Graphic artists Edry and wife Tamir launched a citizen diplomacy campaign that went viralImage: dapd
Messages of peace
May 7, 2012
With the outcome of last month's international negotiations about Iran's nuclear program still unknown, a bottom-up initiative in Israel is taking diplomacy into its own hands.
While the Israeli government has threatened military action against Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons that could wipe out the small nation - something Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has touted-, regular Israeli citizens are opting for a pre-emptive strike - of love.
It began almost two months ago when graphic designer Ronny Edry started a Facebook page with an ordinary pink-and-white, block-letter post saying: "Iranians, we will never bomb your country; we love you."
The simple message went viral on Facebook. The "Israel Loves Iran" Facebook page and sister site www.israelovesiran.com garner more than a million visits each week. Edry said the campaign had not yet cinched changes in policy, but believed that this kind of citizen diplomacy had the power to bring the two countries back from the brink of war.
Messages of peace
"I'm a dreamer; I think everything is possible," Edry told DW. "Really, between those two countries, there should be no war, and we really have to say it out loud so more people hear it."
Visitors from around the world offer messages of peace on Edry's sites: Iranians returning the love to Israelis, Armenians to Turks, and Turks to Syrians.
Canadian-Iranian Sonja Be wrote that she would like to take her Israeli friends to her hometown in Iran and show them the beauty of her country and its people. "I assure you that we don't hate you and that in fact we too love you."
One Iranian posted a photo of a female Israeli soldier on Yom Hazikaron (Israel's Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers) last week - as a sign of solidarity with her Israeli friends.
Edry said the sites are about everyday people talking to each other across political divides in a way that only today's social media makes possible. Giving a human face to the two countries allows a different discourse to develop rather than the drumbeat of war, he added.
From their downtown Tel Aviv apartment, where a large poster of their "Israel Loves Iran" poster dominates the living area, Edry and his wife Michal Tamir frequently converse online with their new Iranian friends. Despite attempts to block Facebook in Iran, the message of hope and humanity clearly makes it through, Edry said.
Edry told the story of a girl who said she was raised to hate Israel.
But the images on Facebook which show children and the Israeli flag apparently helped change her mind. "I know that they try to make me hate you, but I don't hate you," the woman allegedly told Edry.
Edry said it moved him to tears. "You're reading that and you're like, okay, we've done something."
Radio as well
It's not just social media that's attempting to cross borders: short-wave radio is also ramping up citizen diplomacy between Israelis and Iranians.
Menashe Amir, veteran host of the Persian program of Israel Radio International, routes calls via Germany so he can converse on air with Iranians.
Amir is an Iranian Jew who emigrated to Israel in 1960, and has been broadcasting into Iran in his native Farsi tongue for 52 years. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, he has seen it as his responsibility to keep Iranians informed about what is going on inside their own country. During the Iran-Iraq War, he warned Iranian citizens on air about where Iraqi bombs would be dropped.
On the wall of his office hangs a large photo of himself with George Bush. Before he met the former US president, he asked Iranian listeners what message they would like to convey. They asked for the international community to get rid of their government.
"It's unbelievable when you listen to this program, because there is so much critique against the regime in Iran and so much support and identification with Israel and Israeli matters," he said.
The Persian program of Israel Radio International began as a foreign policy gambit by Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion. Although it's impossible to gauge the amount of listeners in Iran, Amir estimates that at times, it's in the millions.
It's the last short-wave program to survive the broadcasting company's funding cuts. Now more than ever, with Ahmadinejad's regime publically calling for Israel's destruction, Amir says the person-to-person connection is crucial.
"They try to jam us, and the Iranian regime has put many controls and limits on Internet usage and also on the satellites," Amir said. But Iranians have their old radio set, which "enables them to listen to us everywhere," he added.
The Jewish connection
An estimated 250,000 Iranian Jews live in Israel today. The community still holds close ties to its native Iran and the Jewish community there, says Iranian Jew Meir Javedanfar. That, and both countries' isolation in an Arab majority region, mean there were more reasons for friendship than animosity between the two countries, Javedanfar thinks.
However, based on his work as a lecturer in contemporary Iranian politics at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, Javendanfar doesn't hold such high hopes for the brotherhood of man triumphing over the self-interest of states.
"I don't think leaders in Iran or Israel check how many likes a Facebook page has before they make a decision," Javedanfar told DW. "I think Israel's leaders should sit at the feet of those who started the Facebook page and learn from them."
The Iranian nuclear threat dominates the news in Israel. But on the streets of Jerusalem, not everyone supports a man-to-man approach to peace. Israelis have much to fear from Iran, said Yehudit Zerbiba, a 22-year-old mother .
"Their government is very bad and we're scared because of them, so it's not fair that we should be nice to them if they're not nice to us," she said.
Adalia Salomaa, a media and diplomacy student who emigrated from America to Israel last year, doesn't believe that citizen diplomacy will change anything politically, but still thinks it's good for Israel.
"Anything that gets Israel out there in a positive light is good for Israel, I think" she said.
"If it can get through to the Iranians without being blocked and censored by the government there, that's great, to know that people care."
Author: Vanessa O'Brien, Jerusalem / sad
Editor: Louisa Schaefer