By Trita Parsi and Roi Ben-Yehuda
July 18, 2008
The looming Iran-Israel confrontation has a seemingly deterministic quality to it. Listening to the politicians, one gets a sense that powers beyond our control are pulling us toward a 21st-century disaster. Yet a great deal of the force propelling us into confrontation is fueled by ignorance and dehumanization. Israel is demonized as “Little Satan,” while Iranians are portrayed as irrational Muslim extremists.
Indeed, mutual ignorance of our respective societies plays into the hands of the hard-line leaders who are calling for blood and destruction. They manipulate and distort; above all, they do everything to prevent us from recognizing that the enemy has a face.
Not that either of us is naive enough to believe that mere knowledge of one another will offer a miraculous solution. We do believe, however, that mutual understanding will go a long way toward allowing us to feel empathy and compassion for each other, and to sound off at those calling for bloodshed and war.
Here are some essential things Iranians and Israelis should know about each other:
1. Israel is a vibrant yet incomplete democracy
On his visit to the United States last fall, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad famously stated that there are no homosexuals in Iran. Well, in Israel there are plenty of homosexuals, and they are the only ones in the Middle East who have an annual gay pride parade in their capital city.
Democracy in Israel means that every citizen and group (Jewish or otherwise) has the right to express him/herself and assemble in public. Also, that every citizen is equal under the law, has voting rights, religious freedom, access to education, health care and economic opportunity.
Undoubtedly, Israel’s democracy is still a work in progress. The fusion of religion and state has limited people’s rights and freedoms (for example, Israelis of different faiths cannot legally marry one another in the country), and the de-facto secondary status of Arab Israelis is an affront to the country’s democratic ideals. Fortunately, many people in Israel are assiduously working to change the system from within.
2. Iran is a vibrant quasi-democracy
It is far from a full democracy, but neither is it a complete dictatorship. Its severe limitations notwithstanding, Iran has a lively civil society and possesses most of the building blocks for a successful democracy down the road. Iranians’ struggle for democracy dates back to the 1906 Constitutional Revolution. Since then, Iranians have learned two important lessons.
First, war and democratization don’t mix. As tensions between Iran and the outside world increase, the first to pay are Iran’s pro-democracy and human rights activists. For Iran to move toward a democratic system, it needs peace and tranquility; bombs and surgical strikes will achieve the opposite.
Second, when you carry out a revolution, you know against whom you are revolting, but not necessarily for whom you are waging the revolution. Iranians have little appetite for another revolution. As unpopular as their current government is, they prefer gradual and manageable change.
3. Streets are named for poets
Just like Iran, Israel puts great value on the written word. In Israel, streets are named for poets – writers who have revived a people and its ancient language. It is the pen and imagination, more than the sword and muscle, that have been responsible for the creation of this nation. Israel’s historical roots are traced in a book; its people are called the “People of the Book”; and its founding father, Theodor Herzl, a playwright, liked to write books. It is no surprise then that Israel leads the world in new book titles per capita, per year.
As in Iran, everyday conversations in Israel are as likely to be peppered with literary references as with practical concerns.
4. Iranians are lonely and distrustful
Much like Israelis, Iranians feel painfully isolated in the Middle East. They are surrounded by people with whom they share neither language nor religion. Iran is majority Persian and Shi’ite; its neighbors are majority Arab and Sunni.
Nor does Iran have many friends beyond the Middle East. If anything, the international community has never treated them fairly, Iranians believe. In the last century alone, Iranians have contended with colonization and decades of foreign intervention, not to mention an eight-year war against Saddam Hussein, in which the entire world sided with Iraq.
The UN didn’t consider Saddam’s invasion a threat to international peace and security; it took the Security Council more than two years to call for a withdrawal. Another five years passed before it addressed Saddam’s use of chemical weapons. For the Iranians, the lesson was clear: When in danger, Iran can rely on neither the Geneva Conventions nor the UN Charter for protection. Just like Israel, Iran has concluded that it can rely only on itself.
5. Zionism is not a dirty word
In a show of disrespect, many leaders in Iran refer to Israel as the “Zionist regime.” While being called a “regime” may not be flattering, for most Israelis, Zionism is not a dirty word.
From within, Zionism is a national liberation movement, whose aim it is to create a safe haven for Jewish people, culture and national identity. Zionism is the Jewish people’s answer to the centuries-old impulse to erase them from history. When Ahmadinejad and his ilk speak of Zionism’s imminent doom, they are in fact strengthening the very movement they seek to eliminate.
Israelis joke that Israel is the only country in the world where the words “dirty Jew” mean a Jew who has not taken a shower. In a way, this joke encapsulates the essence of Zionism. Everything else is commentary.
6. Sympathy with Palestinians, but no desire for conflict with Israel
Ahmadinejad’s venomous rhetoric notwithstanding, Iranians don’t spend much time thinking about Israel. They are far more concerned about Iran’s crippled economy and rampant corruption. While the sympathies of most Iranians fall squarely with the Palestinians, this is not an issue they feel their country must be actively involved in.
Iranians will fiercely defend their independence and territory, yet they have no desire for conflict with Israel. Iranians remember Alexander’s sacking of Persia, the Arab conquest in the seventh century C.E., the Mongol invasion, and the 1953 CIA coup against Iran’s democratically elected prime minister. But there is no recollection of any conflict with the Jewish people because there hasn’t been one. Most Iranians would like to keep it that way.
Dr. Trita Parsi is author of “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S.” (Yale University Press, 2007). Roi Ben-Yehuda is an Israeli-American writer living in Spain, and a regular contributor to Jewcy and France 24.
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