WASHINGTON - Fresh from an unprecedented performance in Israel, exiled Iranian rock musician Shahin Najafi says he will not allow his Iranian detractors' death threats to scare him away from collaborating with Israeli artists in the name of peace.
Najafi, 36, sang alongside Israeli rock star Aviv Geffen at a concert in Tel Aviv on Thursday — the first performance by an Iranian artist at an Israeli rock concert.
Iran and Israel have endured decades of hostility, with Iranian leaders threatening to destroy the Jewish state and Israeli leaders refusing to rule out using force against an Iranian nuclear program they see as designed to make nuclear weapons.
Threatened with imprisonment
Najafi, born in the northern Iranian province of Gilan, fled Iran in 2004 under threat of imprisonment by Iranian authorities for creating songs deemed offensive to Islam. After Najafi settled in Germany, an Iranian cleric labeled him an apostate and an Iranian Islamist website offered a $100,000 bounty to anyone who would kill him.
Undeterred by Iranian threats, Najafi met with Geffen in Milan late last year and accepted an invitation to perform in Tel Aviv and reach out to Israelis through his art.
Show of bravery
In an interview with VOA Persian on Friday by telephone from Tel Aviv, Najafi said he might face more death threats for appearing in Israel, but added, "I'm willing to die for peace."
Najafi also praised Geffen for enabling his visit and said he would love to partner with the Israeli again to promote the cause of world peace.
At Thursday's concert, Najafi read a message he addressed to U.S. President Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and "all politicians," expressing opposition to "walls" anywhere in the world and urging national leaders to "stop dividing people before it's too late."
Trump has pledged to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico to stop the entry of undocumented migrants, some of whom he says bring drugs and crime. Netanyahu has fortified Israel's boundaries with walls and fences to block infiltrations of African migrants through Egypt and to keep out Palestinian and other anti-Israel militants. Netanyahu and Trump also have pledged to boost cooperation in preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons — something Tehran denies seeking.
?Neither the Israeli nor the Iranian government has commented on Najafi's Tel Aviv show.
In his interview, Najafi accused Tehran of feeding Iranians like himself "wrong information" about Israelis. "For those of us born after Iran's [1979 Islamic] Revolution, we were brainwashed with propaganda," he said. "Here in Israel, I got such a good vibe from the crowd that, for a moment, I thought I was back in Iran."
Najafi also criticized the boycotting of Israel by Western pop stars angry with its treatment of the Palestinians. "Unlike [former Pink Floyd band member] Roger Waters, I'm not going to stay in the U.S. and boycott the people — I come to Israel and sing for the people to make a statement in the heart of the place where I see a problem."
Many of the Iranian singer-songwriter's Iranian fans welcomed his gesture with supportive messages on his Facebook page. But there was some social media criticism, too, including from an Iranian woman who posted a message on an Iranian communist website and shared it on Facebook. Asal Akhavan accused Najafi and Geffen of lying about supporting peace between Israel and the Palestinians and said the joint concert's real intention was to oppose the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
WATCH: Israeli Rocker Geffen Discusses Meeting, Collaborating With Iran's Najafi
'Break this iron wall'
In a separate interview with VOA Persian via Skype on Friday, Geffen, 43, expressed admiration for Najafi as "brave" for coming to Israel to perform and speak out against Trump and Netanyahu.
Geffen is a longtime left-wing critic of the Israeli prime minister and more recently of Trump. "I'm trying to break this iron wall between Iran and Israel, because Netanyahu just can't do it," he said. "I want to make it clear that we [Iranians and Israelis] can talk and want to live side by side."
The Israeli singer-songwriter said the smiling faces and sustained applause by the 7,000 concertgoers showed that he and Najafi had succeeded in changing attitudes.
Geffen said he planned to invite Najafi to participate in some of his overseas shows and would like to get other artists to join them on tour in New York or London. "For me [this week's concert] is only the start," he said. "I'm willing to go with Shahin all over the world to spread the message that we can achieve a real peace between the nations."
Behrooz Samadbeygi of VOA's Persian service contributed to this report.