Kosmopolitica Interviews Ronny Edry, Founder of “Israel Loves Iran”
Martin Gak of Kosmopolitica spoke to Ronny Edry, the founder of “Israel Loves Iran”, a grassroots campaign for promoting peace in the Middle East amid the growing tensions between Israel and Iran. What began as an image on Facebook captioned “Iranians, we will never bomb your country. We ❤ you,” has since become a full fledged online movement and a non-profit organization. The campaign has inspired several similar movements aimed at transcending the warmongering political discourse by encouraging the dialogue across borders and with a simple appeal: “We are not enemies. We love each other.”
Martin Gak: So, the most obvious question is, what is the political or social impact of “Israel Loves Iran”?
Ronny Edry: I think it changes something in the minds of my friends. Sometimes they ask me “what’s up with the Iranians you are talking to?”. And sometimes, they kind of joke about it. But you can understand in these jokes that they want to know more and they will be happy if I tell them a nice story about it. And I think this is how you get to them, you know, just by showing them that it is possible. So, you open the window of possibility for something new. And I am not sure about changing their minds but you start somewhere.
MG: I do think it is an interesting example, actually. I mean, I think it corresponds very nicely to the idea that in fact you are or that you become the link in the construction of a community across conflict lines and you become, in a sense, somebody that may not be able to talk with the voice of the other side but can be an open door for people on both sides. I liked your line in the TED talk about this person coming to Israel and realizing that it’s just not that big a deal. I myself am the product of moderately Zionist family and quite a Zionist education. A couple of years ago in Jordan, I was sitting in a Palestinian restaurant with friends talking to the owner. A very affable Palestinian man. I got an e-mail that night from my uncle asking me how I was in what he gathered was a hostile environment. I said: “Well, I have contacted the enemy, he was wearing a striped shirt and smoking black cigarettes. Nothing else to report”. It was in this sense that the conversation was relevant: in that it shows not only the daily irrelevant of those on the other side of the conflict line, which from the distance we think as forms of political evil, but also how equally mundane to ours their daily experience is.
RE: Yes, sometimes you feel kind of stupid, because you are there and you are at some point supposed to be… well, you want to say something but you have nothing to say really. It’s just mundane. It’s like, ok, so… it’s just people.
MG: I completely agree. I mean, I think that the sense of feeling silly about the thought that you are going to find something which is almost metaphysically revelatory and you find something that is simply and in all sorts of ways just “one of us”.
Ronni Edry: Exactly.
MG: It really can be quite a moment of awakening too. I mean, political awakening. I realize, yes, right, here’s somebody with whom I can talk or I can hate him for personal reasons not for great political stories.
I wanted to ask you another thing. The idea of love seems to figure quite prominently in your campaign. In a way, for me it is really quite difficult to sympathize with the sense of love: I don’t love Iran, I don’t love Israel, I don’t even love Argentina, I don’t love Berlin. I love certain things about them. There is a great passage in Hannah Arendt correspondence with Gershom Scholem who accuses her of insufficient “love for Israel”. The passage was recently quoted by Judith Butler as she defended herself from accusations of anti-Semitism. Arendt points out that she has no idea what this “love for Israel” could mean. She says that she loves her friends and her husband, but loving Israel – she does not know what that could possibly mean. I guess, my question is really angled the same way: What is the force of love here? Love may be too strong a concept to appeal to for the sake of peace.
RE: Yes. Sure, the idea of love is more intended to be a clear statement than a demand of metaphysical love. I don’t love Iran and I don’t love Israel. I often hate Israel if you ask me. (Laughing) As an Israeli you hate Israel all the time. You are always bitching about something.
MG: This is what our relation to our home, to our families, to our mothers usually is. Exasperation can do that.
RE: Yes. Talk to my wife about love. Love here is more of a catalyst for the statements we want to make. I am coming from the visual design field. So, to me it is the quickest way to get the point across. So, the heart of the issue is fairly well represented by the word “love”. I can make a long statement but when you have only an opportunity of only a few seconds on Facebook for someone to look at your idea you ought to be quick. So, I went with the straight-forward option saying: “We love you” as human-being, as partner of people of the same region, of fathers and mothers and, you know, of those who relate to the feeling of being part of the same something. This is the kind of love I tried to talk about.
MG: There is a very strong tendency to think that you can convey ideas of what is good or, rather, what is right, by showing images, by appealing to an emotion such as love but it seems to be increasingly difficult to cajole people into politics by telling them stories, by making strong conceptual statements or by giving speeches. So, I think, that the reason why this project seems so convincing is because it seems to be a very clear example precisely of this, namely, appealing to something that is very immediate in order to produce something like a political community. Do you think of this as a political community?
RE: I am not sure. I try sometimes to understand it, because it is really big and it’s really people from all over. I am receiving messages of love from all over the world. And some people are from Israel and some people are from Argentina. And so, I am not sure it’s a political statement; it’s more a humane statement but what I’ve learned in that project is that people are very often bored with politics because politicians talk too much and do not act consequently. And it’s always a lot of talk and little doing. So, what works here is a clear statement and the feeling that people can be part of it by sending their image, by sending a short message that will be posted on Facebook. Everybody can be a part of it. So, I think, that’s what this community is about. It’s about giving you the chance to change something that you don’t know how. You vote for someone or you try to be part of the group and that can be difficult or slow. Here it’s really easy. We give people an easy way: just send us the picture, just go with the statement and we will forward it. And all these statements are the issue.
MG: One of the ideas that we’ve been promoting here at Kosmopolitica to describe this kind of thing is building communities of care. I understand that this in itself might not be understood as a political group in that it is not a political party. But I think that it is very clear to anybody that looks at it that this has really tremendous political potential because what we are talking about is, indeed, a community of care—let’s call it that for now—that is straddling a conflict border. So, that can push political cadres and perhaps produce pressure on both sides in the respective political spaces. The question that I have is if you see or have you thought of any way, in which this movement could translate into effective action? What I mean to say is this: do you see a way, in which one could start thinking of ways or methods to effect change at the policy level in Israel or Iran? Say, if Netanyahu were to move on Iran again, this kind of thing could be a way of putting pressure on governments to stop a war effort?
RE: You know, I think this is the only thing that we as the people can do. We can go and—if we are a critical mass of people stating that we don’t want war—make the position known. If there is enough people, the leader, the so-called leaders, will follow because they are not really leading, they are following what the people want. They are looking at the people and they say: “Ok, the people now, they want to go vegan. So, let’s give them vegetables and let’s say that a vegetarian diet was our idea”. Sometimes on the page we talk about Palestine and other countries in the Middle East and people become nervous, they say: “Oh, now it’s becoming political”. When we are talking about Iran, it’s just about love but when it’s something about Palestine then, apparently, it is political.
MG: So you are doing politics.
RE: Well, listen [to the] people. I am from the left and obviously I have political positions. And it’s really funny sometimes to see people willing to make these statements but not making the connection between those statements and what they are about. It seems a bit crazy. The same people that push for war—they will vote for it—will come on the page and state that they want peace and that they want love. So, it’s really a long-run process to make people understand that if you are voting right, it’s not going to work. And all this work here on the page of the community is, to some degree, about having a similar political position. So, it is a political statement but so far we are not going with “vote for this guy or vote for that guy” because we still want to remain above those kinds of statements.
MG: The question seems to be how is that these kinds of transnational initiatives can push governments in the political direction that they advocate, and what you seem to be saying is that it is mostly by steps and by building critical mass, which, of course, sounds perfectly reasonable. I am, indeed, just as curious as you are about the seemingly incredible incoherences between the political position that people take when they go to the voting booth and those things that they claim they want when they sit down in a cafe and discuss politics with friends. In the U.S., this was very much visible during the Bush years when people often used to vote against their expressed political positions or stated economic interests. This can only be described as political schizophrenia.
RE: Exactly. This is the same in Israel. This is really exactly the same. I am talking with people like my friends in the basketball court a few days ago. One of them was telling me how life is becoming very difficult in financial terms and then all things connected. He and his wife have two salaries but it’s not enough. At the end of the discussion I asked: “So, who did you vote for?” and he told me “I vote Bibi”. And I said “Dude, how do you do that? You know, the Likud program is precisely what you are bitching about. This guy is the one taking the money out of your pockets. How can you vote for him?”
MG: So, what was the response?
RE: And you realize that most… Well, I don’t know about most of the people but a lot of people with whom I have long conversations about politics—with my students, for instance—are people deciding their vote with their asses and not with their heads. You know I hear things like: “I feel it is better. I feel, it is good for Israel”. And sometimes it is no more than that.
MG: If we are going to have to see people like Lieberman and others on the right make claims about preventing the next Auschwitz, it seems very important also that we have sufficient political ammunition to show that, as a matter of fact, people in Iran are not trying to put Jews in concentration camps for the sake of extermination. This also has to be shown at the level of immediate experience. It’s not a matter of somebody standing up and giving a speech about Iranians being good people and not wanting to kill you. This seems almost inconsequential against the propaganda machine of the state. Rather, conveying the impression of kinship seems a lot more effective and it seems to me that your project does that. And though I cannot talk about the scope, it seems that these initiatives can show to the people who are willing to look, that these claims of genocidal madness are completely vacuous. It helps to either replace a gut feeling with another or perhaps point to those who see the placards, that one cannot simply rely on one’s gut feeling that the Iranians are out to get any Jew left alive.
RE: Especially when you don’t know it. When you never have a feeling, when you never have the experience of the “Iranians coming to get you”, it’s just about a feelings— it’s just about fear—like living in a box of fear that was built especially for you.
MG: One of the ways in which one may read the Israeli-Iranian antagonism is as a symbiotic relation between Ahmadinejad and Netanyahu. Both can stand there and talk to their audiences saying that the enemy is at the gates and that if you don’t vote for me destruction is certain. So Netanyahu needs Ahmadinejad to do that and Ahmadinejad needs Netanyahu to do that. I mean, the moment when somebody stands on one of these two sides and says the kind of thing that is repeatedly said in the “Israel loves Iran” initiative, the symbiosis starts breaking apart and so does the project of vital defense. Because nobody needs a political project and a military machine to defend oneself against somebody who loves you, so to say. So, this is what I find very interesting politically and potentially very powerful about the project.
RE: Yes. But this is something that I am not sure I know how to deal with because it is quite a new thing. I mean, people talking straight to people from the other side, to the supposed enemy. Most of the time peace initiatives were marches on the streets and it was really easy for the government to deal with them. They would send the army or police and say: “Guys, don’t make too much noise” and in this way you would put an end to the issue. But when it’s on the internet, it seems really difficult for them to know how to deal with it, especially when it’s coming from so many places at the same time. The group is large and very broad and every two or three days there is a new page opening. A few days ago we had “Australia Loves Afghanistan and Iraq” setting up. It was a veteran soldier coming back from Iraq and wanting to do something about the war. So, he sends me a message and says that he just wants to be part of the project. And it’s like this everyday.
MG: Is there any plan to get a group of people together off-line somewhere? Perhaps organize a large sort of demonstration, to flex muscle, so as to say “We are here, these are our faces, this is who we are and we are standing behind the project”?
RE: We’re working on a basketball game in New York in March. I asked people from the Middle East to come if they are in New York, because most of the time in New York or in Berlin there are a lot of people from Israel but also from Iran, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria… Everybody from the Middle East seems to travel at some point to New York. So, I thought, OK, maybe I will just ask people, just to come and to play a game. And you know, a few minutes later I already had a proposition from a Jewish organization in New York to let us use their court so that we could play. It was less than one hour. Many people from all over the world said: “Oh, it’s a shame that I can’t come but I have a cousin or a friend who will be in the area maybe living there”.
MG: So, I want to ask you the last question. Is there any way in which you think that this could be systematized? That is to say, is there a way in which you can actually build this into a scalable model to be applied to other conflicts around the world? Perhaps the development of a platform based on the model of” Israel Loves Iran” providing the guidelines or the “how to” to develop this kind of structure for other conflicts, other areas and maybe not necessarily war situations but perhaps even inter-community conflicts?
RE: Yeah, I think it has already started. There is a group at Stanford University in the USA. They have contacted me, so I gave them admin access to the page and they really know how it works. How many people are coming from how many places, how many viewers the post has. They are really trying to make a system out of it. So they are seriously surveying the Facebook page and they try to learn from it. They opened a page called “Romancing the border”. Our admin page is mostly made up of a group of people who are administrating pages like “Palestine Loves Israel”, “Israel Loves Palestine”, etc. There are people now trying to do the same with India and Pakistan. They had problems at the beginning with the design… I think it’s all about the design. It has to be nice and easy and smiley and fun. That is why it works.
MG: OK, Have a good evening and regards to your wife and to your daughter who are now famous around the world.
RE: Thank you, Martin.