What Do Iranians Think of Israel? Reporter for U.S. Jewish Paper Travels to the Source to Find Out

Larry Cohler-Esses, an editor at the Forward, is the first journalist from a Jewish, pro-Israel publication to be granted a journalist's visa to Iran since the 1979 revolution.

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A journalist for the The Forward who was granted a visa to Iran filed his first report from the Islamic Republic on Wednesday.

According to his report, Larry Cohler-Esses, assistant managing editor at The Forward, is the first journalist from a Jewish, pro-Israel publication to be granted such a visa since the 1979 revolution. His seven-day trip was the result of a two-year effort to secure the visa, which was bolstered by a letter written on his behalf by a prominent figure in Iran's Jewish community.

The New York Times suggested that the visa, which was granted on July 20, was part of an effort to influence U.S. Jews' opinion on the nuclear deal with Iran. But Cohler-Esses seemed less sure of this.    

Cohler-Esses had to work with a government fixer and translator, but was free to decide whom to interview and about what. Many of the questions he posed focused on Israel. His interviews with senior ayatollahs and prominent officials gave him the impression that there is "high-placed dissent to the official line against Israel." Several, he writes, adamantly insisted that they did not object to Israel's existence, but rather to its policies.

"What I have against Israel is its policies against humanitarian law,” Ayatollah Mostafa Mohaghegh Damad, whom Cohler-Esses identifies as a senior cleric with family ties to prominent Iranian political figures, is quoted as saying. “That’s it. Whenever it’s about international law, I stand up and raise my voice against that violation.”

Others who may have ideological objections to the Jewish state said they would accept a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, should the Palestinians approve of it.

Private Iranian citizens whom the journalist quotes in his report do not seem to have any interest in an attack on Israel.

“We have no enmity toward any countries,” Hassan Sha’aeri, a locksmith from Shiraz, told Cohler-Esses. “I think it’s impossible to destroy Israel.” If Iran attacked Israel, he said, “there will be huge destruction in return. It cannot happen. Every action has a reaction. Israel will not stay motionless, and the United States will not stay motionless.”

Ordinary Iranians, Cohler-Esses writes, are more interested in the issues going on in their own country, and do not seem afraid to criticize their government.

"In Iran today, freedom of the press remains a dream," Cohler-Esses writes. "But freedom of tongue has been set loose. I was repeatedly struck by the willingness of Iranians to offer sharp, even withering criticisms of their government on the record, readiness sometimes even to be filmed doing so."

This wasn't Cohler-Esses' first trip to Iran; he had lived there for almost two years in the late 1970s, just before the revolution, teaching English.