It’s been more than a year since the beginning of the Green Revolution in Iran, and the murder of Neda Agha-Soltan by an Iranian militia — turning her into a martyr in the fight against the country’s brutal regime and a symbol of the hope for democracy among its people.
While reading a recent article in Foreign Policy, I learned that at the same time that Neda Agha-Soltan lost her life, another young woman with a very similar name also lost hers — only she is still alive. In a rush to scoop each other, media outlets confused the identity of the woman whom the world saw bleeding to death on the streets of Tehran with one Neda Soltani who was busy with her university studies and far from the mass demonstrations.
When she tried to prove that the Facebook photo that was circulating was hers and not that of the murdered woman, few would listen or correct the mistake. Facing government persecution, Soltani was granted asylum in Germany. But she is alone there, separated from her family and all that she has known.
We see examples of such cases of mistaken identity in a number of biblical stories that figure prominently in the curriculum of congregational and day schools alike (as well as in Bible classes in Israeli public schools). There are major consequences to identify theft in Jacob’s stealing Esau’s birthright, Laban’s switching Leah for Rachel on Jacob’s wedding night and Tamar’s seduction of Judah, among other Torah narratives.
What is usually stressed in traditional Jewish interpretation and study is that the deceit was in service of a greater good. In other words, the omniscient God is the maker and mover of history, so these identity-related machinations — no matter how morally questionable — are all part of a larger plan for am yisrael.
Do teachers take the time to explore with their young students the unintended, unforeseen consequences for these human bystanders to the flow of biblical history? We know that Jacob’s relationship with his brother changed, but what about his relationship with his mother? Or what happens to the psyche of young woman when she is manipulated by her father and put into an intimate relationship with someone who loves her sister? Or what is it like to live in a society in which you feel you have no choice but to trick someone in order to survive?
Jewish sources — both traditional and modern — that deal with these questions do exist. A willingness on the part of all of us to take the time and pay attention to them has the potential to make a big difference.
Similar questioning could have changed the course of Neda Soltani’s life.