“Persians of Israel” defy Iranian tensions to maintain dialogue with the Iranians | Voice of america


In the midst of longstanding and deepening tensions between Israel and Iran, some prominent Israelis with Persian roots have made neglected contacts with the Iranian people and advocated reviving the historic friendship between the two Middle Eastern powers.

These Israelis are part of the world’s only Persian diaspora community in a country that the Islamist rulers of Iran have forbidden their citizens to contact. They talked about their groundbreaking conversations with the Iranian people and their hopes for reconciliation as part of VOA’s Persian Israeli documentary series, filmed in 2017 and published online on Friday.

The Israelis on the series include veteran journalist Menashe Amir, who has broadcast to Iran in Farsi via radio and online for six decades; Rita, one of Israel’s most successful pop stars; Dorit Rabinyan, a novelist who has gained international recognition for writing about romances by young Persians and a taboo-breaking Jewish-Muslim couple; and Dan Halutz, who led Israel’s military during two of its most difficult operations of the 2000s.

The Persian-Israeli community to which they belong comprises around 300,000 out of a total population of 8.7 million Israelis, according to parishioners. It began to form in the 1920s and 30s when a small number of Iranian minority Jews immigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine to fulfill the desire to live in the biblical homeland of the Jewish people.

Israel’s founding in 1948 as a modern Jewish homeland attracted many more Iranian Jews: 21,000 in the first three years, according to the Israeli government.

Iran was one of Israel’s early friends. It was the second Muslim-majority country to recognize Israeli independence in 1950, after Turkey in 1949.

Iran and Israel were brought together by a common goal – to oppose the rise of Arab nationalists backed by the Soviet Union. The two nations also shared an alliance with the United States.

As Israeli-Iranian relations deepened, another 35,000 Jews from Iran immigrated to Israel between 1952 and 1971. During those years, Israel helped Iran develop its agriculture and armed forces, while Iran helped Israel meet its energy needs by exporting oil to the Jews in the state. But Iran held the relationship cautious and refused to open an embassy or station an ambassador in Israel.

The Iranian-Israeli partnership quickly fell apart after the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, which brought anti-Israel Islamist clergy to power.

FILE – In an undated photo from 1979, protesters burn an image of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi during a demonstration outside the US embassy in Tehran, Iran.

In the 1980s, Iran began arming Islamist militants such as the Lebanese group Hezbollah and encouraged them to attack Israel. While the Islamist constitution of Iran recognizes Judaism as a minority religion, the Iranian authorities have also restricted Jewish life. Such a policy caused tens of thousands more Iranian Jews to escape what they viewed as the oppressive Islamist regime. Most of them immigrated to the United States, while 8,000 moved to Israel in the 1980s and several thousand more in the 1990s and 2000s.

The waves of Jewish migration from Iran have reduced the Jewish population to around 9,000-15,000, based on estimates in the U.S. Department of State’s 2020 report on international religious freedom. According to Encyclopedia Iranica, there were about 85,000 Jews in Iran at the beginning of the Islamic Revolution.

Iranian leaders have escalated their verbal threats against Israel over the past few decades, demanding its destruction or demise. They also alerted Israel by pursuing a nuclear weapons program until 2003, which the International Atomic Energy Agency said was a nuclear weapons program. Israel, an undeclared nuclear power, has accused Iran of secretly continuing this program, calling it an existential threat that could cause the Jewish state to take military measures for self-defense.

Tehran has denied ever attempting to make atomic bombs under the guise of a civilian nuclear program.

Iran and Israel have also embroiled themselves in what some observers call a shadow war in recent years. Israel has carried out hundreds of air strikes on Iranian military bases in Syria; Israel allegedly shot down two Iranian drones that entered its airspace; Israeli and Iranian-owned ships in Middle Eastern waters were struck by explosions, blamed on the other on each side; Iran blamed alleged Israeli sabotage for a major blackout at its Natanz nuclear site in April; and Iran saw its leading nuclear scientist and a senior al-Qaeda agent murdered in its territory in 2020 attacks attributed to Israel by Iranian officials and Western media, respectively.

This shadow war escalated in May when the Iranian-funded and armed Palestinian militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, indiscriminately fired thousands of rockets at Israel, which carried out hundreds of air strikes against Hamas militants, weapons, tunnels and other infrastructure. The fighting lasted 11 days until Egypt negotiated a ceasefire.

The Iranian government, which has long denounced Israel as a supposed enemy of the Persian nation, also passed a law last year providing tougher sentences and imprisonment for Iranians who have “not accidentally” had contact with Israelis.

Amir, the Israeli broadcaster, said he and his Iranian-based listeners, who have been calling for its programs for the past few decades, have opposed Tehran’s efforts to block the dialogue between Israelis and Iranians.

Persians of Israel: Menashe Amir (Part 1 – Israel’s Persian-speaking voice for Iran)

Amir has also taken Western-based Iranian Muslims to Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Center to educate them about the 20th century genocide by Nazi Germany and to combat efforts by Iranian leaders to deny or minimize it.

Persians of Israel: Menashe Amir (Part 2 – Fighting Holocaust Denial with Yad Vashem)

Israeli pop star Rita said her first album in Farsi language released in 2012, All My Joys, inspired her to become a cultural ambassador for Iranians who had reached out to them online and in person for their love to share their music.

Persians of Israel: Rita

Rabinyan, the Israeli author, said she unexpectedly found an Iranian readership after discovering that her debut novel Persian Brides was translated into Farsi and published in Iran without her knowledge. She expressed the hope that these readers will hear her desire for peace.

Former Israeli military chief Halutz, who visited Iran before the revolution as part of a pilot training course in 1972, said he did not expect an Israeli-Iranian peace agreement anytime soon. But he said dialogue between moderate people on both sides is a good way to start the process.

This article is from the Persian service of VOA.


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