Q&A: Israeli-Iranian Broadcaster Amir building bridges between Iran and Israel
Menashe Amir is the long-time popular Iranian-Israeli journalist and broadcaster from Radio Israel’s daily Farsi language news program who on October 27th was honored for his work in building bridges between Israel and the people of Iran with his unique program. Prior to the event, I had a chance to sit down with the man who has become a legend for many Iranians of different faiths because his program provides accurate news to millions of Iranians living in Iran via a satellite radio broadcasted directly from Israel. His program also allows listeners in Iran to anonymously and freely call in and voice their grievances or concerns with the current Iranian regime on the air.
He has essentially become the voice of Israel and the voice of Jews to the Iranian population living in Iran today. He has earned the respect of Iranian Jews worldwide for showing the positive aspects of Israel and Jewry. More importantly he has gained tremendous respect from Iranian media personalities who are not Jewish and live outside of Iran for his accurate reporting and information given daily to the people of Iran. Interestingly, at the recent event honoring Amir in Los Angeles, many of the attendees were Iranian Muslim media personalities who typically do not support Israel and are often critical of Israeli governments. However they did attend the event out of respect for Amir and his journalistic work on behalf of the people of Iran.
Aside from internet sites and social media sites, Amir’s program is perhaps the only link between Israel and the people of Iran that exists today. In my humble opinion, the program carries out the very important work of giving non-Jewish Farsi speaking audiences in Iran an accurate perspective of what Israel is truly about from the mouth of a native Farsi speaker. His comments and information have given Iranians in Iran a real positive perspective of Israel that counter-balances the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel statements spewed by Iranian regime officials everyday. My conversation with the 77-year-old Amir shed light on his near six decade career on Radio Israel and the challenges he has encountered. The following is an English translation of that Farsi language interview I had with him recently…
So how did you first begin working in the field of journalism?
I began working as a journalist at 17 years old and had not yet received my high school diploma. I began working as a journalist for French language newspapers since I was fluent in French and also at Keyhan newspaper in Tehran covering cultural issues. I also worked for some magazines in Iran until the day I was ready to immigrate to Israel. At age 20 I immigrated to Israel but for three years prior, my experience in journalism was in Iran. When I came to Israel I was encouraged to work at their Farsi radio program because I was both fluent in Farsi but also had past experience as a journalist. At that time I did not speak the Hebrew language and I was told that anyone who worked at the radio needed to know Hebrew in order to be able to provide any content for the Farsi language program. So what I had to do was obtain the news of what was going on in Israel from French language newspapers published in Israel.
Why did you decide to leave Iran?
At the age 17 years I was involved with several Jewish organizations and Zionist groups. When the Jewish Agency invited the young Jewish students from Iran to visit Iran, I went to visit Israel and I really like the country. I told myself that after I leave high school, I will come to Israel for college and this is exactly what I did. After obtaining my high school diploma, I came to Israel and entered college in Israel. But since I did not know Hebrew sufficiently, I was not able to complete my first year in college. I had to take a year off to first learn Hebrew fluently and then return to college.
You’ve been at the radio for more than 50 years, why did you remain at this station or job for so long?
Yes it has been 56 years that I have been working at Radio Israel and normally journalists leave one job and go to another during their career. In reality during my career, I have done other work while working at the Farsi language program at Radio Israel, but I still remained at the radio because I felt it was an important aspect of the relationship between Iran and Israel. In the last 37 years since the Islamic revolution in Iran, I have also worked as an expert on Iran issues for various Israeli news media outlets translating and reporting the news from Iran for their outlets. With all of this work, I have continued my work with Radio Israel’s Farsi program.
What role do you believe has your program played when it comes to Iran and Israel relations during the last 37 years?
During the last 37 years we have been one of the few channels between Iran and Israel or contact for the people of Iran. Before the revolution, it has been 65 years since the program has been on the air. During the Shah of Iran’s reign, our goal was to introduce Israel and Jews to the people Iranians and be a source for news to Jews in Iran. But after the Islamic revolution in Iran, our goal was to provide unbiased information or news to the people of Iran about what was transpiring in their own country. Our program has been more about providing news about what is occurring in Iran. During the last 37 years our purpose has been to provide listeners with information about what has been going on in Israel, Middle East and also what is transpiring in their own country. Because of this we’ve had a lot of listeners. A joke in Iran at the time in the early years of revolution was that Khomeini had sent a letter to the Israeli Prime Minister saying he wanted to pay the salaries of the employees at Radio Israel because they were the only unbiased and accurate source of information about what was actually transpiring within Iran itself. This was of course a joke in Iran but it showed how much the people listened to the program.
What was one of the most difficult aspect of working at this job?
In my opinion the most difficult times for me was during the Iran-Iraq war. At one time I had to read a letter on the air from a woman who had only between married for two months in Iran. It was a heart-breaking letter that her husband had been drafted by the Iranian regime to fight in the war and was killed in action on the front lines of the war. While I was reading this on the air for the listeners, I suddenly got emotional and began weeping. It was one of the most difficult moments for me on the radio.
Have you ever experienced pressure from the Israeli governments or Israeli officials to broadcast or not broadcast certain news or information during your career?
Radio Israel is a radio that has no ties with the Israeli government and is in no way controlled by the Israeli government. No one dictates to us as to what we can broadcast or not broadcast. We broadcast whatever is information in news-worthy and legitimate to cover.
How has your Farsi language program brought Iranians together of various faiths and backgrounds?
Because the trust people of Iran have in our program and the fact that we provide accurate unbiased information in our program, we have been popular. We have a good resource for information and they can tell. The people of Iran try to listen to our program for their news. We believe a democracy is the best form of government anywhere in the world and I am confident if the government in Iran were to truly become democratic, then there would be immediate peace between Iran and Israel because the goals of both countries are the same and they have no problems between each other.
We’ve seen the Iranian regime for decades put out anti-Israel propaganda and anti-Semitic messages. You have average Iranians calling into your show all the time, in your personal opinion, do they really hate Israel and Israelis?
During the last 37 years the Iranian regime has tried to brainwash people to hate Israel but this brainwashing has not been completed. There are many many people in Iran who still like Israel and call into our program. Listeners have called in and said “your voice is the voice of Israel and has made us happy to hear it”. The Iranian regime has also failed to silence our voice and our program is still broadcasted throughout Iran. We are one of the few Farsi language media outlets that reports not only on news occurring in Israel and in the Middle East, but more importantly on the internal news of what is happening within Iran itself.
Who was the most interesting interview or the most interesting topic you’ve ever covered?
I don’t have any in particular interesting interview or subject, but listeners have said to me that one of the most interesting aspects of our program was a young child from Iran who was an 11 year old girl and wrote on her Facebook page that she has heard our program and that she likes the country of Israel and would like to visit Israel. This proves to me that the brainwashing efforts of the Iranian regime to promote hatred of Israel among the youth have failed and younger people in Iran have no ill feelings towards Israel.
Why did you decide to retire after nearly six decades of being on the air at this job?
I placed in my request for retirement after 46 years to the radio. After that moment I asked myself who else could be brought into my place to do this critical same level of work on the air? I then agreed to continue working at the radio for one year in order for them to find one or two other people that could properly replace me and do my work. Unfortunately because of the bureaucracy in Israel and the lack of finding someone with the appropriate level of Farsi fluency and journalism background to do this work, it did not happen. So one year turn into two years and then four years and then into 10 years. Now it is 12 years since I officially retired from my position on the radio, but I still appear on the program and have continued working there because of the importance of what we do. I am hopeful that we can find someone with the qualifications and ability to do this work, so I can leave the radio with the peace of mind that it can continue successfully. I’d like to ideally move on and work on my other projects.
What other projects are you involved in nowadays?
I have other projects I am currently working on. For example, one is an English-Farsi-Hebrew dictionary that I have been putting together for the last 20 years that has not been completed. I have many articles that I want to write. I want to put together a website on Israel and my views in Farsi. All of this takes time that I do not have right now. However all of these projects are not as important as my work on the radio and that is why I continue my work on the radio’s Farsi language program. It’s been 56 years that I’ve been on the air, so I am one of the oldest radio personalities still working for the radio and 56 years is no joke.
How do you see the future of this Farsi language radio program unfolding in Israel?
This radio program and the work it does must continue. The friendship between the people of Iran and people of Israel will not end. I am hopeful the radio receives a great budget from the government so we can find the proper replacements and we can continue our work.
When was the last time you went to Iran and do you miss Iran?
It was there two years before the Iranian revolution. I do miss Iran greatly and would like to visit again and talk to the people of Iran to see what is transpiring for them every day. As a journalist it is interesting for me to report on what the people of Iran are wanting for their lives and future. I do wish to visit Iran but I know that if I were to do that right now, I would likely return to Israel in a coffin.
There were once great relations between Iran and Israel prior to the 1979 revolution. Do you believe Iranians in Iran have forgotten what great economic, diplomatic and other ties both nations shared?
In the last 37 years the people of Iran have not forgotten the great relationship between Iran and Israel that existed prior to the revolution. However the younger generation of Iranians may not know about the Israel-Iran relationship and how Israel helped Iran tremendously. I do believe the people of both countries will forge better relations one day.
You live in Israel and interact with Iranian Jews living there. What are their feelings or sentiments about Iran today?
Iranian Jews living in Israel today see a big difference between the people and nation of Iran and the current regime in power in Iran. They still have a love for Iran and the Iranian people. They would like to see peace between both nations one day. Now despite the nearly daily anti-Israel messages put out by the Iranian regime, Iranian Jews still love Iran, maintain Iranian culture and some do even want to one day visit Iran again one day.