This Purim, I'm Lifting a Glass to Iran

This year, on Purim, I'm toasting the victory that comes when people have the courage to cross a room, armed only with open hearts, and turn mortal conflict into conversation.

It's the dead of winter here in more ways than one. But on Monday, in this pocket of the foothills that rise and stumble and climb finally toward Jerusalem, we got a ray of light at four minutes after four in the morning. Ten time zones from here, an Iranian film director was telling the world, telling us, something we needed to hear.

"At this time, many Iranians all over the world are watching us and I imagine them to be very happy," began Asghar Farhadi, accepting his Oscar for "A Separation."

Asghar Farhadi - Reuters - 02032012
Asghar FarhadiReuters

These days, when I think about Iran, the thoughts all too often run to threats - theirs and ours. It's an achingly fitting complement to the Jewish carnival holiday of Purim, which began in Iran's ancient forerunner of Persia. This is the festival whose revelry masks a subtext of human extermination, genocide ordered by Persia's leader against the Jews, "young and old, little children and women" (Book of Esther, 3:13 ), followed by mass murder carried out by Jews against 75,000 Persians (Esther, 9 ).

In any case, as an Israeli, and American-born, I'd been hoping that "Footnote" - the grand, peculiar work of genius by an American-born Israeli - would win the Best Foreign Language Film award. But as I listened to Farhadi's halting, powerful words, there seemed to be a larger design in play.

"They are happy not just because of an important award or a film or a filmmaker," he continued, speaking of young and old, little children and women, whom we here long ago stopped being able to see as just people. "But because at a time when talk of war, intimidation and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their country, Iran, is spoken here through her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics."

He was speaking about nearly 80 million people who are not at war with us. He was speaking about millions and millions of people who are not Iran's supreme religious leader Ali Khamenei, not President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, not Revolutionary Guards, not nuclear weapons developers, not rocket guidance experts.

And he was also speaking about us. The world has little patience for either of us, little trust, very little love, neither for the Iranians in their country nor the Israelis in theirs. A year ago, a BBC poll conducted in 27 nations ranked Israel as one of the most negatively viewed countries in the world. Israel shared the bottom of the list with Iran, North Korea and Pakistan.

We, the Iranians and the Israelis, are built of memory, much of it bitter. We know isolation as few others do. We have little trust in the world, little reason to put our faith in our neighbors. In every home, even children can put names to the cost of war. Fitting for next week's holiday of masquerade, our public face, what you see from the outside, is a lie.

The Foreign Language Film Oscar headline in mass daily Yedioth Ahronoth - "THE WORLD IS AGAINST US" - was only partly tongue-in-cheek. In Iran, where officials were said to have been merciless in placing obstacles in the path of Farhadi's film, the head of the state Cinematic Agency responded to the Oscar win by announcing that it spelled the "beginning of the collapse" of Israeli influence in the United States, which he said "beats the drum of war."

"I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, a people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment," said Farhadi. The people of Iran do not want a war. In the 1980s they fought a war without victory with Iraq - a terrible conflict that left half a million dead. Nor do the people of Israel want a war. They want the 200,000 rockets that Iran's allies have stored on our borders to stay in their bunkers.

We're a lot alike. If it comes to war, we will not allow the other side to win. Neither of us. Whatever it takes. If it comes to war, both sides can only lose.

Lately, there are those among my people, American Jews, who would have us believe that lobbying for war with Iran is the truest test of loyalty to Israel. So there is something fitting in the fact that next week, just before Purim, the grand carnival of American Jewry, the annual conference of AIPAC, will be held in Washington. AIPAC's "legislative centerpiece," the Forward newspaper reported, will be a tough, proposed Senate resolution that opponents see "as moving America too close to a declaration of war."

When the directors and actors of the Iranian and Israeli films met in Hollywood this week and were able to speak privately, "all the ra'alot fell away," "Footnote" star Lior Ashkenazi said, using a word that can refer to masks, veils or hoods. "They are warm-hearted people. We invited them to Tel Aviv and they invited us to Tehran."

I'm determined that this Purim will be different. No more "Iranians are Amalek, Haman the Wicked, Hitler." This year, on Purim, I'm toasting the victory that comes when people have the courage to cross a room, armed only with open hearts, and turn mortal conflict into conversation.

This year, on Purim, I'm lifting my glass to an entirely new meaning to the Borscht Belt-to-Broadway comedian Alan King's capsule summary of every Jewish holiday: "They tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat." This year, on Purim, I'm raising a glass to the people of Iran.