Israel Loves Iran: an interview with founder Ronny Edry

"The way to win us is always with the threat of war, because when you have a war coming, nobody’s go

Sitting at his design workspace, 41 year old Ronny Edry looks tired but no less impassioned. Since starting the Israel Loves Iran online anti-war campaign, droves of reporters and broadcasters have come to the small design studio at his home in Tel Aviv.
 
Ronny’s motivation for breaking the silence between his country’s seemingly biggest foe is simple: "I want to make sure that we don’t have to bomb them. I want to make sure we are talking to them and understanding each other. I discovered Iranians are not the enemy. The ones I’m talking to are good people."
 
It’s not surprising the campaign quickly made headlines around the world. Israelis and Iranians have not communicated on any significant scale since before the Iranian revolution in 1979, and today it remains impossible to pick up a phone in Israel and call Iran.
 
But the Iranian people and the Iranian regime are two different ball games. While civilian-designed love posters continue to flow out of Iran and into Ronny’s inbox, it’s also no secret that the Iranian regime continues to enrich uranium beyond 20 per cent without a clearly defined civilian cause, leaving the international community legitimately concerned.
 
"A lot of people are calling me naïve, stupid, counterproductive," Ronny says. "But I’m so far from naive. I was a soldier in a combat unit, I saw things, I know how it looks. Israelis are born ready. We are living in a state that is ready all the time. We have to be.
 
"But you also have to try the other ways," he counters. "You have to make sure to do everything in your power to talk to the other side, rather than just threatening them. Otherwise you’re escalating the rhetoric of war. It’s a circle. You have Ahmadinejad saying 'I’m gonna shoot you,' then Netanyahu says 'no, I’m gonna shoot you first' They build this whole threat dynamic, so that in the end they have to bomb each other. Neither one can face going back home to say 'I was mistaken, I was just trying to be careful'."
 
Potential war with Iran is certainly not the only concern for Israeli citizens. Israel is an expensive place to live. The middle class feeling the squeeze the most, serving first in the army, then competing for oversubscribed university places, moving to cities, and struggling to find jobs and affordable housing.
 
Little wonder last summer saw the biggest social protest rallies in Israel’s short history. It started with Israeli doctors and medical students calling for better pay and outcries over the price of cottage cheese and other basic food stuffs. Soon, tent cities cropped up in major public spaces to protest against expensive housing. Weekly rallies in all the major towns and cities demanded for socioeconomic reform, climaxing with 450,000 Israelis marching in the streets countrywide.
 
As their Arab neighbours overthrew governments, this shows how socioeconomic grievances -- particularly those facing young people -- are a key problem across the region. "We have social problems like any other country. We have to get a better future for ourselves, up and up, for the whole Middle East," Ronny says. "But after living a few years in Israel you kind of feel that all people living in the Middle East are your enemies – Syria, Egypt, Lebanon."
 
Indeed, as the protests came to a head, Netanyahu was simultaneously preoccupied with pushing back against the Palestinian UN statehood bid and defending the south of the country against militant attacks coming from an unruly Sinai border, altogether distracting from Israel’s internal strife. Since last summer, some financial policy reforms have been made, but socioeconomic improvement is yet to be felt. In hindsight, some Israelis are left feeling that their protest leaders made a mistake of remaining too apolitical, with whispers of further protests this summer.
 
Since then, however, Iran has returned to the top of the political agenda. Ronny is sceptical about politicians' motives. "The way to win us is always with the threat of war, because when you have a war coming, nobody’s going to talk about social problems, or loving Iranians. Because now you have to be ready. You have to get the guns ready and everything. And that’s how they’re winning. It’s always been the same dynamic, everywhere. They’re putting you in a box of fear. And when you’re afraid for your children, for your future, you’re willing to do everything. So first you go and vote for the wrong guy, the one who says I’m going to kill them.
 
"And then at the same time all social progress is pushed aside. That’s how it works. Iran is very far from us and is not a day-to-day problem, but the fact that I’m talking about it day-to-day and not talking about my social problems demonstrates it’s a way of making me lose focus on the real problems I have. The price of milk, the price of living in Israel. The fact that I have to have two or three jobs and I’m working so hard to finish the month. These are my real problems.
 
"I think Iran is more for the secret services to deal with. It’s more of a diplomatic problem. We have to communicate. Be it with Egypt, or Lebanon. We have to make an effort. You have to be clever, you have to fight for it. You have to raise your voice."
 
This brings us the top political priority for most Israelis - peace with the Palestinians. Ronny is confident about the outcome.  "Israelis and Palestinians on both sides of the map know that there is going to be two states, it’s just a matter of time. Everybody knows this is going to happen whether you like it or not.  So let’s just make it happen. Let’s just finish it," Ronny says.
 
"But Bibi [Netanyahu], he can’t do it. The day he starts doing it he’s losing power. So he’s going to do everything just to not do it. It’s a distraction, and it works both ways. With Ahmadinejad and his regime, that’s how they’re staying in power in Iran and how they have all the Iranians distracted from their lives: by making Israel the enemy. It’s like they’ve created this situation where Iranians are frightened of Israelis striking them.
 
"But I don’t want to strike them. I want to have a fixed price for milk. Iran, is so, so far away. I want to meet them, to play basketball with them, but not to invade them."
 

Ronny Edry. Photograph: Camilla Schick

Camilla Schick is a  journalist based between London and Tel Aviv, writing on culture, religion and international politics.

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism