Interview'The Islamic Republic of Iran remains as oppressive as ever'

Jewish activist who fled Iran sees shades of the fall of the shah on US campuses

I Am A Voter co-founder and pro-democracy advocate Mandana Dayani has turned her focus to America’s surging antisemitism – an issue she sees as inalienable from her core mission

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Mandana Dayani speaks at the UN on sexual assault of women on October 7 in New York City, December 4, 2023. (Perry Bindelglass/ NCJW)
Mandana Dayani speaks at the UN on sexual assault of women on October 7 in New York City, December 4, 2023. (Perry Bindelglass/ NCJW)

NEW YORK — Mandana Dayani’s activism, she will be the first to say, has grown out of her own life experience. Forced to chant “death to America” and “death to Israel” as a child, Dayani and her Persian Jewish family fled Iran and came to America as religious refugees, where she has devoted herself to protecting democracy and Western values.

“My activism is so easy for me to lean into because I personally fled persecution and I understood what was at stake, and I understood why these privileges and rights were so important,” Dayani told The Times of Israel.

In 2018, Dayani co-founded I Am A Voter, a nonpartisan organization to increase voter registration and voter turnout which garnered over 1 billion unique digital impressions. I Am A Voter — which in recent weeks, merged with the nonpartisan voter registration organization HeadCount — and her other projects, including a podcast titled “The Dissenters,” focused on ways to involve and engage American citizens in their own democracy.

Since the Hamas onslaught on Israel on October 7, however, Dayani has turned the focus of her activism and online engagement to the recent antisemitism surge in the United States. A video she made shortly after the attacks explaining why the Hamas terrorists — who butchered 1,200 people in southern Israel and kidnapped 252 more to the Gaza Strip — are not “freedom fighters” has been shared and viewed online over 50 million times.

The strength of Dayani’s online reach, along with her compassionate and curious interviews, has made her one of the strongest ambassadors of the Diaspora Jewish community to the world at large.

“Today, the Islamic Republic of Iran that forced me and my family out of our homeland remains as oppressive as ever,” Dayani testified in December at the United Nations’ discussion of October 7 sexual and gender-based violence against Israel. “And it is the same regime that funds the terrorist group Hamas.”

For the last several weeks, Dayani’s efforts have focused on antisemitism on American college campuses and bringing her online spotlight on Jewish student leaders “to mentor them and interview them, to capture their stories and humanize their experience.”

Anti-Israel protesters march from Philadelphia City Hall to University of Drexel Campus where they set up an encampment in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on May 18, 2024. (Matthew Hatcher / AFP)

“I feel like these [Jewish] student leaders are the heroes we’ve been waiting for for so long,” she said. “I’m just so moved by their passion and their conviction and the courage they have. It’s so bold, and it’s so different, I think, from the way so many people in my generation and before me were raised.

“We were told to be quiet, not to rock the boat, don’t piss anyone off. And so many of us who were escaping persecution were taught to blend in, assimilate and lose parts of ourselves in public forums. I am very, very moved by their ability to stand firm in their Jewish identity and pride,” she said.

Dayani referenced University of California-Santa Barbara’s Jewish student body president Tessa Veksler’s use of the hashtag #werenotgoinganywhere, saying, “I love that: we’re not going to lose any parts of ourselves to make other people more comfortable. I think that’s beautiful. So things are heartbreaking, yes, but I’ve gotten so much hope along the way.”

Humankind’s common denominators

One of the heartbreaking elements of the moment at hand, Dayani said, is the way that people generally seem to perceive hate directed at Jews differently from how they would perceive other kinds of hate against other groups.

Columbia University students Eden Yadegar and Elisha H. Baker lead songs in support of Israel on October 12, 2023 at the Columbia University campus in New York. (courtesy)

“People haven’t really tried to understand how Jews are receiving their [pro-Palestinian] activism or their platforms, or the words that they’re saying. I don’t know that they see Jews as a group of people that need to be protected, or are worthy of empathy because I think they just think, ‘They’re fine because they have so much power.’ I’m using air quotes, obviously, because I’m talking about some of the conspiracy theories that have dominated so much of the discourse,” Dayani continued.

She said that her work as an activist in all spaces seeks to get people to appreciate humankind’s common denominators.

“As someone who was born in Iran and fled a dictatorship to come here to live freely as a Jew, all of the work that I’ve done to protect our democracy has been in gratitude of that privilege and to preserve it,” Dayani said.

Today, Dayani said she cannot help but draw a connection between the regime that forced her out of Iran and a proliferation of pro-terror propaganda in the United States currently “influencing an entire generation of Americans.”

Dayani sees strong parallels between online radicalization and misinformation and the election interference and division preceding the 2020 election.

Illustrative: An advertisement for Donald Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign featuring Bernie Sanders. (Screencapture via JTA)

“People are being only exposed to the most extreme views because those are the ones that the algorithms favor, and just because the people on certain sides are louder, they’re not representative of the country,” Dayani said. “And so I’m trying to help recenter people and remind them that elections have consequences, that there’s real outside influence in my opinion, and that right now, protection of democracy is absolutely critical.”

Historical echoes

Dayani believes that the protest culture on American college campuses is nearly identical to that which led to the fall of the shah in Iran.

“It feels so similar and looks so similar — the language, the rhetoric, the terrorist sympathizers. And I think that I’m in a strong position to be able to connect those dots,” she said.

I Am A Voter co-founder Mandana Dayani. (Jojo Korsh)

Simply showing up as a unified Jewish community is one of the most important things that can be done at the moment, she said.

“I saw a video of — God, this kills me — a woman, she’s a Holocaust survivor, she spoke at the Berkeley City Council to advocate for a Holocaust remembrance bill. And there were all these hecklers in the audience. And I thought, oh my God — 1,000 of us should have been there to hold this woman up. Why would we ever let a Holocaust survivor speak alone?” Dayani said. “We should have known. We should have been there and held her hand. I think this idea of showing up and organizing and extending gratitude is really how I want to spend time moving forward.”

Despite the momentum of misinformation, terror propagandists and antidemocratic movements around the world, Dayani says she hasn’t lost hope, and won’t.

“I think part of what makes me a good activist is that I’m sort of a hopeful idiot,” Dayani laughed. “I mean, I wake up every morning and I just think that everything can be better. Right?… I have to believe that things can be better, and I have to believe that it’s possible to create change.”

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