What Do Israelis Really Wish for Iran’s President?

Ordinary Jerusalemites interviewed for an online film had a lot of words for Hassan Rohani. Most are even printable.

Imagine a man with a Dali-esque moustache roaming around the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, shoving a photo of Iranian President Hassan Rohani into the faces of passersby, and asking "Do you know this man?"

That is what Joseph Shamash did for his latest online shortumentary, "One Wish for Iran, Love Israel." Shamash, an Iranian Jew who lives in Los Angeles, asked Israelis and Palestinians to express one wish for Rohani, in the hope of “initiating direct dialogue between Israelis, Jews and Iranians.”

"One Wish for Iran, Love Israel" features a Tel Avivian wishing Rohani could “be more secular; then all the problems would be solved,” a Palestinian vendor wanting “good, religious people who will give people their proper rights” and a plucky redhead demanding peace “for your mother’s p#$%’s sake.”

Shamash, a native of Texas, says the film aims to humanize "the other" by highlighting how both Iranians and Israelis ride on subways, eat with family, and enjoy good cups of coffee, while telling the story of ordinary people on the street.

Harnessing the momentum of Rohani's election, Shamash says he released the short to coincide with new Iranian president’s inauguration in August, in order to encourage what he calls “coffee-cup diplomacy.” The timing coincided with the Jerusalem Film Festival, which honored Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf — another Iranian filmmaker using cinema as a tool to build bridges between Iran and the West.

Last year, Shamash and his team of American filmmaker friends Andrew Lustig and Jeff Handel launched another project in which they asked residents of East and West Jerusalem “What is your one wish?” Five beards, three hijabs, and one keffiyeh later, their efforts culminated in the subtitled micro-movie."

“I was initially inspired by Ali Molavi’s "One Wish' video, where he posed the same beautiful question to 50 people in Tehran,” Shamash told Haaretz. “From that we created a ‘One Wish Jerusalem.’ In efforts to explore my identity as a Persian-Jew from the U.S., ‘One Wish for Iran’ felt like a natural step.”

So how did an Iranian-American Jewish cowboy wind up creating these conflict resolution films in Jerusalem? After working in the entertainment industry since he was 19, Shamash, now 32, says he felt something missing in his life. He set off for Jerusalem seeking “immersion in Jewish text and practice” at the Pardes Institute.

But as an Iranian-Jew, he lamented the fact that he has dedicated years to nurturing only one side of his identity, barely scratching the surface of what it means to be Persian.

“For the first 30 years of my life I haven’t really dealt with my Persian Identity,” Shamash said. “Growing up in Texas and watching terrifying news on Iran, I felt far from connected to my Iranian roots. But as I got older, I began cooking [traditional dishes] khoresht and kookoo sabzi; I began reading Rumi and Hafez; I began studying Cyrus and his humanist religious policy. I began to see Iran’s rich culture and that’s definitely something I want to dig into.”

For Shamash, it’s the intersection of his rich backgrounds that really imbue hope for a brighter future. “In Jerusalem, another Persian Jew confused the turbaned picture of Hassan Rohani, with a headshot of the spiritual leader of Shas,” the filmmaker recounted. “It’s moments like those when you realize: if Iranians, Jews, and Israelis have so much in common, there must be a better way for us all to just get along.”

AP