs and friendship societies seeking to connect with the Iranian people and bridge the contemporary divide. According to a credible source, there are believed to be a total of 43 CRBIs within the Iranian-Israeli community alone.
One of the early pioneers among these initiatives is Shahyad, the only Persian (Farsi-language) news magazine in Israel, founded by small-business owner Kamal Penhasi in 1990. The Jewish Penhasi was born and raised in Iran, emigrating to Israel at 19 during the 1979 Iranian Revolution. What initially began as a project from his modest office in Holon, to provide the Iranian-Israeli community with monthly literature, quickly turned into a tool to communicate with an Iranian audience about Israeli society and Iranian life in Israel.
Penhasi explains that he began editing the paper with Iranians in mind. He had become aware of instances in which copies of his magazine were intercepted, then duplicated and dispersed by admirers in Iran. Even today, Penhasi receives compliments coming from inside Iran regarding Shahyad’s content, which became accessible on the magazine’s website a few years ago.
Penhasi says it was Iranian interest in his Israel-based magazine, as well as his dream to see normalized relations between Iranians and Israelis resume – akin to what they had been during the reign of shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, prior to the revolution – that had prompted him to further his people-to-people relations- building work. In 2009, after the internationally televised death of bystander Neda Agha-Soltan during the Green Movement protests in Iran, Penhasi and a few of his colleagues founded the Iran-Israel Organization.
The volunteer organization is currently composed of approximately 170 members from around the world, including Iran; they organize conferences, lectures and activities with the purpose of promoting peace between both peoples.
Penhasi’s short-term goals are to promote cultural understanding between the populations, as well as to help prevent war. To that end, Penhasi frequently gives lectures to the Israeli public and IDF units on Iranian culture and politics, as well as the divergence between the attitudes and desires of the Islamic Republic – characterized by many scholars as a paranoid, surviving regime based on its desperate attempts to maintain power – and its people.
“As Israelis here who came from Iran, we believe the problem between the two countries is about the regimes – not about the nations. Israelis love Iranians; Iranians love Israelis. We have had a very, very good historical friendship for thousands of years, and it is a very short time that we are enemies. There will be peace again very soon, I hope.
“[As such,] Iran-Israel Organization members include Iranians and Israelis; Jews, Muslims, Zoroastrians and Christians, from all over the world.”
In addition to literature and educational ventures, several Persian radio stations have appeared in Israel in the last decade.
Perhaps one of the most popular broadcasts is the private Internet station Radio Radisin. Founded in 2008 by Amir Shay, now its CEO, and a few of his colleagues, Radio Radisin airs programs on Iranian music, poetry and current affairs aimed at “spreading peace” between the Israeli and Iranian peoples. Based in Tel Aviv, the radio broadcasts 24 hours a day via the Internet and cable television.
The station is comprised of 45 volunteers, many of whom have their own programs.
According to the station’s website, 100,000 listeners tune in daily, including an undisclosed number from Iran, despite government censorship.
Like Amir, who lived in Iran for several years during his early childhood, many of the Persian-speaking Israelis who broadcast have, to some extent, cultural ties with Iran. Speaking in his native Farsi, Amir states that one of the main aims in creating the radio station was to give Iranians – particularly inside Iran, but also in the diaspora – the chance to get a more accurate view of Israel.
“The purpose of our program is to connect with the Farsi-speaking people of the world… Muslims, Christians; those who are not Jewish and aren’t very familiar with Israel. What they know of Israel is based on the major international news agencies, each of which has their own perspective… The news medias that [the Iranian people] might watch are perhaps those of the Islamic Republic… They say [Israel] is the enemy, and they also say that they want to erase Israel from the world. It [the state-run news programs in Iran] is never asked to show the truth of Israel… so those who are interested in learning about Israel can never get the correct, or 100 percent [accurate] news.
Our hope is this: gather Farsi-speaking Israelis, [and] show the truth to the [Iranian] people... so they can see what Israeli culture is... We’ve come together to create a people’s radio – not of the government; not of a private [special interest] organization – a radio of the Israeli people themselves.”
Perhaps one of the more diligent and tech-savvy of these initiatives is TeHTel (Tehran-Haifa-Tel Aviv).
The virtual project can best be described as a blog operating in Persian that translates articles (about three posts a day) directly from Israeli newspapers and sites.
The content is composed of topics from events happening around Israel, as well as stories about art, technology, politics and entertainment in the country. Each post is followed by a comments section, where Iranians have the opportunity to discuss the posted topic. The initiative is also known for translating messages it receives from Iranians intended for the Israeli people, and relaying them to major Israeli news media, which in turn publish them.
TeHTel was founded in 2008 by Dr. Soli Shahvar, who leads the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at the University of Haifa. Content manager Sharona Avginsaz says that much of the communication with Iranians – both from Iran and the Diaspora – occurs on the forum section of the site, which has garnered nearly 630 pages of threads to date.
In these threads, many individuals who claim to be from Iran ask questions about seeking education or even asylum in Israel, and discuss current events related to both countries. Avginsaz explains that through TeHTel’s forum page, Israelis including herself have been able to extend their contact with Iranians through other communication platforms, particularly Facebook’s chat feature and Skype.
TeHTel’s forum has become an instrumental tool for linguist and Persian-language teacher Dr. Thamar Gindin.
Through the forum, Gindin has been able to connect her students with Iranians, enabling them to practice the language with native speakers.
“A part of the summer Persian course at the University of Haifa was for students to speak with Iranians through Skype. Soli’s TeHTel helped me get Iranians; [it turned out] there were more Iranians interested than the students in the course. And a part of the course was that they speak Persian with these Iranians.
“It gave them two things. First, the stated academic goal – for them to develop their speaking abilities, because we don’t have enough time in class for that. (Also, I’m the teacher and as good as my Persian may be, I’m not a native speaker.) “And the second goal, of course, is to create friendships between the Israelis and Iranians – as humans, as people.
A part of the guidance I give them before they go online with the Iranians is to try to avoid political subjects.”
Despite the strong desire and effort to reforge relations with the Iranian people, serious limitations exist on the Iranian side that prevent CRBIs in Iran from reaching their full potential.
First, as borne out by this writer’s experience, every CRBI employing Web-based features is censored by the Iranian government’s Internet police. The Iranians who have come into contact with Israelis through these initiatives have had to circumnavigate their government’s filters using a number of different methods and systems that disguise their Iranian computer identification. In Iran, this is commonly done through methods like changing a computer’s IP address and proxy server, or using an anti-filter system like a virtual private network.
Although the habitual navigation around government filters does not prevent Iranians from accessing Israeli CRBIs, there are still two major limitations. The first is the real danger that exists for Iranians reaching out to Israel. Although there does not seem to be a law in Iran banning communication with a person who happens to be Israeli per se, there is a risk the government may interpret even the most peaceful actions, like conversing with an Israeli, as espionage and conspiring against Iran.
In one instance, a CRBI worked closely with a group of young men living in Iran. Both groups agreed to engage in a small act of activism, writing the words “No war” in Persian, Hebrew and English on an abandoned wall in their respective cities. After this was done, the CRBI did not hear from the young men for weeks, until one Iranian finally contacted them from Turkey. He revealed that he had been imprisoned along with his friends for carrying out the task. He had fled to Turkey after his release, and today is still seeking asylum in a few countries.
In short, this reality prevents many Iranians interested in linking up with Israelis from doing so, in order to avoid government consequences.
Second, in addition to government censorship, the Islamic Republic engages in smear tactics against CRBIs and their founders. Iranian officials try to depict CRBIs and their members in a negative light, for the purpose of scaring off Iranians from engaging with them.
For example, pictures taken from both Penhasi and Shay’s Facebook accounts were Photoshopped to depict them as active Mossad agents, and published by staterun news agencies in Iran. TeHTel has also been called a Mossad recruitment site by such state-run agencies.
Yet these regime efforts may be backfiring. According to Avginsaz and some other Israelis using TeHTel, there were several instances in which Iranians visited the site and showed interest in joining the Mossad.
As Iran potentially enters a new era in its relations with the world, as a result of its current negotiations with the P5+1 world powers, CRBIs may become more relevant in guiding relations – or at least thawing tensions – between Tehran and Jerusalem. Though the possibility of formal relations may exist in the distant future, perhaps only after a pronounced change in leadership, CRBIs may be able to begin to build the foundation of such relations at the grassroots level.
One may only modestly predict the direction of Iranian politics, given its shaky trajectory in the last century, but it is safe to assume one thing: Regardless of the behavior of either country’s government, the bonds of affection between these two historical peoples will not falter any time soon. 
The writer is a visiting junior research fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at the University of Haifa.