This past May, Arielle Yael Mokhtarzadeh was elected student body president of UCLA, one of America’s largest universities. The descendant of Iranian Jews, proudly Jewish and proudly progressive, she is one of a rising generation of young Jewish leaders on American campuses. But this Monday, when she returned to school following winter break, she was greeted with a reminder that some do not want to see Jews in such positions of public leadership. She arrived at her office to find that her mezuzah—the traditional Jewish doorpost ornament containing prayers—had been torn down.
Rather than be cowed by this attempted act of intimidation, Mokhtarzadeh promptly announced this afternoon that she’d be publicly dedicating a new mezuzah and invited the campus to join her.
“The Mezuzah is a Jewish ornament containing a small, handcrafted scroll with one of Judaism’s most central prayers, which speaks to fundamental Jewish values like education and accountability for one’s actions,” Mokhtarzadeh wrote on Facebook. “Mezuzahs have marked the doorposts of Jewish homes for generations; demonstrating dedication to our Jewish traditions, exhibiting pride in our Jewish identities, and expressing defiance against those who pressured Jews to hide or cast away their identities.”
The mezuzah has special resonance to Mokhtarzadeh, she explained, in light of her family’s history of persecution. “I grew up hearing stories about my grandparents’ childhoods in Iran where they were forced to put their Mezuzahs on the inside of their doorposts, rather of than the outside,” she recounted. “What better way to honor the sacrifices and experiences of my grandparents and parents than to proudly express my Jewish identity in a way they never could. Imagine my utter disappointment to see that the reality they feared most had happened in our very own Kerckhoff Hall. Not to mention that this is the second time in two years that Mezuzah has been stolen from doorpost of the Office of the President. The same incident took place last year under the tenure of 2016-2017 USAC President Danny Siegel.”
“In my time as USAC President and in my time as a Bruin I have not once succumbed to the pressure to hide my Jewish identity—and I never will. I hope none of us ever will. To those who sought to tell me that my identity was not welcomed: The fact that you felt the need to vandalize my office under the cover of darkness shows that you and your actions do not represent this community, which has no tolerance for your intolerance.”
Mokhtarzadeh closed with a call to action: “Rabbi Gurevich [of UCLA Chabad] and I will be re-dedicating a new Mezuzah at my office (Kerckhoff 317) on Thursday, January 18th at 1PM. You are all invited to join us.”
Asked what advice she had for students of all backgrounds facing bigotry on their campus, Mokhtarzadeh told me, “the best way to combat hate speech and hateful acts is to counter them with brave speech and brave acts.”