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.

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot