Once a refugee from Iran, a Jewish state senator ascends in New York politics
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'I will always stand with Israel'

Once a refugee from Iran, a Jewish state senator ascends in New York politics

Anna Kaplan escaped Tehran to the US in 1979, while her parents fled to Israel. Now she’s the first Persian-American in the New York State Legislature

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

Freshman Sen. Anna Kaplan, Democrat, Mineola, is introduced during opening day of the legislative session in Albany, NY on January 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File)
Freshman Sen. Anna Kaplan, Democrat, Mineola, is introduced during opening day of the legislative session in Albany, NY on January 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File)

WASHINGTON — Forty years ago, Anna Kaplan was separated from her family as a 13-year-old girl. But the circumstances were quite different from the stories from the US-Mexico border peppering world headlines. She was detached from her family of her parents’ own volition.

It was in the middle of the Iranian revolution in 1979 Tehran, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei overthrew the shah. Kaplan was part of a small but vibrant community that was suddenly intensely vulnerable: Iran’s Jews.

Born in Tabriz, Kaplan was raised in the Iranian capital, where she attended a Jewish day school. In the 1970s, roughly 80,000 Jews lived in Iran. “Jews lived well under the shah,” Kaplan recently told The Times of Israel. “Jews did prosper under his regime. But it still was a Muslim country.”

There were, she said, occasional humiliations for the country’s Jews. Kaplan remembers an incident in which she was shopping with her mother in a supermarket. The vendor wouldn’t let her touch the food she wanted to buy. “There was always a sense that we needed to live very carefully and not really rock the boat,” Kaplan recalled.

But once the revolution hit, and the rapacious anti-Semite Khomenei gained power, Kaplan’s parents realized it was time to leave.

Except they were not quite ready. Fearful for their children’s lives, they sent them away.

“The rabbi sent people to inform the families that they should get out, and if they can’t, they should let their children get out,” Kaplan explained. Shortly thereafter, she boarded a plane with 39 other kids. She was heading to Rome.

In Italy, they went to the embassy to get a visa to travel to the United States. Within five days, the visa was granted, and an American-Jewish family sponsored her through the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, now called simply HIAS. She was soon living with her host family in Chicago, wondering if she’d ever see her parents again.

Her mother and father, meanwhile, were trying to get out of Iran, but they couldn’t secure their own visas to get into the United States. Instead, they went to Israel.

Once the revolution was over, their US visa requests were granted, and they reunited with their daughter in Chicago. Eventually, they were granted political asylum. They stayed in the Windy City until Kaplan graduated from high school. Then they moved to Queens.

Those memories from four decades ago were at the center of Kaplan’s mind when she was sworn in last month as a New York state senator, she said. That experience is at the core of why she entered politics in the first place.

“I saw how we came from a culture where we never really had a voice,” she said of Iranian-Americans. “We never had a say.” And yet, as a champion of the mostly Muslim Iranian community, she has gone against the grain in two big ways: she’s been a vehement opponent of the Iran nuclear deal and a vigorous advocate of Israel.

“To me, that deal was legitimizing a regime that should not be legitimized,” she said of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the deal is formally known. As a member of the North Hempstead Town Board at the time, she asked her colleagues to write a letter castigating the accord. “I can tell you, I upset a lot of Iranian Americans who are Muslim in this country.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry (left) speaks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif after the UN atomic watchdog verifies that Iran has met all conditions of the July 2015 nuclear deal, in Vienna, Austria, on January 16, 2016. (AFP/Kevin Lamarque/Pool)

In 2016, she ran for Congress, seeking to replace the retiring incumbent, Democrat Steve Israel. But she lost in the primary to the Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, who went on to win the general election.

Two years later, she tried again for another office — as a state senator representing the same district. This time, she won, making her the first Iranian-American to serve in either chamber of the New York State Legislature.

Despite her antipathy to the Iran nuclear deal, her campaign got a big boost when she was endorsed by former US president Barack Obama. Kaplan went on to defeat a popular Republican incumbent.

Rashida Tlaib (in red thobe and glasses), accompanied by her family, being sworn in with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (in pink dress), at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, January 3, 2019. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)

But while the Democratic Party remains, as a whole, steadfastly pro-Israel, there is a growing divide within the party about how to approach US-Israel policy. Indeed, two new Democratic members of Congress — Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib and Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar — fully support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

“As a Jewish political refugee, I really believe in supporting Israel in a very big way,” Kaplan said. “My parents had to flee their country. The only place they were welcomed was Israel. So I will always stand with Israel.”

Her bigger concern than some members of the Democratic caucus being hostile to Israel, she said, was Republican attempts to turn Israel into a GOP cause.

“I truly believe Israel should not be a partisan issue,” Kaplan said. “I really am saddened and disheartened by Republicans trying to weaponize the issue of support for Israel against Democrats. There are a lot of Democrats who are very strong supporters of Israel and there are a lot of Republicans who aren’t, who are anti-Semites.”

She plans to use her newfound platform as a state senator, despite her job description’s focus on local issues, to try and keep Israel a bipartisan cause. (Kaplan said her biggest domestic priorities will be women’s reproductive rights and voter enfranchisement.)

That is an ambitious task. There is a growing contingency on the left more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and more antagonistic to an Israel led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who aligns himself unequivocally with US President Donald Trump.

Kaplan, however, sees her quest to help Israel remain a matter of bipartisan consensus as the logical next step in her already improbable political journey.

“Sometimes we have plans,” she said, “and God has other plans for us.”

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