Unexpected links between Israel and Iran

Once during the Khatami years, when seated in a Tehran cab with my husband, the cheerful sounds of the well-known Hebrew song Hava Nagila filled the air. We looked at each other, not quite sure what to say. Though at the time people believed that the harshest days of the regime would soon be over, we, as newcomers to the scene, had no idea whether this musical choice was meant as some kind of trap to discover our secret interests, a way of pleasing tourists, or merely reflecting the driver’s own muscial tastes. We kept a low profile and commented vaguely that the music was very nice. This was well received but the driver did not comment any further. That night, we asked a local friend whom we expected not to be afraid to pronounce the name of this sworn enemy of Iran, what this might have meant. He laughed and told that ´Israeli music´ was readily available at the bazaar and liked by many Tehranis – but also seen as quite separate from the general dislike of Israel’s Zionist policies.

For years, I used to tell this story to convince whoever wanted to listen that Iran’s attitude towards Israel and Jews is less straightforwardly negative than we tend to think – even today, when the current Iranian leader has brought the anti-Israeli rhetoric to new heights. This ambiguity also features in a book that was published last year by Haggai Ram, who lectures at Ben Gurion University in Israel, called Iranophobia: The Logic of an Israeli Obession. In it, he links Israel’s obsession with the Iranian threat not only with political concerns that needed a new enemy after the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan (tying in neatly with the Iranian links of the two nearby enemies of Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon), but also with with internal struggles about the position of non-Ashkenazi Jews in Israel. The fear of Iran after the Islamic Revolution (a ‘modern’ country that ‘reverts’ into religious fundamentalism) according to Ram mirrors the fear of secular western-oriented Israeli’s for the religious right in Israel that seem to threaten Israel’s position as a western, secular and modern country. Such links are notoriously difficult to prove (because not referred to explicitly by those writing about one or the other topic, and usually resented because it suggests motives that the authors themselves are not aware of), and it seems to me that Ram perhaps tries to explain too much by this analogy. What I find convincing, though, is his description of the many ways in which Israel is at once attracted and repulsed by Iran, an ambiguity which has its mirror image in the case of Iran´s Jews, many of whom, despite their difficulties with the current government, do not want to move to Israel, because they see themselves as Iranian Jews, rather than as potentional Israelis.

The Iranian Jews bring me back to the Tehrani taxidriver and his love for Israeli folk songs. Recently I read Azadeh Moaveni´s Honeymoon in Tehran – the well-written story of this American-Iranian journalist’s return to Tehran as a reporter, marrying there, hoping for better days to come, but having to return to America when even her cautiously critical articles are no longer accepted by the government. Moaveni manages to make one understand how critical people survive under an oppressive governement, focussing on what is possible, ignoring as much as possible the difficulties. Her wedding is one of such events where the rules are stretched to enable the party that she and her husband envisaged. The couple (they themselves and most of the friends and families being Shi`a Muslims) invited a group of Jewish wedding musicians, motrebs, who enlivened the wedding party with traditional music. And they play the Hava Nagila, as a familiar song that starts the dancing …

Haggai Ram, Iranophobia: The Logic of an Israeli Obession (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009)

Azadeh Moaveni, Honeymoon in Tehran: Two Years of Love and Danger in Iran (New York: Random House, 2010).

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