FEBRUARY 22, 2018 – Purim, which begins the evening of Feb. 28, is the story of a Jewish woman in Persia standing up for her people in the face of oppression. In celebration of the holiday, the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute has invited Roya Hakakian, its scholar-in-residence, to present the annual Diane Markowicz Memorial Lecture on Gender and Human Rights.
Hakakian’s talk, “Iran’s Unfinished Revolution: What Began in 1979 Continues Today,” will explore Jewish traditions and values in response to contemporary challenges. A noted poet, author, and speaker, Hakakian has been deemed “among the most important activists, academics, and journalists of her generation.”
The talk will be held at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 27, in the Napoli Room of the Gosman Athletic Center on Brandeis’s Waltham campus.
Hakakian is a refugee from Iran, formerly Persia, who – just as Esther in the story of Purim – took a stand against political oppression. In her best-selling 2004 memoir, “Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran,” she traces her path from pre-revolutionary Iran through the ensuing turmoil brought by the authoritarian regime of Ayatollah Khomeini.
The Jewish exodus was the result of growing unrest in Iran throughout the late 1970s, culminating in the Iranian Revolution in 1979, by which time most of the country’s 100,000 Jews had fled. The situation for the country’s remaining Jewish population became dire, as passports were seized, economic sanctions were imposed, and food was rationed. For a young high school graduate like Hakakian, prospects for obtaining a higher education or improving her situation in any way looked bleak.
Hakakian left Iran as a political refugee in 1985, but her path to freedom was a difficult one. When the family’s passports identifying them as Jews were confiscated, her only option was to reapply as a Christian Armenian. After four long years of waiting, Hakakian and her mother left for Vienna without her father, who had yet to be issued a passport. There, the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society helped them and hundreds of other refugees resettle in the United States.
Once here, Hakakian became a leading Jewish activist, co-founding the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center in New Haven, in 2004 together with a group of scholars, historians, and other activists. The mission of the organization is to “document the patterns of human rights abuse in Iran and to promote accountability, a culture of human rights, and the rule of law in Iran.”
Today, the number of Jews still residing in Iran is between 25,000 and 30,000.
“One of the topics that is fascinating to me is that by following the Jewish community in Iran, I can make better sense of what is happening there on a larger scale,” Hakakian said.
Under the Iranian constitution, minorities – such as Jews – are not considered equal citizens, but the treatment of Jews can vary widely from one regime to the next.
“Are they treated as well as they can be?” Hakakian asked. “Are they able to have their own schools, teach Hebrew, run their own synagogues? It’s been a very telling barometer of what has been happening in Iran politically.”
After the 1979 revolution, Hakakian said that for a time, the Ayatollah’s regime didn’t really know what sort of policies it wanted to implement with regard to the Jewish community. The shocking execution of a prominent industrialist and Jewish activist, Habib Elghanian, in 1979 rattled the Jewish community and ushered in a new type of duality: Jews would be tolerated, but Zionism would be strictly opposed. This divide remains the status quo in Iran to the present day.
Hakakian thinks the situation for the Jewish community in Iran is relatively good. “When Iran entered negotiations with the West over nuclear weapons a few years ago, the country was forced to present a moderate face to the Western community,” she said. “Suddenly, limitations on certain jobs for Jews were lifted, bans on Jewish education were loosened, and the community became more vibrant and free to practice, even compared to certain parts of France.”
At Brandeis, Hakakian works on issues surrounding Jewish women and migration. Her talk will focus on her own immigration story as an eyewitness to the Iranian revolution, how it fits into the broader Jewish history, and whether it connects in any way to what’s happening in Iran today.
“I see this current uprising on the part of women and Christians as part of the same revolution that began there 39 years ago,” she said. “These issues have never been resolved.”