While Israelis from left to right lamented the Iran nuclear deal signed in mid-July, Ronny Edry, a 44-year-old graphic designer in Tel Aviv, took the opportunity to speak directly to Iranians. “We’re coming for Shabbat!!” he wrote on his Facebook page, Israel-Loves-Iran.
Three years ago, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened a military strike on Iran to deter the Islamic Republic’s accelerating nuclear program, Edry posted a message on his personal Facebook page: “Iranians/ we will never bomb your country/ We <3 You.” The words were superimposed on a picture of Edry and his young daughter, who was waving an Israeli flag.
Hours later, the photograph was already shared hundreds of times, and within days Edry had appeared in most major American news outlets to talk about the Israel-Loves-Iran Facebook page, which now has more than 121,000 “likes.” To his surprise, Iranians responded in kind. Majid Nowrouzi, an Iranian landscape architect, created the page Iran-Loves-Israel. His page has been liked more than 33,000 times.
“Many Iranians can’t hit the ‘like’ button on my page, as it’s too dangerous for them,” Nowrouzi said. “But they message me and say how happy they are with the page.”
Fast-forward to today, and Edry has found himself in the minority of Israelis celebrating the deal that his prime minister has vociferously denounced as a historic mistake that will pave the way for Iran to acquire a nuclear bomb.
“To me it is a good deal,” Edry said. “It is a way to keep on looking at what the Iranians are doing, and to lift the sanctions on the people of Iran.”
A week after the deal was announced, Edry sat in front of a home computer with his 8-year-old daughter, Ela, from the original Israel-Loves-Iran photo. He was giving her a Photoshop tutorial, manipulating her picture to look like a green-skinned character from the animated film “Shrek.”
Taking a break from the lesson, Edry said he saw the deal as “political games,” and that the real change would come if and when Iran’s sanctions are lifted, allowing foreign business to rush in.
He was tickled by the news that McDonald’s had created a franchise application for Iranian entrepreneurs, though the fast-food chain could be many years away from making its Islamic Republic debut.
“What is the thing that is really going to change the minds of the people in Iran?” he said. “The ayatollah’s statements, the burning [of Israeli and American] flags or having Coca-Cola and McDonald’s?”
Reached via Facebook, Nowrouzi said that the deal will “relieve pressure” on the Iranians by lifting sanctions. He believes that most Iranians oppose the government and that the agreement is “better than a war.”
“We, the Persians, have a saying, ‘Fever is better than death,’ and I’m hearing that every time I talk to Iranians in Iran,” he said.
Nowrouzi, 37, said that he was maligned in the Iranian media for his Facebook page and that he felt too intimidated to return to Iran from Malaysia, where he was studying. He has since moved to Los Angeles with his wife and their two children. The first two years were very difficult to make ends meet, he worked as a deliveryman while his wife scooped ice cream. Now they are both hoping to complete doctoral work begun at Malaysian universities.
In 2013, Edry and Nowrouzi met in St. Louis and spent a few days together at a guesthouse.
“It was strange,” Nowrouzi said. “I was meeting my enemy… it took us a little bit to feel comfortable.”
But their children began to play right away. Nowrouzi’s daughter played the piano while Edry’s daughter danced.
“Why?” he said. “They had not been taught how to hate.”
In the three years since Edry launched Israel-Loves-Iran he has expanded the concept into the Sandbox, an English-language Web portal showcasing the stories of everyday people across the Middle East. Each profile contains a link to the participant’s Facebook page so that readers can “friend” someone new from the Middle East. The goal, Edry said, is to foster personal connections between people in enemy states.
“From the first connection, you get to know what it is to be on the other side,” he said. “And you get to understand that we are not that different. It is so obvious when you think about it.”
The Sandbox has highlighted some unusual stories, including that of a Jewish Likud supporter in Iran. According to Edry, Iranians are eager to participate in the Israeli-run project. Since the enmity between the two peoples is a more recent phenomenon, he said, it’s easier to break through. It’s more difficult to find Lebanese participants, for instance, given Israel’s on-again,off-again war against Hezbollah and the resulting high Lebanese civilian death toll.
The Sandbox also features plenty of Israelis who want to reach across the aisle.
“It’s not like I’m the only crazy person,” Edry said.
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.