Hundreds of Israelis protested against a potential Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities on Saturday night, gathering together at Tel Aviv’s Habima Square and marching into Gan Meir park. The marchers hoisted red flags and banners reading “No to war!,” “Bibi and Barak, War is not a game” and “Talks, not wars.” There were also several anti-AIPAC posters at the rally.
One protester, Sharon David, said she was at the rally out of fear for her own future. “I am scared to death of what will happen here,” she said. “It’s sad that there are no attempts at engaging in talks before making a decision to bomb and endangering all of us,” David said.
The public square protest comes after some Israelis have reached out on social networks and created grassroots online campaigns in an attempt to prevent an all-out war in the Middle East.
Ruthie Pliskin didn’t want Israel’s threats of a possible military strike to be the only message her country had for Iran. So the doctoral student from Tel Aviv posted a photo of herself and her cat on Facebook, with a sign in Farsi reading: “We love you, people of Iran.”
She says she received enthusiastic responses from Iranians when she posted on an “Israel-Loves-Iran” Facebook page who corrected the sign’s spelling and returned warm wishes.
Pliskin is among a small but growing number of Israelis trying to reach out to Iranians, even as Israeli politicians warn with growing frequency and intensity that Israel might strike to halt Tehran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.
Meir Javedanfar, an Israeli expert on Iran, said that this marks the first time Israelis have reached out in such a way to another nation in the Middle East. Has it had impact in Iran so far? That’s not clear yet, though Israelis say Iranians are responding positively to the Internet outreach. But it appears unlikely that any goodwill being generated by civilians will sway governments.
Israel’s leaders say a nuclear-armed Iran is an existential threat. Iranian leaders often demonize Israel and much evidence has accumulated over the years pointing to a clandestine Iranian nuclear weapons program. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said he’s willing to give sanctions and negotiations a few more months to deter Iran from trying to obtain nuclear weapons, but suggests that, if efforts fail, Israel could strike this year. Iran insists it is pursuing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, but warns it will strike back if attacked.
In Israel, surveys show that a majority opposes a solo Israeli attack on Iran without U.S. military cooperation.
Retired Israeli military and intelligence leaders have advised against striking Iran, arguing that Israel doesn’t have enough bomb shelters or gas masks to absorb a possible Iranian counterattack.
“Despite all this, our prime minister wants to take us to war,” said Tzvika Besor, a Tel Aviv marketing agent who organized Saturday’s protest. “And we say no.”
Another prominent Israeli added his voice in opposition on Saturday. Former Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Israel shouldn’t be the one "taking on the entire Arab and Muslim world when it was clear Israel would be blamed the day after." Peretz's remarks however run counter to documents revealed by Wikileaks over the past year which quoted several Arab and Gulf leaders saying they would welcome an Israeli or American strike on Iran, which the Arabs see as a mortal threat.
Other protests in Israel have taken a more artistic approach. In early March, three Tel Aviv artists mounted an exhibition called “Iran,” featuring a fake missile pointed at the nearby U.S. Embassy, a statue of Barak titled “the most dangerous man in the world 2012” and short films. Hundreds attended its opening night.
At Haifa University, the head of the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies started a Persian-language news portal from Israel, called TeHTel, to show a Tehran-Tel Aviv bond.
Launched March 4, the site drew 22,000 visitors in its first two weeks, including several thousand directly from Iran. TeHTel offers personal essays from Israelis, musings on hamburgers and holidays, and translated news from Hebrew news sites and blogs on the country’s social and economic reality. An anonymous donor underwrote the project, and paid staff to maintain it, including Iranian-Israeli translators.
“There’s interest, people are reading it, there are talkbacks, people write and reply to each other,” said Soli Shahvar, the site’s creator. “We want to come and stop this twisting of reality that (the Iranian) government does to Israel as a people that wants to rule the world, as Zionists who are killing Palestinians.”
The hunger to connect has reached the government as well. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Yigal Palmor said that the office staff will learn about Iran next week, with a slide show, tastes of Persian food and lectures on Iranian religion and culture.
Palmor said it will be a day off from politics, and more like other enrichment lectures on American literature and French wine.
Despite the current animosity, Iran is “still an important country in the region with which we have had good relations in the past and with which we aspire to have good relations in the future,” Palmor said.
This is not the first time the Internet has bridged a gap between hostile countries in the region. Israelis and Lebanese commented on each other’s blogs throughout the Israel-Lebanon war in 2006. A Gazan from a refugee camp and an Israeli from a border town co-hosted a blog during Israel’s military offensive in Gaza in 2008.
But Iran is different.
Javedanfar, an Iranian-Israeli, said this movement may be fueled in part by a large successful community of Israelis with Iranian roots that is “out and proud with its Persian identity.”
Some 250,000 Israelis, out of a population of 7.8 million, are of Iranian descent. They include former army chief Shaul Mofaz and singer Rita, who has put out a Farsi album.
The success of the Oscar-winning film “A Separation” has helped humanize Iranians, in contrast to “the petrifying picture of Iran which Iranian politicians have managed to produce,” Javedanfar said.
Pliskin, 29, is among the Israelis who wanted to reach out with anti-war posters for Iran. The Israel-Loves-Iran page garnered 34,000 “likes” within a week.
One shows a couple kissing. The young man holds up his Israeli passport, right beside his purported girlfriend’s Iranian passport. “I love my Persian girlfriend,” the caption reads.
“Persian cats, we will never bomb your country!” reads one Israeli poster showing a cute cat.
Other posters claimed to show Iranian affection for Israel, but their origins could not be pinned down. One said, “Israelian [sic] friends, I wish we both get rid of our idiot politicians anyway, nice to see you!”
Pliskin called the connection with the targeted country “exciting.”
“I was moved by everything that’s going on,” she said, “And that I was able to be a part of it so easily.”