Common grounds

Israelis and Iranians hold an exaggerated and almost mythical view of each other


Common grounds
by Trita Parsi

Treacherous Alliance
The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States
, (Yale University Press).
by Trita Parsi

As similar as Israelis and Iranians are, recent Iranian immigrants to Israel experience difficulty in overcoming the cultural shock. The contrast between the traditional values of Iranian society and the liberal currents of Israeli society -- defined by the norms and culture of its European immigrants rather than by its Middle Eastern geography--could not be greater. I once had a conversation with an elderly Iranian Jew whom I sat next to during the bus ride from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. Ehsaq (Isaac), as he was called, spared no love for the clerics in Tehran, but he liked to reminisce about the country in which he had spent most of his life. After all, Israel was only the most recent chapter in his long life, and he had never really managed to make the Jewish State his home. He didn’t quite fit in. In typical Iranian fashion, Ehsaq felt compelled to share the bread he had brought with him for the hour-long bus ride with his fellow Ashkenazi passengers, scaring the daylights out of the more reserved European Jews, who could not quite determine if Ehsaq’s dark features made him an Oriental Jew (Mizrahi) or a local Arab. Embarrassed, Ehsaq returned to his seat. After a moment of silence, he burst out in Persian with a thick Isfahani accent, “Farhang nadaran” (They’re uncultured). This criticism against Israel is commonly heard among Iranian Jews.

Like most Russian Jews who immigrated to Israel after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Iranian Jews still prefer their own language over Hebrew and cling to their Iranian culture with great devotion. They celebrate the Nowruz with such fanfare that festivities in Los Angeles or Tehran would pale in comparison. “I am proud to be Jewish, I am proud to be an Israeli, but I have nothing in common with these people,” Ehsaq complained to me. “I don’t want my children to live like they do,” he said dismissively of the liberal ways of the European Jews. Misunderstandings between the two groups are not uncommon. Iranians tend to speak circumspectly, avoiding spelling out their intentions or objectives at all cost. With great finesse and redundant politeness, they deliver their message behind layers and layers of nuance and deliberately misleading compliments. Israelis are the opposite. It’s the clash between taarof and chutzpah

Taarof is an Iranian social principle, a concept of insincere politeness. For instance, Iranians invite each other to dinner not necessarily because they mean it, but to show politeness. The expectation is that the invited party will respond with equal politeness--by turning the invitation down. The impolite thing to do would be to accept the invitation on its first offering. An invitation should be considered sincere only if it has been offered roughly three times, after which, of course, it would be immensely rude to decline it. Vagueness, symbolism, and endless nuance are inherent in the Iranian culture and language. “Taarof is a sign of respect, even if we don’t mean it,” Nasser Hadian of Tehran University explained, in a statement Americans and Israelis would find blatantly contradictory. For Iranians, however, there is no contradiction. They understand taarof and why insincere politeness is still a sign of utter respect.

The Israelis have a different cultural trait, chutzpah, meaning “audacity” or “gall.” They tell a joke to explain the concept. A spoiled twelve-year-old boy argues with his parents, and in a moment of rage he kills them both. He is immediately caught and taken to jail to await trial. As he is brought into the courtroom he throws himself at the feet of the judge and cries out: “Have mercy with me! After all, I am just a poor orphan!” Unlike many Iranians, Israelis don’t tend to hide what they mean to say. They can’t help themselves but to be absolutely direct without a single redundant word or any effort to reflect the nuances that inevitably characterize all social situations--a trait that Iranians and Iranian Jews simply find crude and offensive. While an Iranian would go to great lengths to avoid using the word “no,” many Israelis thrive on categorical imperatives. Getting a nuanced answer from an Israeli can be as tricky as getting a straight answer from an Iranian. In the clash between taarof and chutzpah, no one wins. Only confusion reigns.

As much as they can find each other rude and impolite, or insincere and disingenuous, Israelis and Iranians also hold an exaggerated and almost mythical view of each other. The respect and awe the two rivals have for each other cannot be mistaken. “Iranians are perceived as masters of deception, and I think their mythical stature arises not solely because Israelis know Iranians and appreciate their abilities, but because they are so unlike Arabs,” an Israeli expert on Iran told me. “When we classify our enemies, Arabs are the hard heads who would operate along exactly the same guidelines forever and ever, because they’re Arabs. They are narrow-minded. Unsophisticated. Iranians are something that is much harder to characterize for Israelis because they are so much like us.”

Some Israelis point to the biblical story of Queen Esther as an indication of Iranian mastery of the art of manipulation. “In the Bible, Esther acts completely Persian,” explained Shmuel Bar of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and a veteran of the Israeli intelligence community. “She deceives, conceals her intentions, manipulates and convinces stronger parties to fight her battles.” According to the Shalem Center, Israelis today should learn from Esther’s manipulative “Iranian” instincts and employ it in their diplomacy. But the infatuation with Esther may reveal more about the Israelis themselves than about the Iranians. “We like to think of ourselves as master tricksters,” an Israeli expert on Iran commented. “Consider this: When you define someone as your worst enemy, you say a lot about yourself.” Ironically, in Europe, where the currents of anti-Semitism have been strong historically, the title “masters of deception” was given to the Jewish people--and not to the Iranians. Many Israelis are wary of the stereotypes they have of the Iranians, arguing they are exaggerated at best and misleading at worst. “These myths are created by the old Iran hands; let’s call them the ‘Lubranis’ [a reference to Uri Lubrani, the Israeli envoy to Iran in the 1970s who remains active on Iran affairs at the Ministry of Defense],” explained Ehud Yaari, a veteran Israeli television journalist. “I don’t buy the myth that the Iranians have seven thousand years of diplomacy under the turban of Rafsanjani.” But even Yaari could not deny the esteem Israelis have for the Iranian nation. “I miss Iran. A lot,” he told me while reminiscing about the “good old days” before the revolution, when intelligence cooperation between the two countries was extensive and Israeli tourists flocked to visit Iran--the only Middle Eastern country where Israelis were welcome at the time.

Iranians, on the other hand, refuse to express open admiration for the abilities of the Israelis and try to hide their concerns and fears behind inflammable rhetoric and ideological façades. Iranians angrily dismiss any suggestion that Israel is a rival with Iran for a leadership position in the region. How can that be, they ask with unmasked irritation? With all the problems Iran has with the Arabs, Israel’s problems are far worse, they insist. At least Iran has Islam in common with the Arabs, and Iran is a “real country”--not an artificial state built on occupied Arab land, as they usually argue. “Nobody will accept Israeli hegemony, even if there is a two-state solution,” the head of the Iranian foreign ministry’s think tank IPIS, told me in his office in northern Tehran in August 2004. “Israeli actions are illegitimate, and their population is very small. They cannot be the dominating power. Just accepting them to continue to exist is too much, let alone being the hegemon,” he said. But behind his harsh words lies the Iranian fear of facing a rival in the region that may be small, that may be culturally foreign to the region, but that holds an ace up its sleeve that Iran covets--the support of the United States of America.
(see first excerpt)

"Treacherous Alliance" is available on

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to Nay: What I did I play with ?

by asghar_bahai (not verified) on

I actually did not play with toy soldiers when I was a kid. I think I played with your mom's boobs. Thanks for your question.


Right on

by Yacoub (not verified) on

As an Iranian Jew, I very much recognized what you write about. My time in Israel has been conflicted, I have found it hard to call Israel my home even though I strongly support its existence. I have read through half of your book and must say that I am positively surprised by the depth of your research, and more importantly, the balanced presentation. You seem to be equally critical of both governments. I think you should do a tour in Israel. Many Israelis need to hear the revelations in your book.


Asghar bahi: Did you play

by Nay (not verified) on

Asghar bahi: Did you play toy soldiers a lot when you were a kid?

Ahmadinejad is God-send to neo-cons. They couldn't have found a better promoter of their agenda if they had spend billions on a PR firm marketing their "creative Chaos" theory and eventual balkanization of the entire ME.

People like you do not understand America and are as clueless as can be. They are giving the islamists in the ME enough ropes to hang themselves with. Things are going exactly as they planned even in Iraq.


re: My thought on Military Strategy and ....

by asghar_bahai (not verified) on

I now continue with my rambling thoughts on military comparison (Iran vs Israel). Let me warn you that I am no military expert! Just a rooky. There is no doubt that Israelis have been equiped with the best military there is (thanks to their lobby in US and for US tax payers' moneies). However, I think the balnace of power is shifting. At the risk of being labelled by the gang on this forum of being paid by the IRI government, I say thanks to Ahmadinejad. Here is why: When he came to power, he knew well that there is something coming down the line, after all that axis of evil shouting, and the Iraq attack and the other scenarios we all know about. So, pasdar as he was (and lets face it, thanks to 8 years of war, pasdars are militarily smart) he started fedding hezbollah with rockets through syria. By the summer 2006, in just a matter of months after he became president, it was clear that something was cooking. Israelis with the excuse of their slodiers being captured attacked lebanon. If it was not for the iranian rockets (as inaccurate as they were), in the hands of hezbollah, lebanon was now another Israeli annexation. The timing as far as Israelis was concerned was perfect. Neocons in US and some in Europe would not move a finger. If you recall, upon lebanon's invation, brits and the americans did not even object why israelis were bombing civilians. In fact all were on the same page: Israel in "self defense" is attacking lebanon and has every right to annex lebanon or turn it into a client state-in-rubbles. Therefore, this is why Ahmadinejad's strategy worked very nicely for Iran. Israelis for the first time learnt that to win a war you don't really need to have the strongest military, but you need the smartest minds in your military. In my opinion, the fact that Iranians have focused on rockets for defensive purpose for a country that for a foreseeable future will not have strong military is extremely smart. Rockets (as inaccurate as they are) are defensive weapons of choise for the poor. If you have the atomic ones, you are in perfect shape, because no one will even dare to look hard at you. At this time and for a long future to come Iran is safe, regardless of what it faces from outside. If american attack, lebanese will be on israelis backs, and furthermore their bases in iraq will be targets. Fighting a war from long distance is extremely expensive, as US has found out in Iraq. They can drop some bombs and "dig some holes" here and there, but so what? What is next? They cannot occupy you, and they will have to live with you. This my 2 cents on this issue.


re: Israel and Iran -- ad hoc observation and thoughts from my .

by asghar_bahai (not verified) on

This fellow T. Parsi, in my opinion, is not a very reliable researcher or source on topics related to Iran (or Israel). He is affiliated with a neocon group (through their support of his former academic advisor - a prof at Johns Hopkins). The prof I heard is now totally pissed off at neocons, but used to take moeny and advise them at the beginning of "W"'s term. This Parsi fellow's look at problems is very superficial and usually at "taarof" level. I have also heard him been interviewed on TV - was not impressed with his depth. I have been to Israel for some short trips (mainly Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jeurusalem), and have seen the treatment that people in Israel get. You don't want to be there -- alot worse than what we iranians consider bad treatment. The Israeli people there are very poor. One day on a walk on the streets, I saw a sign for "paloodeh shirazi" in Farsi and approached the owner of the store. We did our "roo boosi" and after a brief conversation with him, I asked that how he was doing and whether he was happy? He told me, don't ever think of coming here to live (the poor thing thought I am an Iranian jew and wanted to move there). He said they are treated like slaves and have no respect. Hardly make his living he said. He said the same is true about Russian jews moving there, etc. When I went for tours around, I saw how palestinian children were treated. Poor, selling anything they owned to the tourists, a very sad experience (and lets not forget these are the palestinaisn families that basically had sold out to occupation - you can imagine what life is like for the rest).. Streets are like garbage dump. Houeses look very similarly built -- made of cement blocks, dirty, presumably where immagrants live. Hotels, amd places of leisure are more like military camps than relaxation places. As an iranian, you think you are in "sarbaz khaneh". I have been there several times in the early 2000's. Like our Akhonds, they seem to make a big deal out of nothing. Very similar mentality. If anything, similarities are at religion's level, propaganda, and that is all.


Little confused

by manesh on

I'm sorry but I didn't get much out of stories about how Iranians and Israelis view each other.  Maybe there was a lot of taa'rof involved, but seemed like the Israelis held back.

I would imagine Israelis would have less respect for Iran as a culture or

a rival, at least these days.  They have a strong army, world class air force, a nuclear arsenal, powerful allies, and an actively  engaged population. 

Iran is a dictatorship and a 3rd rate military power under tremendous 

international pressure. 

If there were a common ground between Israel and Iran it would have 

to be their mutual distrust of their Arab neighbors.  But nobody talks about that.  I was curious to know if anybody in Israel thinks a future alliance 

is even a possibility?




I Disagree

by Ben (not verified) on

I am not sure where you get your info from. I lived in Israel (Originally from Iran) before I come to United States and have to totally disagree with you. I don't think that the society in Israel (Only partially in the capital) is liberal or modern in any way or form...