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Giving peace an online chance

Social media has become the favourite haunt for trolls who use the medium as a kangaroo court to hunt down, provoke and bully their victims. But hatred aside, there is hope, as one Tel Aviv couple is using Facebook to spread love, says Marco Brown.

While diplomatic tensions between Israel and Iran continue to escalate, thanks to the tireless efforts of one Tel Aviv couple there may well be a glimmer of hope in the darkness.

One photo was particularly powerful, showing a couple kissing while holding up their passports to the camera – the man’s passport is Israeli, and the woman’s Iranian

Last March, Ronny Edry, 41, and Michal Tamir, 35, both graphic designers who graduated from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, launched a project that aims to promote understanding through love and communication and to share hope for a world without war. Soon after the launch, their message went viral on Facebook.

It all began when Edry, who says he regularly shares his poster designs on Facebook, posted an image of himself holding his five-year-old daughter on the design school Push­pin Mehina Facebook page. The ac­­com­­­pany­­ing caption simply read: “Iranians. We will never bomb you. We love you.” Unwittingly, with that one simple gesture, Edry had kickstarted an enormous global anti-war campaign.

Edry, who describes himself as, “a father, a teacher and not an official representative of my country”, could never have predicted the reverberations his simple gesture would cause within the online community and beyond. He had originally designed the poster as an honest father’s reaction to the growing tensions between Israel and Iran.

It was not long before fellow Facebook users all over the world started relating to this heartfelt message. First, Israeli Facebook users designed their own posters with messages of peace and love and posted them. Within a couple of days, ordinary Iranian citizens followed suit.

Within 48 hours of posting his first poster, Edry was receiving countless messages from more and more Iranians, many of whom expressed particular personal gratitude for his efforts to promote communication. Further messages of “We Love You Too” were posted on Edry’s wall.

Since Facebook, like other international social networks, is banned by the Iranian regime, the first posters and messages were sent and posted anonymously. Yet soon enough, further expressions of love and respect from the ‘other side’ started to flood in.

The Iranian regime has established stringent internet filters to block foreign social networks and other websites such as Youtube. But many Iranians circumvent this barrier by using anti-filter software or proxy servers abroad.

One of the first of such respondents was a woman wearing sunglasses, who wrote, “My Israeli friends. I don’t hate you. I don’t want war.” Other respondents followed suit with, “Your words are reaching us despite the censorship. We love you.”

More and more Iranians were starting to courageously show their real faces and their real names, including a posting last month of an Iranian army official. Edry contacted the sender at once to check that there would be no negative repercussions for the Iranian in question. The latter bravely told him he wanted his photo to be shown on the page – however, for security reasons, his name was taken off the image.

The Iranian regime didn’t sit back. In effect, there has been a recent crackdown by Iranian police, with several incidents of police infraction and theft of laptops. Resistance remains high in spite of this.

In an early Youtube broadcast to promote the initiative – which has since clocked up more than 700,000 views – Edry says he had never met an Iranian before starting the campaign apart from “one cool guy” he had once seen in a museum in Paris. Quite naturally, he assumed the same would apply to most Israelis and even more so, to most Iranians, as there have not been any real communication between the two countries for three decades.

Thanks to Edry’s initiative, new doors of communication have been opened. One Israeli woman expressed her delight at having had a two-hour chat with another graphic design student from Teheran, whom she befriended thanks to Edry’s initiative.

Over 4,000 new Facebook friends contacted Edry on his personal Facebook page, meaning that a new space would have to be found to cater for the needs of those who wanted to be in touch with each other, giving birth to the new Israel Loves Iran page and, in turn, the sister page Iran Loves Israel, which is run by Iranian administrators. There seems to be a shared universal feeling of brotherhood among the posting on these pages.

On the first posters, members of this rapidly growing cyber community were sending messages which expressed confirmations of love and respect and a real desire to get to know the people on the ‘other side’.

One of the messages from an Iranian said, “Hi. Just read some posts on your page. Your words are awesome, but I think you know how our life is here in Iran. You are free in your country but we are not here. We cannot say we are friends with anyone in Israel because it is dangerous. War is between governments. I wish a world free from war and hope we will be good friends.”

The initiative soon found endorsement from around the world. Photos and posters from like-minded people from all over the world, including Malta, began flooding in: people who were seemingly secular representative of every sex, age and ethnicity; people having a coffee together; images of mothers and fathers holding their babies or playing with their children; couples sunbathing or hiking; children painting pictures; gay pride partners exchanging a kiss; and teenagers doing their weekend shopping at the mall or simply posing with their dog.

Iranians started responding to this show of international support and solidarity with their own graphic designs – they started posting similar images as well as cultural and historical images of monuments and events depicting scenes which bear witness to connections between the two peoples which date back over 2,500 years.

One photo was particularly powerful, showing a couple kissing while holding up their passports to the camera – the man’s passport is Israeli, and the woman’s Iranian.

The message was simple and clear and this one photo accumulated over 5,000 likes within hours. Just like Edry’s original poster, this particular photo has been shared over and over again on Facebook thousands of times.

Since then, administrators from other nations such as Lebanon, Canada, France and Italy have set up similar We Love You Facebook pages with the messages Ready to Live in Peace and We Don’t Want to See People Die in Your War going totally viral.

Edry has given some consideration to adding a fund-raising element to the campaign with a view to allocating a budget to buy advertising spots on global channels, a massive billboard spot on Times Square in addition to hoardings and posters at bus stops.

The campaign is now gaining ever increasing momentum, leaping out of the domains of the cyber world, with Edry giving countless interviews aired at home and abroad as well as international coverage on Al Jazeera, CNN and other major outlets.

International donations have been flooding in to support the promotional campaigns, including a recent $5,000 (€3,880) injection of funds from Guy Oseary, Madonna’s manager.

Since starting the campaign, scores of reporters and broadcasters have been visiting Edry at his small design studio at his home in Tel Aviv. One German journalist expressed his amazement at the fact that two million people had viewed the Israel Loves Iran page since its launch, yet he was completely lost for words when he was corrected by Edry, who informed him that the said number of people had visited in the previous two days only.

Hardly surprising then, that from the online sale of We Love You T-shirts, the campaigns quickly made headlines across the planet.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls Iran, “A common enemy of Israel and the US”, whereas Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, has called Israeli Prime Minister, “A skilled killer.”

The campaign initiated by the graphic designer couple is proof enough of what the ordinary citizens in the street think of each other and want from each other. This global voice is becoming stronger by the hour, transcending the confines of cyberspace and indeed those of the Middle East, as it takes on global proportions.

Edry’s prime motivation for wanting to enable communication between the peoples of Israel and Iran is simple – he wants to ensure that there is really no need for ordinary people to be attacked, to be drafted into the army, to scurry for shelter in the hope that they will not be bombed.

“I want to make sure that we are talking to them and understanding each other. I discovered that Iranians are not the enemy. The ones I’m talking to are really good people,” he says.

Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, there has been barely any communication between the two countries, and even today, it is impossible to pick up a landline connection to Iran from Israel.

Sharzad Hosseini, an Iranian expatriate now living in Germany, personally congratulated Edry and his wife for their dedicated commitment to the cause. Hosseini had to flee her native Iran amidst the bombardments during the Iran-Iraq war. Having had this first-hand experience of war, she is naturally disconcerted and preoccupied at the prospect of any further conflict in the country.

“It is great that Israelis have started this action. Finally there is a possibility to communicate with each other and the Israelis are getting to know us. That has been missing for the past 30 years.”

Edry is convinced that the time is ripe to negotiate real and long lasting peace with all people in the region, who have grown up in the shadow of a constant threat of war. Although he has been branded ‘naïve’ and ‘counterproductive’ by some, Edry maintains that it is important to talk to the ‘other side’, as opposed to simply threatening them.

“You have to make sure you do everything in your power. Otherwise you are escalating the rhetoric of war. It’s a vicious circle,” he says.

With socio-economic grievances plaguing Israel and a disgruntled middle class feeling the pinch, Edry, as a humanist without any particular political affiliation, accuses the Government of using the Iran conflict as a means of turning the people’s attention to other focal positions.

Edry created his posters first and foremost, without the slightest inclination towards any political feelings, simply ex­pressing the concerns of a father.

“In a war, you are not left or right – you’re just a soldier,” he says.

Now that Iran seems to have returned to the top of the political agenda, Edry remains sceptical. He is convinced that the politicians’ motives are a way to, “win the people over, with the threat of war, pushing the people into a box of fear”.

Edry’s concerns have been warmly received by Iranians. One respondent from Teheran agreed that “we want to spread our voices as people of Iran, that we respect all people with different beliefs and we want peace as much as you do. It is just some stupid political game between the governments, not the people.”

Another resident of Shiraz wrote, “We are two civilisations with more than 2,500 years of friendship. We are not afraid of war but we will not fight against brethren from Israel because brothers and sisters do not fight against each other. If our governments think we will fight against each other they should continue dreaming. The hatred was invented by the propaganda of the regime, which will die soon.”

Edry’s attention is not just focused on the Iranian situation as he is determined to see an end to all conflicts with all of the surrounding neighbours in the Middle East. He feels confident that there will soon be tangible results as far as the Palestinian issue is concerned as well.

“Israelis and Palestinians on both sides know there are going to be two states. It is just a matter of time. Everybody knows that this is going to happen so let’s just make it happen.”

On September 6, Edry took part in the Ted X Conference, which was held at the Peres Centre for Peace in Jaffa along with 14 other key speakers, philosophers and lecturers.

The conference revolved around the theory of the paradigm shift, with one focus in common – the ability to think outside of the box and having the possibility to come up with original and innovative ideas that might well change minds and attitudes towards the way we live today.

In addition to hitting international headlines, this Facebook campaign has fully evolved. A formal Nobel Peace Prize nomination petition has also been launched, calling for people to support Edry and his wife Michal as Nobel Prize nominees. An Australian Parliament group recently offered to submit the official nomination.

Edry and his wife are certainly honoured with this petition, as it would be a strong affirmation for all those seeking peace across the globe.

Roya Mobasheri, an Iranian expatriate now based in Germany, is the relentless driving force behind the petition. She believes governments are spreading hate and mistrust by talking about military attacks.

“The internet gives new chances for democracy and also for the international peace movement. People from Israel and Iran are coming together, connected and united for peace. We don’t want war.”

In the near future, there are plans for a large exhibition to be staged in Los Angeles, where all the posters that have been displayed in the Facebook campaign will be on show.

There certainly seem to be no limits to the capacity to expand the campaign and the global anti-war message which is literally growing by the hour.

In effect, it certainly appears that this ever growing exchange between people in Israel and Iran and now even much further afield, has brought about a genuine change in attitudes. This campaign might well prove that communication is the key to peace and may well turn out to be the key to real information.

For more information, visit www.facebook.com/israellovesiran and www.facebook.com/iranlovesisrael

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