During the height of the Cold War, in the early 1980s, when tens of thousands of Europeans were demonstrating in the streets against the possibility of a nuclear confrontation between the two superpowers - in the wake of the American plan to place cruise and Pershing nuclear-warhead bearing missiles in Europe - a small group of American and Soviet cardiologists led by Dr. Bernard Lown and Dr. Evgeny Chazov founded what became International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Because of its efforts to promote civil society dialogue between Americans and Russians about the nuclear danger, and its educational work, IPPNW was awarded the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize for its "considerable service to mankind by spreading authoritative information and in creating an awareness of the catastrophic consequences of atomic warfare."
There are times when civil society has to take the initiative when government leaders are unable or unwilling to do so. Indeed, today, with tensions rising between Israel and Iran, while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad imagines "a world without Zionism" and says Tehran will react strongly to any possible Israeli attack, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declares that "the world is indifferent to Iranian statements about Israel" and is not doing enough to stop Iran's nuclear program - it is time to talk, before it is too late.
Since there are no signs that the Israeli and Iranian governments are interested in talking with each other, and civil society has to take up the challenge, just as American and Soviet physicians did in 1980.
Such dialogues between members of Israeli and Iranian civil society have been taking place, quietly, in recent years in such forums as the conferences in Amman of both Global Majority, an international initiative to promote nonviolent conflict resolution, and the Middle East Citizens Assembly, an organization that works to advance individual citizens' rights, tolerance and mutual understanding in the region, as well as in other venues and frameworks.
I have no illusions that at this moment in history, members of Iranian civil society will be capable of entering into such a dialogue with Israelis. However, Iranian-born academics living in the West, who are in touch with the realities of their native country, can do so. That is how the recent dialogue between Israelis and Syrians began, with the participation of Syrian-American businessman Ibrahim Suleiman.
An Iranian-born political scientist, Prof. Anoushiravan Ehteshami, recently participated in a written exchange with Israelis and others on "A Nuclear Free Zone in the Middle East: Realistic or Idealistic?" in the Palestine-Israel Journal, and two other Iranian-born scholars took part together with Israelis and others in a conference at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London last month, on the same topic. A similar conference will be held in Jerusalem on May 10, to bring the discussion home to the Middle East, the eye of the storm and focal point of fears about nuclear proliferation. It will also be intended to provide input to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, which will be taking place at the same time in New York.
The level of anxiety in both Israeli and Iranian societies is growing, and there are many mutual misconceptions. Can anyone find an authentic quote in which Ahmadinejad actually threatened to attack Israel? Does Israel really intend to attack Iran?
Dr. Moshe Vered of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University recently published a paper entitled "The length and conditions for ending a future war between Iran and Israel." He noted that the Iran-Iraq war went on for eight years, and the Iranians' willingness to sacrifice many lives would make a potential Iran- Israel war very prolonged and difficult to end. The clear conclusion to be drawn from reading the paper is that such a war would have catastrophic consequences for both peoples.
Israel and Iran were once allies. Even though much water has run through the Straits of Tiran and of Hormuz since then, doesn't that suggest that there are some fundamental common interests between the two nations, which one day may be revived? Many members of Iranian society are not happy with the current regime, to put it mildly, and they long to rejoin the international community.
Constructive dialogue between members of Israeli and Iranian civil societies can only help to promote positive change, while reducing the tensions, for the benefit of both peoples - even if it doesn't yield immediate fruits.
What does it say in Ecclesiastes 3:1-15? There's "A time to be silent, and a time to speak."
Shouldn't this be a time for Israelis and Iranians to speak to each other?
Hillel Schenker is co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal (www.pij.org).