At a Bar in Tel Aviv, Israelis Root for Iran

The World Cup gave one group of Israelis a chance to show love for their Persian roots.

old cup
Moti Milrod

The last great era of Israeli-Iranian friendship might have ended with the fall of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, but from the mood at one of Wednesday night's World Cup watch parties, you wouldn't have known it had been decades since the two peoples last hung out.

At Gilda, an upscale bar on Tel Aviv’s central Ahad Ha’am Street, about two dozen Israelis came to watch Iran take on Bosnia-Herzegovina for Iran’s last match of the 2014 World Cup. In the spirit of bridging boundaries – and, for some, supporting the nation they or their relatives had come from – they cheered for the team some Israelis might have been eager to oppose: the Iranians.

The festivities featured everything you might expect from a soccer match watch-party doubling as a Persian peace overture: beer (Israeli), snacks (Iranian staples like sugar-coated almonds and pistachio cakes), and a few rousing choruses of “Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole,” with “Iran” subbing in for those “Oles.” Tiny Iranian flags in rich green, white and red – improbably inscribed with the Hebrew name of their manufacturer – dotted the bar.

The unusual show of support and sportsmanship is just one of many ways that PeaceFactory, an Israeli nonprofit dedicated to using communication to bring Israelis closer to people all across the Middle East, hoped to foster communication and respect between Israelis and Iranians.

Ronny Edry, one of PeaceFactory’s cofounders, said that the event was part of Israel-Loves-Iran, an effort started two years ago to show Israelis and Iranians each other’s humanity. “This is just another way to bring people together,” he said.

From the cheers and fist-bumps that erupted when Iran scored its first goal of the game (and of the tournament), it seemed like the event had realized his vision.

When asked about who he thought would win the match, however, Edry shrugged.

(Photo by Moti Mirod)

“I have no clue about soccer,” he confessed with a sheepish grin. The jersey he wore certainly spoke to his sincerity on that point: For the night’s soccer game, Edry sported the orange number 35 of Oklahoma Thunder basketball star Kevin Durant.

For most other attendees, passion for peace went hand-in-hand with passion for soccer.

“I really want Iran to win tonight,” said Iran-born Israeli political analyst Meir Javedanfar. “And when we all come out as Israelis to support Iran in a game like this, we show Iranians and Israelis that despite what our leaders say, we’re friends.”

Israelis backed Team Melli’s captain, Javad Nekounam, with the joyous enthusiasm their ancient predecessors might have voiced for Cyrus after he backed the restoration of the Temple. Only one person in attendance identified as a Bosnia fan, albeit a conflicted one.

“I went there once,” Shaina Hirsch offered, by way of explanation. “It’s a beautiful country. I’m torn. I’m still here to show my support for Iran’s players.”

By the time the clock ran out, Bosnia had trounced Iran 3-1. Nevertheless, everyone rose to their feet and applauded.

(Photo by Moti Mirod)

Two men lingered at their bar stools as everyone else filed out. One, who had turned an Iranian flag into a flowing cape, traded commentary with another in a kippa who had done the same with an Israeli one. From behind, flag-capes hanging down their backs, the two looked like national superheroes kicking back for a drink after a hard day’s fight.

The Israeli celebration of Iran’s soccer team comes a week after the Iranians garnered unprecedented support back home for their remarkable performance against Argentina. In their second game, Iran’s players held one of the world’s best teams to a scoreless draw for 90 suspenseful minutes, only to lose in extra time.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani embraced his team on Twitter: “Well played to our Persian Cheetahs! It might not be the result you deserved but great effort & heads held high!” he tweeted.

Iran opened its World Cup campaign with a 0-0 tie against Nigeria that many dubbed the “dullest game” of the World Cup. After that match, Rohani tweeted a pseudo-selfie in which he appeared in his team’s jersey, hair and arms exposed, watching the game with only a drink and a box of tissues for company.