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A Persian Jewish Refugee Who Fled Iran by Airlift Just Became a State Senator in New York

From Tabriz to Albany, Anna Kaplan has arrived as a rising name in politics

Miriam Levy-Haim
November 29, 2018
Anna Kaplan
Anna Kaplan

Democrat Anna Kaplan’s recent victory over Republican incumbent Elaine Phillips helped flip the New York state Senate, long dominated by Republicans, to Democratic control. That’s a very big deal in New York politics but the win is notable for other reasons as well—it makes Kaplan, who came to America as refugee from Iran, the highest ranking Persian-Jewish elected official in the state.

Kaplan was born Anna Monahemi in Tabriz, Iran, and raised in Tehran. There was a recorded Jewish presence in Tabriz, located in the mountains of northwest Iran, since at least the 12th century, but that ancient community of some 400 Jews was wiped out in a blood libel massacre in 1830. About a century and half later, when she was 13 years old, Kaplan fled the Islamic Revolution as a child refugee and arrived in the United States as part of an airlift of Iranian children. She initially stayed in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and then fostered with a family in Chicago where she learned English and attended high school until her parents and family were able to legally join her in the United States more than a year later. She went on to graduate from Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women and Benjamin Cardozo School of Law.

“Persian Jews stayed out of politics in Iran,” writes Kaplan on her Facebook page. “My parents and community were afraid of being noticed—they were a small, vulnerable minority in a conservative part of a conservative country. But here in the United States, we have been given so much opportunity and I am so grateful to this country for opening its arms that I’ve had to give back.”

In New York’s 7th Senate District, which covers parts of Long Island’s Nassau County, Kaplan ran a grassroots campaign with volunteers canvassing and knocking on doors. Gov. Andrew Cuomo came down to campaign with her, and former President Obama tweeted his support. Emily’s List endorsed her run. She ran on her local record of accomplishments, as a councilwoman of the Town of North Hempstead, since 2011, and as a member of North Hempstead Board of Zoning Appeals and of the Board of Trustees of the Great Neck Public Library District before that.

Kaplan’s political platform is moderate, aligned with the mainstream of the Democratic party. In a Reddit AMA in October, she described her legislative priorities: “My top priorities are passage of the Reproductive Health Act (which will codify Roe v. Wade under New York law), the Child Victims’ Act (which extends the limitations period for adult victims of sexual abuse to bring suit), and helping implement a plan to reduce property taxes on Long Island.” She also avidly supports comprehensive gun control, such as red flags laws and disarming domestic batterers.

This election cycle has been notable for the number of women and minorities who have run for office. Anna Kaplan has been ahead of the curve. In 2011, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand recognized Kaplan as part of her “Off the Sidelines” initiative to encourage women to run for office. At a panel discussion at Hofstra University, Kaplan briefly recapped her life story and described her unexpected path to public service.

I got involved in the PTA, and after that somebody sort of nominated me to run for a library election, and I didn’t say no, so. … If you had told me this 30 years ago that I would be sitting here as an elected official, I would have told you, impossible. It was never a thought in my mind that I would do. But all of you who think you can’t, always remember my story. And if you set your mind and believe in yourself, and you have a cause that you believe in, you should take a chance and run.

In some ways, Kaplan is unique in her community for her active involvement in politics, which generally is not common for the Jewish-Persian community, though that is slowly changing. Jewish-Persian “engagement politically really revolves around Israel,” observes Jackie Harounian, a family practice attorney in Great Neck, Long Island, who is a first-generation Iranian-American Jew, and a long-time friend and supporter of Kaplan’s. “It’s fundraising for Israel. And there have been tremendous amounts of awareness and money raised even among young people.” She refers to the Iranian American Jewish Federation of New York, which raises millions for social services programs in Israel each year and acknowledged Kaplan, among other local leaders, at their annual gala this year.

And, Harounian notes, Kaplan shares those values. “On foreign policy, Anna has been a very strong advocate of Israel. She was one of the first people, even when Obama was holding office, to come out against the Iran deal on behalf of her constituents, which many of them were Persian Jews. She was very vocal about anti-BDS and the Iran deal.”

In 2017, she and the North Hempstead Town Board unanimously voted to pass a law that prohibits the town from conducting business with any company that boycotts Israel. At the time, Kaplan commented, “The BDS movement goes far beyond criticism of Israel’s policies and instead targets the world’s only Jewish state for economic strangulation and destruction while conspicuously ignoring the grave and repeated human rights abuses of other governments within and without the region. By passing this legislation, the Town of North Hempstead’s taxpayers are sending a clear message that they will not do business with any entity that associates with the BDS movement or any other hate group.”

In 2015, she signed a letter addressed to Long Island’s congressional delegation on behalf of her constituents opposing the Iran Deal, citing security concerns to Israel.

On her website, Kaplan states: “My reasons for seeking to become a New York state Senator begin where I begin—with a journey from fear and persecution to a place of safety and freedom. It’s the most American of stories but the story’s beginning as a frightened, powerless minority animates everything I do. And my undying gratitude to this great country for taking me in during my most desperate hour is what compels me to public service.”

Miriam Levy-Haim is a student at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Master’s program in Middle Eastern Studies, with a particular interest in the history of Jews of the Middle East. She has worked for several Jewish educational institutions developing curricula for adults and teens.