Iranians and Israelis – Really so Different?
This is the closest I will ever be. Standing near the fence that separates Armenia from Iran, just south of the city of Meghri. On the other side of the border I can see brown hills, and, in the distance, the Iranian village of Nordooz with its green fields and blue mosque. I have wanted to visit Iran since I started learning Persian as a graduate student seven years ago. First interested in the history of Jews in ancient Iran, I became attracted to modern Persian and the literature and culture of contemporary Iranian society.
However, close as I am, as an Israeli I am forbidden to enter the country. After a few minutes of looking longingly across the border, I turn around and head back to town.
I spent this summer travelling in Armenia and Georgia, its neighbour to the north, not just to be close to Iran but to become close to Iranians. Both Caucasian countries have deep historical, cultural and economic ties with Iran, and are regular destinations for Iranian tourists, students and business people. In the face of the increasingly bellicose rhetoric between Israel and Iran, I wanted to take the pulse—unofficially and unscientifically—of Iranians’ feelings about Israel. What do they think of Israeli threats to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities? How much do they know about Israel at all? How would they respond to meeting me?
I had prepared myself for harsh questioning about Israel’s eagerness for war, but the opposite was the case. The Iranians I spoke to were, above all, curious about me, Israel and Judaism. They also seemed driven by a need to explain how different Iran is from its portrayal in the media and in politicians’ speeches. For some that meant getting me to see the underlying unity of Judaism and Islam, for others the diversity of political opinion in Iranian society, and others simply the contours of daily life in Tehran.
While I cannot claim that the people I spoke to are representative of the Iranian population as a whole, I was struck by their shared sense of urgency to paint a picture of their country beyond the headlines.
One of the encounters that affected me most began in my hostel in Yerevan. Just a few minutes after I had arrived in the shared dormitory room, a young man entered. He introduced himself as a student from Tehran, visiting Armenia to get an American visa—a necessity as the United States does not have an embassy in Iran. Hossein, as I will call him, asked me where I was from, and when I told him, his eyes widened. “You’re from Israel and you’re not afraid of me?” he asked.
In the time we spent together in Yerevan, Hossein told me about his university, the devastating effect of the international sanctions on the economy, his irreligion, and his drive to leave Iran and study abroad. While his knowledge of Israel was limited, what he did know surprised me. When another guest at the hostel asked to hear what Hebrew sounded like, and I obliged, Hossein responded: “Hebrew usually sounds harsher than that.” I said, “How do you know?” He replied, “I watch—how do you say it, the Knesset [the Israeli parliament]?—on satellite TV.”
On our last day together we visited Yerevan’s famous Ararat brandy factory. As we walked among the oak barrels of aging spirit, I talked about my fears and frustrations with Israeli politics, especially the demagoguery that is pushing the country towards war. Hossein responded with a statement that still rattles me. “In Iran”, he said, “we never appreciated how good things used to be. We protested and things only got worse. You have to be thankful for what you have.”
After we had said our goodbyes, I realised that to be thankful in the way Hossein described leaves no room for the feeling that inspired me to take my journey: refusing to be satisfied with the portrayal in Israeli media of Iran and Iranians. Why challenge your own beliefs and explore when you have resigned yourself to what you know? However, even in his dismissal of pushing for change, in a way this exchange with Hossein satisfied my questions.
For an Iranian to express such thoughts to an Israeli implies a level of trust that would seem impossible if you believe what the newspapers say. His words convey that there are things we can learn from and teach each other. It is the beginning of a conversation, not the end.
— xx —
Samuel Thrope is a Golda Meir Postdoctoral Fellow at the Hebrew University. His essays and translations have appeared in the Jerusalem Report, Haaretz, Zeek and other publications. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).