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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Locals without borders: governments are using diasporas to shape the migration crisis

Governments of countries key to the migration crisis are tapping diaspora influence more than ever before.

Last month, on 21 June, thousands of Eritreans descended on Geneva and marched across the city, finally stopping at the Place des Nations in front of the UN. The demonstrators had come from across Europe: Italy, Germany, London, and a young man who looked blankly at my French and English questions before exclaiming “Svenska!” (“Swedish!”).

They were here to denounce a recent report by the UN Human Rights Council condemning widespread violations of basic rights in Eritrea. According to the protesters, the report was based on shoddy research and is biased and politically-motivated: “Stop regime change agendas!” said one banner.

Two days later, a similarly sized group of Eritreans marched in the same direction, for the opposite reason. This contingent, 10,000-strong according to the organisers, wanted to show their backing for the report, which highlights many of the problems that led them to leave the Horn of Africa in the first place. Forced conscription, extrajudicial killings, and official impunity, all pinpointed by the UN inquiry, have driven a mass exodus to the surrounding region and beyond. In 2015 alone, 47,025 Eritreans crossed the Mediterranean to request asylum in Europe.

Two things stood out. First was the sharp polarisation of the Eritrean diaspora community in Europe, which muddies the waters for outsiders trying to make sense of the situation: how can one side say everything is fine while the other claims massive abuses of rights?

Second was the sheer engagement of this diaspora, some of whom may never have set foot in Eritrea. They had come from across Europe, with or without the help of funding, to stand on a rainy square and fight for the narrative of their nation.

As an Irishman abroad, would I have the commitment to jump on a plane for a political protest with no certain outcome? I probably wouldn’t, but then again my country is not just 25 years old and still struggling to define itself on the international stage.

Individual stakes are also much higher for people like Abraham, an Eritrean in Switzerland who told me how he was forced into the army for seven years before managing to escape via Sudan two years ago. With two children still in Asmara, he has significant skin in the game.

As for the naysayers, they are also under certain pressure. Some reports suggest that the government in Asmara exercises extensive power in certain diaspora circles, threatening to cancel the citizenship of those who denounce the regime or refuse to pay 2 per cent income tax each year.

Ultimately, such a situation can only lead to a committed kind of polarisation where pro-government supporters need to publicly demonstrate their backing, and the anti-government kind have nothing left to lose.

But on a more benign level, the idea of states systematically harnessing the power of the diaspora for domestic gains has also been growing elsewhere – including in Ireland. Historically a nation of emigrants, Ireland has seen its diaspora swell even further following the economic downturn: OECD figures estimate that one in six Irish-born people now live abroad.

In an age of networks and soft power, this represents a sizeable demographic, and a well-educated and well-off one to boot. The government has clearly recognized this. In 2009, the first Global Irish Economic Forum was held to tap into the business know-how of expats, and has since taken place biannually.

More importantly, two years ago the first Minister for the Diaspora was appointed, tasked with taking overall charge of engagement efforts: no longer simply cultural ambassadors operating Irish bars abroad, emigrants are economic and political seeds to be cultivated. A referendum is planned next year on whether to grant them the right to vote from abroad in presidential elections.

Elsewhere, in Germany, the 3m-strong Turkish population has attracted renewed interest from the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in recent years. According to a 2014 paper by think tank SWP, Ankara now explicitly designates these Turks abroad as a “diaspora” rather than a scattered group, and adopts clear public diplomacy efforts, channelled through cultural centres, to tap their influence.

This has sometimes rankled in Berlin: although Ankara’s diaspora policy encourages citizens to learn German and integrate into German society, the underlying motivation is one of Turkish self-interest rather than benign assimilation. In a battle for the front-foot, German immigration policy clashes with Turkish emigration policy.

Intra-EU movements, largely unhampered by visa questions, have also become substantial enough to warrant attention. For example, hit hard by the economic downturn and austerity measures, many educated Spaniards and Portuguese have flocked to Northern European cities to seek employment.

London, a melting pot of diasporas from all over the world, is reportedly home to more French people than Bordeaux: together they would make up the sixth largest city in France. As countries continue to rebuild following the financial crisis, forging a connection to the skills and political power of such emigrants is a policy imperative.

And if no other EU country, aside from Ireland, has introduced a dedicated minister for this, the growing economic potentials may spur them to do so.

Diasporas have been around for millennia. Why are governments getting so interested now? And what does it mean for the future of citizenship, nationality, and identity?

Technology is one obvious game-changer. Diasporas not only have more options to keep in touch with their home country, but with so much of daily life now happening on virtual platforms, they also have less reason to integrate in their host society.

It is now almost feasible to ignore the surrounding communities and live quite comfortably in a bubble of media and connections from back home. This then works both ways, with governments increasingly willing to use such communications to maintain links. The “imagined spaces” of nations are morphing into “virtual spaces”, with unpredictable consequences for traditional models of integration.

Marco Funk, a researcher at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Brussels, says that the growing ease of mobility compounds the idea of “people moving from one country to another and staying there” as simply out-of-date.

The coming years, he says, will be marked by patterns of “circular migration”, where citizens hop from one country to another as whim and economic opportunity arise. Governments, especially in an increasingly stagnant Europe, will likely try to beef up links with this mobile generation, especially since it is often pulled from the more educated classes.

Fearing a “brain drain”, yet unable to keep the talent at home, they may foster a more fluid system of “brain exchange”: the diaspora as a mobile resource rather than physical loss.

Of course, none of this will be straightforward, especially at a time when a major fault-line around the world is the future of globalisation and migration. An uptick in nationalist tendencies may mean that diasporas will find themselves (once again) unwilling pawns on a political chessboard, protected or manipulated by governments back home while scapegoated by segments of their host societies.

But one thing is sure: even as walls are rebuilt, diasporas will not disappear, and governments are recognising their power. All politics may remain local, but the local now knows no bounds.