While arch-foes Israel and Iran step up the tough political rhetoric against one another, short-waves and a wood-panelled radio studio in Jerusalem offer the people of the two countries a rare communication bridge. Seated behind a microphone in Studio 4 of the Israel Broadcast Association compound near Jerusalem’s Zion Square, Menashe Amir, an expert on Iranian affairs, reads today’s news bulletin in Farsi.
Amir, 66, left his home town of Tehran 47 years ago to come to Israel and has since worked as a broadcaster at the Voice of Israel service in Farsi, which is beamed via short-wave into Iran.
“In 40 minutes we cover news from the world, the Middle East and the Israeli-Arab peace process but also news inside Iran,” he says.
Amir vehemently rejects any suggestions he and his colleagues are involved in state propaganda against Iran, where the Jewish minority population has fallen since Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979 but still numbers some 25,000.
“We expose Iranian citizens to things the regime tries to hide,” says Amir.
“I don’t want to call ourselves anti-regime. We have millions of listeners in Iran because of our objectivity.
“We represent the state of Israel but not the government of Israel. We are not briefed by anyone on what to say or do,” Amir insists. “Sometimes we brief the security services” such as Mossad, Israel’s secret service.
The objective of the broadcasts, aired daily for two hours, is the “education of Iranians to democracy”.
After the news, Amir tells listeners they can start calling in – but first it’s time for a song about the Jewish new year.
Iran’s controversial nuclear program and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s remarks questioning the Nazi Holocaust usually top the callers’ agenda, but today a different topic is chosen.
“Yesterday, school began in Iran. We are asking for listeners’ thoughts on schooling in Iran and how it compares to the United States and Europe,” Odelia Bonen, who produces the program, says with a thick Iranian accent.
Yigal Sabit, who moved to Israel from Iran in 1994, takes the calls that start coming in as soon as the news bulletin is finished.
“The calls are all diverted through a third country,” Bonen says. “We tell callers not to give their real or full name, although some prefer identifying themselves.”
The first caller comes from Tabriz in northern Iran. Bonen says he is talking in favour of education in the local Azeri language.
Next is an Iranian exile living in France. He compares education between Iran and France, and congratulates Amir on the Jewish new year.
One caller speaks out in support of the Iranian education system that prevents “Iran from becoming Iranistan”.
Osman from Shiraz presents himself as a supporter of Iran’s regime and accuses Israel of oppressing other cultures.
Amir does not argue with the callers, but says he tries to present his listeners “with the other side of the coin”.
“If, as an example, an Iranian official says there are no political prisoners in jail, I will present an Amnesty International report on Iranian prisons.”
Sabit answers the phone again, and a long conversation develops. “He is from Bandar Abbas and wants to talk to Menashe after the program ends. People sometimes call and want to give us information for money,” Sabit says.
According to Amir and Bonen, callers say their broadcasts are extremely popular in Iran, a claim that could not be verified.
But why would Iranians listen to Israeli or American radio?
“We live in an open society that reveals everything. Inside Iran it is the opposite – the radio, TV and media present one view and people know it. That’s why they listen to us,” Amir says.
“The thirst in Iran for programs from abroad is great,” he says. There are more than a dozen Western radio and TV stations broadcasting to Iran, including the Voice of America and the BBC.
Amir, who has a pre-revolutionary green, white and red Iranian flag on his desk, says: “We live and breathe Iran here. We are aware of the good things and bad things going on inside there.”
Israel is today home to some 100,000 Iranian-born Jews, who have kept many traditions from their country of birth. Before the 1979 revolution, Iran was among Israel’s closest allies and shared close military, financial and cultural ties.
Several prominent Israeli figures who were born in Iran – including President Moshe Katsav and former defence minister Shaul Mofaz – have appeared on the program and took part in the call-in session to speak to listeners from Iran.
Amir, Sabati and Bonen are nostalgic for their old home. Bonen points to a picture of herself standing on the border between Iran and Turkey. “That’s as far as I can go today,” she says.
“I miss Iran and am ready to pay any amount of money to go back, as long as they assure me that I can leave safely afterwards,” Amir says.