One year ago, Ronny Edry, a 42-year-old graphic designer from Tel Aviv, posted an image of himself and his daughter on the social networking site Facebook, waving an Israeli flag and declaring “Iranians, we will never bomb your country. We love you!”
To Ronny’s surprise, the post became an online sensation. Thousands of other Facebook users shared the post, creating an online community, “Israel Loves Iran,” and inspiring dozens of others -- including Iranian Majid Nowrouzi, 34, who launched a companion site, “Iran Loves Israel.”
Ronny and Majid never expected to meet. Then Majid, who is visiting the United States with his family, learned that Ronny would also be in the U.S. to accept the Visionary of the Year Award from the Euphrates Institute, a URI Cooperation Circle. Majid asked Euphrates if it could arrange for the two to get together. The two peace activists, who had previously only met for “virtual coffee,” were finally able to sit down together in the physical world.
“What these two are doing is blazing a new trail for civic engagement,” said URI Global Council Trustee and Vice President of the Euphrates Institute Board of Trustees Rebecca Tobias, who presented Ronny with the award March 29 at Principia College in Elsah, Illinois. “As soon as they opened the door, thousands of other people were waiting to walk through along with them -- not only in Israel and Iran, but in many other countries and conflict zones. They have shown that peer-to-peer diplomacy holds great promise for our future.”
On March 28, the two met with Rebecca, and agreed to talk about peace, love, coffee – and the beginnings of a beautiful friendship.
Ronny, what inspired your decision to post the “Israel Loves Iran” message?
Ronny: It was the idea that war was coming, and I wanted to do something (to stop it). I’ve been a soldier, so I know how (war) looks, and to me, this was unacceptable. Especially with Iran – we don’t have any issues with them! We don’t even know them.
I felt I had to say something, to create a “message in a bottle.” I never had a dream of getting a response, especially from Iran.
Why did you say “We love you” in your message, rather than “We tolerate” or “We respect” you?
Ronny: Because I wanted to send a clear message. I wanted to go all the way in, to say ‘We love you as human beings. We love you as people, and we wish that you love us back.”
I’ve never been criticized for that sentence, but I have been criticized – so many times – for the sentence “We will never bomb your country.” But I wanted to make it clear, as an Israeli, that I would never bomb a country. I don’t want a war, and I wanted people to hear that Israelis don’t want a war.
Majid, how did you first discover the campaign? And what was your reaction?
Majid: My wife and I, we are always worried about a coming war between Iran and Israel. So we are always checking the media for some news – will it be today or tomorrow that Israelis are coming with the bomb? One day we checked our local media and found that not only was there no bad news from Israel, but that somebody was sending love from Israel.
I was shocked. I told my wife, “There is a love message from Israel!” My wife said, “Are you kidding?” And I said no, that there really was a message of love from Israel. And every action must have a reaction, so we had to respond to a message of love with an equal message of love.
As Iranians, we have had a very bad experience with war. For eight years we had war between Iran and Iraq. We lost four million people on both sides. So I can’t see any good results from war. And for many years in Iran we have tried hatred, to hate other countries, with no results. It’s just a dead end. I told myself: for 35 years, we have tried to hate. This is the time to love.
You know, I thought that Israelis must be bad people. That was always my view of Israelis: that they have guns, that they are angry men who want to kill. But yesterday I met Ronnie face-to-face, and I felt: oh, so he is Israeli. But he is nice.
Ronny: No guns.
Majid: (laughs): No gun, and no mustache. But he is addicted to coffee.
In the Middle East, everything is crazy. Today we worry about war with Iraq. Tomorrow we worry about war with Israel. The day after tomorrow, it may be Syria. We are really sick of war! That’s been the history of the Middle East for ages -- war, bloodshed and nothing else. So I think we have to try love.
At what point did you realize that this social media campaign had become a movement?
Ronny: I think it was when people started to send me pictures. During that first week – a few days after I received the first pictures from Iran – it started becoming kind of a bridge, with people on both sides sending messages of love.
Now we have a community of hundreds of pages, all over the Internet with the same logo: “Israel Loves Palestine,” Palestine Loves Israel,” pages from Lebanon, Turkey, Syria, France. We call it the “We Love You Community.” I don’t know how it happened; it just happened.
What has this experience shown you about the ability of an individual to create change?
Ronny: I think as people, we have a duty to say something. To try. We can’t wait for our governments to make decisions. We have to stand for what we want.
Your President Obama was in Israel last week, and he said it clearly: if you want peace you, the people, have to push for it, so your leaders will get the idea. That’s basically what we’ve been doing for one year.
Majid: I think, this is not the power of Majid or Ronny, but the power of love. We are bombarding each other with love.
Majid, launching your campaign has put your life in danger. Why take this extraordinary, brave step?
Majid: When I was seven years old, I lost my best friend, my classmate, in the Iran-Iraq war. So I’ve always hated war, always been looking for something for peace. I also believe the majority of Iranians don’t want to be in a war without any reason.
At first, I didn’t want to show my face. I’ve done lots of interviews: with the New York Times, with newspapers in Israel, Canada, Argentina. I identified myself as “Majid, 34, father of two.” But because I didn’t show my face, some Iranians began saying that “Majid is fake. He’s really an Israeli who speaks Persian.” So I decided to reveal my face.
There are some days when I tell my wife that if I could go back in time, I would never have started this. But really, I’m so happy that I did. A year ago, (Iran and Israel) didn’t have any information about each other. What the government told us, we believed. We believed that Israel was coming to kill us. And now… Just a few days ago, we received from Israel the message that some Israelis had made a Haft Sheen table out of respect for the Persian New Year. That’s amazing.
How have these campaigns affected your families?
Ronny: My wife and I are both graphic designers, so for us this was natural. It’s just what we do.
Majid: In Iran, when you talk about Jews or Israelis, people don’t feel comfortable. And when you ask them why, they don’t know. It’s trouble without reason. But I’ve found that my (eight-year-old) daughter doesn’t know anything about hatred. She won’t be like me, or like many Iranians. That’s what I like to imagine for the future of the Middle East, a place that has physical borders but no borders in people’s minds.
Is there currently any dialogue or cultural exchange taking place between Iran and Israel?
Ronny: In Israel, you can’t even pick up the phone and dial Iran. What we have are two countries in which everybody is afraid. In Israel, we are waiting for the bomb to come, waiting for (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad to attack. People are buying gas masks, getting their shelters in order. So we’ve really created the first bridge (between the two nations). With the power social media gives us, we have become our own ambassadors
Majid: Our countries are next to each other. We shouldn’t have to fly for 20 hours and come to the U.S. in order to meet each other. I hope that someday I can go to Israel to celebrate our new year – not with a nuclear weapon, but with Persian food and culture.
What has been the biggest surprise upon meeting each other?
Ronny: We could have not liked each other – after all, we only knew each other on Facebook. But we’ve begun a real friendship.
Majid: I’ve found Ronny amazing. I hope the next time we see each other, we have more time, and can talk not just about peace, but about lots of things.
To hear Ronny and Majid discuss their work – and friendship – on the air, listen to this interview with St. Louis public radio.