Torn Between Native And Adoptive Lands, Israel's Iranian Jews Hope For Peace

Torn Between Native And Adoptive Lands, Israel's Iranian Jews Hope For Peace

8:31am Jul 27, 2015
Israeli artist Matan Pinkas sits in the "Iranian Embassy in Jerusalem," a cultural project in the works by the Jerusalem art collective Hamabul.
Israeli artist Matan Pinkas sits in the "Iranian Embassy in Jerusalem," a cultural project in the works by the Jerusalem art collective Hamabul.
Daniel Estrin
  • Israeli artist Matan Pinkas sits in the "Iranian Embassy in Jerusalem," a cultural project in the works by the Jerusalem art collective Hamabul.

    Israeli artist Matan Pinkas sits in the "Iranian Embassy in Jerusalem," a cultural project in the works by the Jerusalem art collective Hamabul.

    Daniel Estrin

  • Behruz Baradarian sells spices, nuts and Iranian specialties in his shop in Tel Aviv's Levinsky Market.

    Behruz Baradarian sells spices, nuts and Iranian specialties in his shop in Tel Aviv's Levinsky Market.

    Daniel Estrin

In a dry goods shop in the middle of Tel Aviv, plump sacks of dried lemons and spices practically spill out onto the street. There are signs everywhere handwritten in Farsi. It might as well be Tehran.

The owner, Behruz Baradarian, moved to Israel 30 years ago from the Iranian capital. He's one of about 100,000 Iranian Jews who have made Israel their home. And no one feels more torn about the enmity between the two countries than Israel's Iranian Jewish community.

Everything in Baradarian's shop seems to remind him of the world he left behind. Take pistachios: The U.S. bans the import of Iranian pistachios; Israel does, too. So, the pistachios in Baradarian's shop come from California.

He says the California variety is second-rate.

"Now that sanctions on Iran are set to be lifted, maybe Iranian pistachios will eventually make their way back onto the market," he says. Even so, he adds, that would not make the nuclear deal with Iran worth it.

"Pistachios won't solve the problem," he says. "Iran says it wants to destroy us."

There's a paradox here: Iran is hostile to the Jewish state, but it also is home to an ancient Jewish community.

Baradarian keeps in touch with his relatives in Iran on the phone and on the Internet. Jews in Iran can travel discreetly, via a third country, to visit relatives in Israel. Some even pack specialty Iranian tea blends to sell to Baradarian.

Small numbers of Iranian Jews are still moving to Israel each year. In an ideal world, they could be a good bridge between Israel and Iran. But an Israeli government spokesman refused to discuss immigration statistics, so as not to anger the Iranian government and endanger Iran's Jewish community.

Kamal Penhasi, a Jewish immigrant in Israel who runs an online magazine in Farsi, says he has readers back in Iran. But he says Iranian regime-affiliated websites have posted his photo and accused him of being an Israeli spy.

"I am a simple citizen, Iranian-Israeli citizen," Penhasi says. "I love my country, I love this country. I hope to see peace between the two nations. That's all."

Relations between Iran and Israel weren't always this bad. During the rule of the Shah in the 1970s, Iran purchased a plot of land in an upscale Tel Aviv district to build a new embassy. Then came the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and diplomatic ties broke off.

That land still belongs to Iran. Today, there's a small playground and benches, but Israel won't let anything be built — in case Iran ever renews ties with Israel and builds its embassy.

Israeli artist Matan Pinkas sits in the

Israeli artist Matan Pinkas sits in the "Iranian Embassy in Jerusalem," a cultural project in the works by the Jerusalem art collective Hamabul.

Daniel Estrin

A group of Israeli artists, though, decided not to wait any longer.

"This is going to be the Iranian embassy in Jerusalem," says Matan Pinkas. He and his art collective are transforming a Jerusalem community center into an Iranian cultural "embassy." They have an Iranian flag tacked on the wall, and they're interviewing Farsi speakers for the role of ambassador.

Pinkas is trying to raise money for the so-called embassy, because he thinks it's more than a gimmick.

"Who knows," he says, "maybe this idea will get to Iran and people there will see that we have, like, the compassion and the love and we don't want to see them as the enemy. I think that this is the way."

The Israeli Foreign Ministry says it likes the idea.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Iran's supreme leader gave a speech after the U.S. and its allies reached a nuclear deal. And in that speech, the ayatollah once again proclaimed, death to Israel. Israeli officials denounced the nuclear deal, calling Iran the, quote, "preeminent terrorist state of our time." The animosity between Israel and Iran obscures the fact that the two countries share deep ties. Israel is home to thousands of Jewish immigrants from Iran. And as Daniel Estrin reports, they're not the only ones hoping the two nations can make peace.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: This dry goods shop is in the middle of Tel Aviv, but it might as well be in Tehran. Plump sacks of dried lemons and spices practically spill out onto the street. There are signs everywhere handwritten in Farsi. The owner, Behruz Baradarian, moved to Israel 30 years ago from Tehran. He's one of about 100,000 Iranian Jews who have made Israel their home. Everything in his shop seems to remind him of the world he left behind.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCOOPING PISTACHIOS)

ESTRIN: Like pistachios. Like the U.S., Israel bans the import of pistachios from Iran, so the pistachios in his shop come from California. Baradarian says the California variety is second-rate.

BEHRUZ BARADARIAN: (Foreign language spoken).

ESTRIN: He says, "now that sanctions on Iran are set to be lifted, maybe Iranian pistachios will eventually make their way back onto the Israeli market." But he says that still would not make the nuclear deal with Iran worth it.

BARADARIAN: (Foreign language spoken).

ESTRIN: "Pistachios won't solve the problem," he said. "Iran says it wants to destroy us." There's a paradox here. Iran is hostile to the Jewish state, but it also is home to an ancient Jewish community. There may be around 10,000 Jews in Iran - maybe more. Baradarian keeps in touch with his relatives in Iran on the phone and on the Internet. Some Jews in Iran even travel discreetly through a third country to visit relatives in Israel. Some even pack specialty Iranian tea blends to sell to Baradarian. He showed me the coveted teas in the back of his shop.

BARADARIAN: (Foreign language spoken).

ESTRIN: Small numbers of Iranian Jews are still moving to Israel each year. In an ideal world, they could be a good bridge between Israel and Iran. But an Israeli government spokesman refused to discuss immigration statistics so as not to anger the Iranian government and endanger Iran's Jewish community. Kamal Penhasi, an Iranian Jewish immigrant in Israel who runs an online Farsi magazine, says he has readers in Iran. But he says Iranian regime-affiliated websites have posted his photo and accused him of being an Israeli spy.

KAMAL PENHASI: I am a simple citizen - Iranian-Israeli citizen. I love my country. I love this country. And I hope to see peace again between the two nations. That's all.

ESTRIN: Relations between Iran and Israel weren't always this bad. During the rule of the shah in the 1970s, Iran purchased a plot of land in an upscale Tel Aviv district to build a new embassy. But then came the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and ties broke off. That land still belongs to Iran. Today, there's a small playground and benches there. But Israel won't let anything be built there, according to Israeli media, in case Iran ever renews ties with Israel and builds its embassy. A group of Israeli artists, though, decided not to wait any longer.

MATAN PINKAS: This is going to be the Iranian embassy in Jerusalem.

ESTRIN: Matan Pinkas and his art collective are now transforming a Jerusalem community center into an Iranian cultural embassy. They have an Iranian flag tacked on the wall, and they're interviewing Farsi speakers for the role of ambassador. Pinkas is trying to raise money for the so-called embassy because he thinks it's more than a gimmick.

PINKAS: Who knows? Maybe this idea will get to Iran, and the people there will see that we have, like, the compassion and the love, like - and we don't want to see them as an enemy. I think that this is the way.

ESTRIN: The Israeli Foreign Ministry says it likes the idea. For NPR News, I'm Daniel Estrin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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