Time for Israelis and Iranians to Rediscover Their Similarities

I was surprised by the cultural similarities between my Iranian family roots and Israel, common ground that could propel the peoples of both countries, if not their governments, toward building positive ties between them.

Abrisham Eshghi
Abrisham Eshghi
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Abrisham Eshghi
Abrisham Eshghi

I was surprised by the cultural similarities between my Iranian family roots and Israel, common ground that could propel the peoples of both countries, if not their governments, toward building positive ties.

Perhaps it was the banter I overheard between Iranian carpet vendors in Jaffa, whose Persian accents had become distorted from years of speaking Hebrew. Possibly, it was when I stumbled across tourists of Iranian heritage discussing with an Israeli merchant - in an amusing Farsi-Hebrew hybrid - food terminology shared by each of their languages. At some point, though, the distinct delineation I anticipated between Iranian and Israeli cultures blurred.

Born and raised in Canada to Iranian parents, I never considered that my move to Israel would evoke a sense of cultural familiarity. Rather, I expected the customs of my upbringing to contrast sharply with those of Israelis.

Among the surfeit of headlines pitting Iran and Israel against one another, you won’t find many detailing the similarities between the two countries. Both Iran and Israel are non-Arab enclaves at the core of the Arab Orient that are accused by surrounding nations of usurping and occupying their lands. Their predominant religions - Shi'ite Islam and Judaism, respectively - further distinguish them from the surrounding sea of mainly Sunni-majority countries.

The commonalities of the two nations go far beyond those that arise when juxtaposing them with their neighbors.

Over the spring equinox, Iranians celebrate their new year, known as Nowruz. The Jewish springtime holiday of Purim, commemorating the deliverance of the Jewish people in the ancient Persian Empire from destruction, with the aid of the Persian King Xerxes (Ahasuerus), is popularly believed to have been adopted from Nowruz, a view which some historians share. Similarly, the Jewish holiday of Lag Ba'Omer, when Israel is peppered with celebratory bonfires, is mirrored by Iran's Chahārshanbe Suri, or Festival of Fire - the "day" commences at sunset in both Persian culture and in Judaism during these holidays. And while spring-cleaning is a custom in many cultures, the Iranians’ khooneh takouni, carried out in preparation for Nowruz, is matched with the traditional Jewish practice of cleaning one's home for Passover. The Seder plate that is displayed during the Passover seder traditionally holds six food items, each of which has a specific symbolic value in the context of the holiday meal. The Haft Sīn, displayed during Nowruz, is a table setting containing seven representative items, not all of them food, whose names begin with the letter sīn, or "s."

Israeli and Iranian cuisines share similarities that go beyond the typical common denominators of Middle Eastern diets. Both nations adore nana, or spearmint tea, and pickle any socially-acceptable food item. Jewish traders from Persia brought rice, an indispensable grain in Persian cuisine, to ancient Israel at the time of the Second Temple and from there it spread throughout other Middle Eastern countries. I was delighted to discover that "Israeli salad," that local staple of finely chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley and onions, dressed in olive oil and lemon juice, is the exact same Salad Shirazi I find in the refrigerator of any Iranian relative.

It appears to me that both Israelis and Iranians identify with collective personality traits that are unique to each country, perhaps as a reaction to the perception of being threatened by surrounding enemies as well as a desire to distinguish themselves from their neighbors. Both the brusque Israeli frankness, known as dugri ("direct" in Arabic) and the Iranian social principle of taarof, a complex form of ritual politeness, perplex foreigners and are often interpreted, respectively, as rudeness and insincerity.

With the exception of the Israeli Interior Ministry, the vast majority of reactions in Israel to my Iranian heritage have been characterized by an amiable inquisitiveness. The recent victory of the moderate candidate Hassan Rohani in Iran's presidential election has the world, but particularly Israelis, curious about the desires and values of an enigmatic population that is gradually becoming more transparent. For the first time in a long time, the Iranian voice is not being stifled by its oppressive regime.

Even among the generally ominous headlines, one can occasionally spot mutual curiosity between Iranians and Israelis. The notable success in the past year of the first two Persian-language novels to be translated into Hebrew ("My Uncle Napoleon" by Iraj Pezeshkzad and Mahmoud Dowlatabadi's "The Decline of the Colonel"), according to Prof. Haggai Ramat of Ben-Gurion University "is due to a long-standing Israeli fascination with Iran … the similarities between the two countries are what capture Israelis' attention."

The rising popularity in both countries of the Iranian-born Israeli singer Rita Yahan-Farouz, known in Israel by her first name alone, highlights shared musical tastes. Rita is often described as a cultural ambassador who hopes to “puncture the wall of tension between the countries.”

And the rousing success of the Israel Loves Iran social media campaign, the brainchild of Israeli graphic designer Ronny Edry, became a catalyst for discourse between ordinary citizens of the two nations when it was received with not only a flood of affection in over a dozen languages from numerous countries, but also a reciprocal Iran Loves Israel campaign. Along the same vein, Prof. Soli Shahvar of Haifa University created a website in Farsi last year to expose Iranians to more realistic expressions of Israeli society and culture “without the deviant vision pushed at them for 32 years by the Islamic Republic."

The immense outpouring of correspondence from Iran in reaction to both Edry and Shahvar's undertakings is astounding from a country where freedom of speech exists only as an ideal and not a reality; where even the slightest dissidents to the regime can be detained without reason. Recently, a young Iranian journalist under the alias of Nima Dinti voiced what he believes to be the sentiments of the silenced citizens in his country when he wrote "I am eager to establish relations between Iran and Israel. I am eager for talk. I am eager for peace. I am eager to avoid war. If we are destined not to be friends, it’s alright, if we’re not enemies."

The analogous values between the Persian and Jewish peoples have given rise to many instances of solidarity throughout history. Yet the rise of the extremist regime of the ayatollahs in 1979 set the seal on an era of tension, at government level, between Iran and Israel. As a bystander, simply a guest making observations between cultures, I hope that despite the current fearmongering and terrorization, the citizens of these two nations can grasp that their differences are dwarfed by the rich narrative of their similitudes.

Abby Eshghi is a recent graduate in psychology from Canada's McGill University, in Israel on a five-month internship.

An Iranian woman flashes a victory sign, celebrating Iran's qualification for the Brazil 2014 World CupCredit: AP
An image from a poster on the 'Israel Loves Iran' Facebook page.Credit: Pushpin Mehina

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