I am the child of Holocaust survivors, who lost their homes and families because a Nazi regime implemented the “Final Solution” to eradicate the Jewish people. There are no gravestones to mark the place where all my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins were murdered and buried.
This week, I spoke to Lawdan Bazargan, an Iranian Muslim woman whose brother Bijan was murdered in another more recent attempt at a Final Solution, and who does not know where her brother or the thousands of others who were massacred with him rest today. She and I have little in common except the open wounds of the past and outrage that our tragedies are being diminished, distorted and deleted in academia today.
Our roads intersected at Oberlin College, where Mohammad Jafar Mahallati serves as the Nancy Schrom Dye Chair in Middle East and North African Studies. He also served the Iranian regime to obfuscate and lie to the international community about mass crimes perpetrated by that regime, thus enabling the crimes to continue.
Silence is not an option for me, so today I speak up for Bijan and the thousands of others who were murdered by the Iranian regime, and against those who would have us dismiss mass murder as “letting bygones be bygones.”
In 1979, Bijan was a college student in London. He returned to Iran to help rebuild his country during the revolution. Two years later, he was arrested, interrogated, tortured and sentenced to imprisonment for 10 years for the crime of membership in an opposing political organization.
His crime was distributing pamphlets and donating money. Six years later, Bijan was hauled before a Death Commission, given a 10-minute “trial,” after which he was “hanged, carried away in a meat truck and buried in an unmarked mass grave.” His family was never given the location of his burial.
“My parents died, not even knowing where their beloved son was buried,” Lawdan shared.
If Bijan’s death were an isolated miscarriage of justice, it would be a tragedy. It was not. It was one case of what Amnesty International described as a “crime against humanity.”
The summer of 1988 was one of the bloodiest in the bloody history of the regime. More than 5,000 prisoners were tortured and killed. According to Amnesty International, that summer, the Iranian authorities “forcibly disappeared and extrajudicially executed thousands of imprisoned political dissidents in secret and dumped their bodies, mostly in unmarked graves.”
Human Rights Watch agreed with the assessment, as did a tribunal of international judges.
Amnesty International documented the massacre as “ongoing crimes against humanity” and called for an independent United Nations investigation. Mahallati, Iran’s permanent representative to the U.N. in New York, enabled the regime’s mass executions by denying the crimes and calling those of prisoners “battlefield” deaths.
U.N. records show that Mahallati continued to discredit the overwhelming evidence of mass murder, called the allegations “political propaganda against the Islamic Republic” and blamed “a terrorist organization based in Iraq” for being the main source of the “fake information.”
This month, Lawdan and other families of victims were horrified to discover that Mahallati was a professor of religion and head of the Islamic and Peace Studies at Oberlin College. On Oct. 8, fifty-six family members of the victims and former political prisoners, as well as 577 additional signatories, sent a letter to Oberlin detailing the professor’s sordid history and calling his hiring “at odds with the values of Oberlin College.
Lawdan wants not only to hold enablers or murderers accountable but also to protect students from being under their influence.
“The cycle of violence will break only when the cycle of impunity and unaccountability is broken,” he said. “As American citizens, we must champion an education system free of bigots, murderers and people accused of crimes against humanity. Professor Mahallati has no place in our higher education system.”
As a side note, Mahallati, the “Professor of Peace,” also called for the destruction of Israel and defended his country’s persecution of the peaceful Baha’i community.
Lawdan has joined with other victims’ families who refuse to be silenced. They are holding a rally to protest the Iranian official who silenced Iran’s mass executions, as well as the silence of Oberlin’s administration, which has issued no response to their concerns and has reinstated Mahallati to the classroom. If the words “Never Again” mean anything, they mean that we reject silence in the face of evil.
The rally is scheduled for Tuesday, November 2, 2021, from 12 to 2 pm in front of the Cox Administration Building at Oberlin College, Ohio. To participate via Zoom, click here.
Peggy Shapiro is the Midwest executive director of StandWithUs. A child of Holocaust survivors born in a displaced persons camp, she was one of the founding members of the Midwest Association of Children of Holocaust Survivors and the International Second Generation Association. She was appointed as special adviser to the president of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council by Elie Wiesel and served as the annual chairperson for the Elie Wiesel lecture series in Chicago for 26 years. Prior to her role in StandWithUs, she served as chairperson of the Foreign Language/ESL Department at the City Colleges of Chicago and professor for 31 years.