Iranians & Israelis: singing from the same song sheet?

WAR-MONGERING statements from politicians make for good headlines. And they tend to inform public perceptions. On the basis of Ahmadinejad making threatening statements towards Israel, or Netanyahu in response highlighting Israel’s readiness to take pre-emptive military action, received wisdom would have it that there is an unquenchable and insurmountable antipathy between the Iranian and Jewish peoples.

Music industry cognoscenti would see it otherwise. Witness the latest album from one of Israel’s biggest pop superstars, Rita Jahanforooz. My Joys, an album of Iranian songs sung entirely in Persian, went gold within three weeks of its release in Israel. And anecdotal evidence is that Iranian music fans are snapping it up as well, albeit illicitly and in a plain wrapping.

Rita is one of the 250,00 Iranian-born Jews living in Israel and her album reveals her ongoing affinity with the country of her birth. The songs come across as a seemingly unlikely but ultimately triumphant mélange of klezmer – oom-pahing bass, alto sax and squeezebox – and skittish Middle Eastern musical idioms bristling with staccato drums, shimmering zithers and sing-along choruses. They are certainly catchy and beguiling. Listen here and here.

It’s not just music lovers who are willing  to forge links across the apparent Israeli-Iranian divide. Earlier this year concerned Israelis launched a website – Israel Loves Iran – intending to reach out to Iranians. Multiple messages on the website, coming both from Israel and Iran, and elsewhere, demonstrate that on a person-to-person level there is enormous goodwill, curiosity and affection, and great desire to communicate. As with many social networks there is something of a naive belief that such forums can have a real impact (room for debate here…), but the sheer number of messages is remarkable and in their delivery they are overwhelmingly positive. One notable signatory is Joshua Fattal, one of the American backpackers detained by the Iranians for ‘spying’, and imprisoned for over two years.

A similar initiative is Tel Aviv’s Farsi-language Radio Radisin, which broadcasts Iranian music and poetry with the professed aim of fostering peace between the Israeli and Iranian peoples.

Meanwhile, although the Iranian regime may routinely bang the drum making belligerent statements towards Israel, it is not the case that the Iranian state – or people – are essentially anti-Semitic. Iran reserves a seat in parliament for a Jewish deputy and it remains home to the largest Jewish community in the Middle East (outside of Israel, of course). In fact, Iran’s 25,000 Jews are well ensconced and live a life largely untroubled by the comings and goings of international relations. The Guardian noted that a campaign arranged by expatriate Jews in 2007 aimed at attracting Iranian Jews to emigrate to Israel by offering sizable cash incentives was a flop. The Society of Iranian Jews dismissed the offers as ‘immature political enticements’ and the vast majority of Iranian Jews stayed put.

After all there is a great depth of Jewish history in Iran. There have been Jews in Iran far longer than there have been Muslims and there are numerous Jewish holy sites in Iran (these are holy to Muslims too). The Jerusalem Post reported in 2011 on a rabbi who visited Iran making a tour of the various significant sites. Rabbi Israel Meir Gabbai visited and prayed at the burial place of Biblical prophet Daniel in Susa, the tombs of Mordechai and Esther in Hamadan and graves in Qazvin. He came upon sites preserved with “dignity and sanctity” where Muslims also came to pray. Wearing the garb of a haredi rabbi no less – so it was hardly as if he felt the need to travel inconspicuously – Gabbai encountered no animosity and in fact in several places was approached by locals who requested his blessings.

And on the issue that most creates tension between the two countries, it seems that the Iranian leadership may have severely underestimated its own people’s enthusiasm for the nuclear project. A recent online poll run by Iran’s state-run TV was hastily pulled from its website when the results came back with two to one Iranian respondents willing to forego any “natural right” to enrichment in return for the lifting of sanctions.

Perhaps Tehran should leave off the nuclear fusion and start making musical overtures…

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