‘Why Do I Hate Israel?’: Israel Hosts Murals Supporting Iran’s Female Protestors

Israel's ninth Woman, Life, Freedom mural features the biblical Queen Esther, whose book is set in ancient Persia, which corresponds with modern Iran; Kosar Khoshnoudikia, a professional Iranian archer who lost sight in her left eye after being shot; and Shirel Haim Pour, an Iranian-Israeli member of the IDF killed by Hamas on Oct. 7, 2023.

By Aliya Kuykendall Published on May 4, 2024

Does art have the power to dissolve anti-Israel sentiment and inspire a counter-revolution led by women?

Hooman Khalili, an Iranian immigrant to America, thinks so. He’s currently on a mission to install 18 murals across Israel celebrating the power of women and life — and in the process, he’s changing anti-Israel sentiment across the Middle East.

“Woman, Life, Freedom” is the name of a movement in Iran that started after the Sept. 16, 2022, death of Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish-Iranian woman in her early twenties who was beaten to death by morality police for not having her hair fully covered. Amini and her brother had just arrived in Tehran, and she was unaware of the new requirements for female dress. She slipped into a coma while in police custody and died three days later with visible evidence of trauma to her head.

Her death sparked protests across Iran against the persecution of women. And that’s when several artists began installing murals around the world in their honor.

Khalili’s eighth Woman, Life, Freedom mural in Israel hangs at the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem. As the “crown jewel” of Khalili’s murals, it is comprised of small images of the 1200 victims of the Oct. 7 massacre and 200 hostages taken by Hamas, as well as more than a thousand persons murdered by Iran’s Islamic regime. On the left is slain Iranian-Israeli soldier Shirel Haim Pour; on the right is Mahsa Amini, an Iranian woman killed for showing too much hair. (Image Courtesy of Hooman Khalili)

A U.N. Human Rights Council investigation revealed that Iranian security forces have used lethal force against protestors without provocation. According to the U.N., “551 protesters were killed, among them 49 women and 68 children, in 26 out of the 31 provinces in Iran.”

Islamists are “killing women for showing their hair,” Khalili told The Stream. “I want to inspire these women to keep fighting, but I also want them to know that their sacrifice is not in vain.

“It’s a wonderful thing to remember somebody in Kansas City or San Antonio or wherever, but you put that same mural in Jerusalem and it’s like an atomic bomb.”

Israel’s Impact

Khalili has installed 10 murals across Israel already, with noticeable impact, and feels called to install eight more. While his weren’t the first Woman, Life, Freedom murals in the world, they are the only ones in Israel or any country in the Middle East, and that made headlines.

Iran took public notice. Khalili received messages from around the world saying Iranian media outlets were covering his first mural in Jerusalem. The state media reportedly blamed Jews for supporting the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protestors, enabling the Iranian people to see Israel’s support for them despite heavy state censorship.

A mural in Netanya, Israel, features Ghazal Ranjkesh, who lost her right eye after a police officer shot her in the face at close range. A portion of the mural reads, “Esthers of the World Rise Up.” (Image Courtesy of Hooman Khalili)

Khalili’s fourth Woman, Life, Freedom mural in Israel debuted in March 2023, featuring a woman blinded in one eye by Iran’s Islamic regime. By early June, Iranian officials had responded by putting up large banners in Tehran highlighting a new missile with captions in Arabic and Hebrew reading “400 seconds to Tel Aviv” — proving to Khalili that his work is “moving the needle.”

Khalili believes art can be a powerful tool in a revolution. He cites American political scientist Gene Sharp’s classic “198 Methods of Nonviolent Action,” which includes “banners, posters, and displayed communications”; “displays of portraits”; and “paint as protest.” Four of the methods are listed under the heading, “Honoring the dead,” which many of Khalili’s murals do.

Fighting Antisemitism

Meanwhile, Khalili often hears directly from people about how their hatred for Israel begins to melt when they saw beautiful murals honoring the ongoing women-led revolution in Iran. They recognize that Israel is the only Middle Eastern nation with such murals.

Israel’s first Woman, Life, Freedom mural is a banner in Jerusalem. (Image Courtesy of Hooman Khalili)

While he was in Israel in December 2022, a Persian acquaintance in California called Khalili, saying, “What are you doing in Israel? I can’t even stand that country.” After listening to her yell at him for three minutes, Khalili told her he needed to meet with the vice mayor of Jerusalem about a project, and if his project succeeded, she could yell at him for an hour.

When the first mural (pictured) went up in Jerusalem, he called her.

“I said, ‘Hey, the mural went up. You can yell at me now.’ And she’s like, dead quiet on the phone. She’s not saying anything. And I said, ‘Are you there?’” Khalili recalls.

“She says, ‘I can’t believe how beautiful that mural is. I can’t believe the Jews are standing with the freedom-fighting women of Iran. I can’t believe that the world is looking at this. I can’t believe the impact it’s making.’ And then she starts saying, ‘Why am I so angry? Why do I hate Israel? Why do I hate the Jews?’

“And I’m listening to her process everything for like four or five minutes. And then finally she says, ‘I’m sorry for yelling at you.’ And she hung up the phone and I haven’t heard from her since.

“That story is very typical,” Khalili concludes. “That happens every time I unveil a new mural in Israel. So I’m just saying these murals actually fight antisemitism in a way that nothing else in the world seems to do.”

Honoring an Outspoken Rapper Sentenced to Death

Khalili’s next two murals in Israel may be unveiled as soon as May 12. He already has the design and the artists, and hopes to soon have the walls donated for the project. If he succeeds, the next two murals would be the first exclusively featuring Toomaj Salehi, an Iranian rapper arrested in October 2022 for supporting the Woman, Life, Freedom protests.

Salehi has already been incarcerated for more than a year, including 200 days in solitary confinement. He was reportedly beaten, then released on a technicality in November 2023. Afterward, he recorded a song claiming he had been tortured with adrenaline injections. Two weeks later, he was arrested again.

On April 24, an Iranian Revolutionary Court sentenced him to death on charges of “corruption on earth.”

A Mission from God

Khalili, a Christian from childhood thanks to his mother’s conversion from Islam to Christianity when he was 3, feels a sense of calling to produce these murals. It has carried him through difficulty and continues to inspire him.

A Woman, Life. Freedom Mural in Tel Aviv features (from left) a little girl holding a gas mask; Mahsa Amini; and Shirel Haim Pour. (Image Courtesy of Hooman Khalili)

“I feel like it’s powerful. I believe it’s anointed. I believe it’s an assignment from Heaven,” Khalili said. “I believe God chose me in this time for this moment. And it’s a hard assignment. I’m not complaining, but there are many, many days I feel entirely alone. There are many days I’m wandering the streets of Israel or even Nashville, begging somebody for a wall so I can put up a mural.”

The single, 49-year-old creative director of a boutique hotel in the San Francisco Bay Area funds the murals himself: he designs them, travels to Israel to scout locations, and hires artists to finalize the visions. He says funding is the only thing holding him back from completing the remaining murals.

A Woman, Life, Freedom mural in Nazareth — where the population is almost exclusively Arab. Khalili said two Muslim men donated this wall after Khalili and a friend walked the streets for six hours to find a location. As Sunnis, they would be persecuted by Iran’s Shiite regime. (Image Courtesy of Hooman Khalili)

Khalili trusts it’s God’s will that he not stop until he reaches 18 murals in Israel.

“I had a couple of Jesus lovers call me and say, ‘You know, we don’t know what you’re praying for, but God wanted us to tell you, 18.’ And at the time I’d been desperately praying, ‘God, how many murals do You want?’ So that’s how that number came up.”

Chai, the Hebrew word for “life,” adds up numerically to the number 18, so Jews often make donations in multiples of 18 to represent life.

Khalili says others around the world have largely stopped making new Woman, Life, Freedom murals. As the only person an Israeli government official has invited to create them in Israel — and seeing that Israel is where they have had the most impact — he feels the need to continue.

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“I feel like God has chosen me for this time,” he told The Stream. “And even if everyone else quits, I will not quit. Even if everyone else doesn’t make any more murals, I won’t stop.

“The Persians have been screaming at the West for two years now: ‘Look at Iran! Look at Iran! Look at Iran!’ And the world knows when we cover it [in Western media]. Iran launched 300 missiles at Israel — 300 missiles. [But that event] only stayed in the news for two days. We’re desperately trying to get the eyes of the world to look at Iran.

“That’s why I keep making these murals.”

 

Aliya Kuykendall is a staff writer and proofreader for The Stream. You can follow her on X @AliyaKuykendall and follow The Stream @Streamdotorg.

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