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Beyond boundaries

Vanessa O'Brien, Jerusalem
March 27, 2013

Menashe Amir has dedicated his life to bringing Iranians the real news. As if bucking Iranian media control weren't enough, he's also a citizen of one of the countries most vilified by the regime: Israel.

Menashe Amir
Image: DW/V. O'Brien

There's a lot of pressure on journalists to get it right: particularly if you are Jewish and Iran's supreme leader tunes into your news broadcasts.

But Iranian-born Menashe Amir is no amateur. He's been broadcasting from Israel into Iran in Farsi for 53 years.

He won't reveal his sources or how he gets his information, but he says he knows his news is credible gauging by how often it's repeated in Iranian and other foreign media.

"I believe that we give the most comprehensive and the most detailed news bulletin in Persian about what really happens inside Iran," he says.

"There was an international conference for women in Iran, and a lady journalist from the United States, from the San Francisco Chronicle, came to Iran to participate, and she got an interview with the wife of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And she told her that the daily time table of Khamenei is to listen to the Israeli daily radio broadcast."

Amir has a special window into life in Iran. He grew up as a Jewish kid in a Muslim neighborhood of Tehran, before oil money, the development boom and the 1979 revolution. It was a different Iran than it is today, he recalls.

His father was an officer in the Iranian army and his mother kept kosher. He went to Hebrew school, but wasn't brought up to be particularly religious. He was somehow sheltered from anti-Semitic sentiments that saw other Jewish kids get beaten up.

Drawn by freedom

A trip to Israel as a budding young journalist in 1960, at the age of 20, opened his eyes to the rest of the world. Instead of an under-developed dictatorship with "tired people," he discovered a pioneering democracy full of hope of freedom. Particularly alluring to Amir was the media's freedom to report without fear or restriction.

"The Israeli media was fabulous for me, because of a great range of subjects that I could read in the newspapers here, things that I couldn't read in Iran," he says. "Whatever they reported about the world, it was very impartial, very professional, and fascinating to me."

Israel's national broadcaster Kol Israel, or Voice of Israel, snapped up the young journalist for his Farsi and French skills, his experience in print journalism and his smooth-as-honey radio voice. He's worked there ever since.

Talk radio - via Germany

A framed photo board highlighting Amir's career with the station hangs behind his desk in an office cluttered with books, papers and old furniture that's seen better days. From a young, fresh-face immigrant to a grandfather, from black and white to color, a radio microphone is never far from his reach.

His drive is his conviction that there are more reasons for Iran and Israel to be friends than enemies. And he's not alone - he says many Iranians feel the same. He talks with them live on air by bouncing calls via Germany.

"We enjoy now a great respect inside Iran, because we have shown that we are in favor of coexistence and cooperation between the two peoples," he says.

Occasionally callers shout "death to Israel" on live radio, but he suspects they're hired by the Iranian regime to do so.

"We let them say whatever they want, and then I say, 'Now what? What did you gain by wishing the death of another country? What does it give you? Does it solve your problems? Does it improve the Iranian economy?'"

Best wishes from Bush

For Amir, the job is more than reporting the news. He recalls weeping on air and stopping his broadcast during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war upon reading an emotional letter from a young Iranian woman whose fiancé had been killed. "That was the time I lost control," he recollects.

During the same war, Kol Israel's Persian team tapped into Baghdad radio, translated its broadcasts from Arabic into Persian, and broadcast the intended location of missiles, in the hope of saving lives.

"Every night people in Iran were listening carefully to our radio station to know which cities are threatened by missiles tonight and to decide whether they are going to sleep in their own bed or go somewhere else that may be safer," Amir remembers.

Years later, he passed on a message from his Iranian listeners to then former president George W. Bush at a private reception in Los Angeles after the US invaded Iraq.

"We are waiting for the Americans to rescue us from this oppressive regime," they told Amir to pass on. Bush's response: "He laughed and said, 'But you see, we are still stuck in Iraq. Let us finish this problem first.'"

A giant picture of Amir and Bush commemorating the meeting hangs on Amir's office wall. "To Menashe, with best wishes, George Bush," it says.

Bound to broadcast

Amir's broadcast doesn't skirt the tough issues. These days, Iranian callers discuss the impact of sanctions, Iran's burgeoning nuclear program and the possibility of Israeli intervention. Amir admits frankly there's a risk to those callers who engage with what the regime labels "the radio station of the Zionist entity."

Yet people still tune in. And as long as they do, Amir has no intention of retiring.

"It makes my life fuller when I come to work. Being here and talking to our listeners and reporting about the events, it's very energetic for me," he says.

"I'm so happy that I arrived to this point. Because whatever I say, whatever I broadcast, whatever analysis I give about Iran or the regional matters, is very much considered and very much appreciated, and it's a very good feeling."

President Bush makes a statement from his Crawford, Texas ranch, Dec. 29, 2004 (Photo: Susan Walsh)
Amir told Bush his Iranian listeners wanted the US to depose the regime in TehranImage: AP
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Supreme leader Khamenei is rumored to listen to Amir's daily news broadcastImage: momtaznews
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