Amid war fever, some Israelis and Iranians talk of peace

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 21, 2012 

JERUSALEM — Hoping to counter the incessant saber rattling from their respective governments, some Israelis and Iranians have started an online campaign to exchange simples message of friendship and love.

The initiative, which began with Israeli couple Ronny Edry and Michal Tamir, calls for residents of each country to exchange photographs with the words, "We love you."

"I'm not an official representative of my country. I'm a father and a teacher," Edry wrote on his blog, www.IsraellovesIran.com. He included a photograph of him and his son. "I know the streets of my town, I talk with my neighbors, my family, my students, my friends and in the name of all these people ... we love you. We mean you no harm. On the contrary, we want to meet, have some coffee and talk about sports."

Within days, the first responses from Iran began to appear. The images posted by Israelis and Iranians are strikingly similar — they show people in the midst of daily activities, posing with their children, dog or favorite book. Some include messages such as "We don't want war," and "I wish we both get rid of our idiot politicians." Often, it's impossible to tell where the message originated until the telltale tag line, Iran (or Israel) we love you.

Roee Ras said he had never taken part in a "political" movement before, but the 31-year-old was drawn to post a photograph of himself after a friend posted a link to the project on Facebook.

"It felt so human. We are talking about each other, but I don't know anything except what the newspaper tells me. I can't talk to an Iranian and find out what they really think and want," he said.

He went out and took a photo on a sunny beach in Tel Aviv, then posted it to the site. By the next morning, he said, he had received replies including one from a young woman who said he was "cute" and "wished she could join me on the beach," Ras said.

Talk of imminent war between Israel and Iran has filled newspapers, both here and abroad. Earlier this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he was "not afraid" to confront the Iranian nuclear threat and promised he would do what was needed to stop Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program. Iran's leadership has issued similarly inflammatory statements, announcing that they "must" attack Israel by 2014 and repeating threats to "wipe Israel off the map."

Polls conducted in Israel show that there is little appetite for an attack on Iran. One published by the Knesset Channel last week found that 50 percent of Israelis believe that Israel should not attack Iran's nuclear installations, even if diplomatic efforts fail, while 43 percent favored a strike on Iran. Only 16 percent of respondents said they thought a military strike would eliminate Iran's nuclear capability altogether.

Ras said even those who support a strike on Iran have their doubts.

"Maybe we are all being sold on a war we don't understand. It's scary the way some of the leaders are happy to walk us into some big war," said Ras. "Since I don't know Iranians, I can't ask them what they think, and if they think their country would use a nuclear bomb against me here in Tel Aviv."

One exchange on Edry's blog reflected an eagerness for Israelis and Iranians to get to know each other.

An Israeli named "Asaf" wrote that years ago he traveled to Pune, India, and encountered a group of Iranian students on a trip to a local university. "Silly me I was too scared to say a word and present myself to someone (maybe someone there hates me because I'm from Israel), so I just sat quietly and watched all the other tables and saw only young beautiful men and women that all looked very nice and intelligent and looked to me very similar to the best of the people I know here in my own country."

An Iranian with the username "SAye73" responded to him, "Thank you so much dear friend! It's very kind of you to think so well of us! I'm an Iranian and I know there is a long historical story of friendship between us and you! Damn Ayatollah and those Israelis fanatics politicians who abuse us! I like to visit Israel."

Hundreds of new pictures and postings are being added daily, most of them earnest, but some posters inevitably have taken the comic route. One photograph added recently showed a fluffy white Persian cat. The caption reads: "Israeli cats we love you. Persian cats against war."

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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