Amid long-standing and deepening tensions between Israel and Iran, some prominent Israelis with Persian roots have engaged in little-publicized contacts with Iran’s people and advocated for reviving the historic friendship between the two Mideast powers.
These Israelis are part of the world’s only Persian diaspora community located in a country that Iran’s Islamist rulers have banned their citizens from contacting. They spoke about their barrier-breaking conversations with Iran’s people and hopes for reconciliation as part of VOA’s Persians of Israel documentary series that was filmed in 2017 and published online Friday.
The Israelis featured in the series include veteran journalist Menashe Amir, who has been broadcasting 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 won international acclaim for writing about romances of young Persian women and a taboo-breaking Jewish-Muslim couple; and Dan Halutz, who led Israel’s military during two of its most challenging operations of the 2000s.
The Persian Israeli community to which they belong numbers about 300,000, according to community members, out of a total Israeli population of 8.7 million. It began to form in the 1920s and ’30s, when small numbers of Iran’s minority Jews migrated to the British mandate of Palestine to fulfill a desire to live in the biblical homeland of the Jewish people.
Israel’s creation in 1948 as a modern-day Jewish homeland drew many more Iranian Jews: 21,000 in the first three years, according to the Israeli government.
Iran was among Israel’s early friends. It was the second Muslim-majority nation to recognize Israeli independence, doing so in 1950, after Turkey did the same in 1949.
Iran and Israel were drawn together by a common goal — resisting the rise of Arab nationalists backed by the Soviet Union. The two nations also shared an alliance with the United States.
As Israeli-Iranian ties deepened, another 35,000 Jews migrated from Iran to Israel from 1952 to 1971. In those years, Israel helped Iran to develop its agriculture and armed forces, while Iran helped Israel to meet its energy needs by exporting oil to the Jewish state. But Iran kept the relationship low-key, declining to open an embassy or station an ambassador in Israel.
The Iranian-Israeli partnership unraveled quickly after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, which brought to power Islamist clerics hostile toward Israel.
In the 1980s, Iran began arming Islamist militants such as the Lebanese group Hezbollah and encouraged them to attack Israel. While Iran’s Islamist constitution recognized Judaism as a minority religion, Iranian authorities also imposed restrictions on Jewish life. Such policies prompted tens of thousands more Iranian Jews to escape what they saw as an oppressive Islamist regime. Most of them migrated to the U.S., while 8,000 moved to Israel in the 1980s and several thousand more did the same in the 1990s and 2000s.
The waves of Jewish migration from Iran have reduced its Jewish population to about 9,000 to 15,000, based on estimates in the U.S. State Department’s 2020 report on International Religious Freedom. There had been about 85,000 Jews in Iran when the Islamic Revolution began, according to Encyclopedia Iranica.
Iranian leaders escalated their verbal threats toward Israel in recent decades, calling for its destruction or demise. They also alarmed Israel by pursuing what the International Atomic Energy Agency said was a nuclear weapons program until 2003. Israel, an undeclared nuclear-armed power, has accused Iran of covertly continuing that program and called it an existential threat that could prompt the Jewish state to take military action in self-defense.
Tehran has denied ever trying to make nuclear bombs under cover of a civilian nuclear program.
Iran and Israel also have engaged in what some observers call a shadow war in the past few years. Israel has carried out hundreds of air strikes on Iranian military sites in Syria; Israel has shot down what it said were two Iranian drones that entered its airspace; Israeli and Iranian-owned vessels in Mideast waters have been hit with explosions that each side blamed on the other; Iran blamed a major power outage at its Natanz nuclear site in April on alleged Israeli sabotage; and Iran saw its top nuclear scientist and a high-ranking al-Qaida operative assassinated in its territory in 2020 attacks attributed to Israel by Iranian officials and Western media respectively.
That shadow war escalated last month when the Iran-funded and armed Palestinian militant group Hamas that controls the Gaza Strip indiscriminately fired thousands of rockets into Israel, which carried out hundreds of retaliatory air strikes targeting Hamas militants, weapons, tunnels and other infrastructure. The fighting lasted 11 days until Egypt brokered a cease-fire.
Iran’s government, which long has maligned Israel as a perceived enemy of the Persian nation, also adopted a law last year authorizing tougher penalties and prison sentences for Iranians found to have engaged in “non-accidental” contact with Israelis.
Amir, the Israeli broadcaster, said he and his Iran-based listeners who called in to his programs in recent decades have defied Tehran’s efforts to block dialogue between Israelis and Iranians.
Amir also has brought visiting Iranian Muslims based in the West to Israel’s Holocaust remembrance center Yad Vashem to educate them about the 20th century genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany and combat Iranian leaders’ efforts to deny or minimize it.
Israeli pop star Rita said her first Farsi-language album released in 2012, All My Joys, inspired her to become a cultural ambassador to Iranians who had reached out to her online and in person to share their love for her music.
Rabinyan, the Israeli author, said she unexpectedly developed an Iranian readership after discovering that her debut novel, Persian Brides, was translated into Farsi and published in Iran without her knowledge. She expressed hope that those readers will hear her desire for peace.
Former Israeli military chief Halutz, who visited pre-revolution Iran on a pilot training course in 1972, said he did not anticipate an Israel-Iran peace agreement anytime soon. But he said a dialogue between moderate people on both sides would be a good way to start the process.
This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service.