The Hostage Crisis in Iran and My Humanitarian Journey There
Like many, I was gripped by the Iran hostage crisis that began on November 4, 1979, when 52 Americans were captured by Iranian militants – followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini – who scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. When I learned through the media about a humanitarian visit, I contacted the organizer and two weeks later received a phone call: Was I interested in an 11-day mission to see the hostages?
On February 5, 1980, our clergy group flew to Tehran. Entering the airport terminal, we found bare walls, plastered only with pictures of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Immediately, we were surrounded by machine-gun brandishing members of the Revolutionary Guard. After some tense moments, we were driven to a dilapidated hotel in downtown Tehran; the militants had renamed it "Hotel of the Glorious Revolution." Our hope, of course, was to see the hostages – and the day they would be free.
The next afternoon we met with an imam who harangued us that Israel was a tool of America and the Zionists, exploiting his Muslim brothers and sisters. I blurted out, "If you call yourselves Compassionate Sons of Allah, why don’t you treat my people with compassion?" One of the American ministers touched my shoulder and whispered, "Hirshel, you must feel lonely here as a Jew." I don't know what stirred within me, but I answered him, "No, I'm not alone. I am accompanied by the souls of my people who have been oppressed throughout history."
Five days later, we were driven to a huge anti-American demonstration near Tehran University. As we snaked our way through the demonstrators, they shook their fists at us and pounded on our bus, yelling, "Down with America! Death to President Carter!" We were almost trampled as we struggled to climb the rungs of a rickety platform hastily erected for us.
The agitated crowd pressed against the platform, which suddenly buckled and collapsed. We heard screams and moans of people crushed underneath us. As the scaffolding crashed, I jumped 10 feet to the ground. I wasn't hurt, but two of my companions were injured in the melee. Over the commotion, someone shouted, "Rabbi, get out of here!" I wandered the streets until I found our hotel, overjoyed to be reunited with the others who feared something ominous might have happened to me.
At 5 a.m. on February 14, a militant knocked on our door: "You clergy people wait here, because we're going to take you to visit the poor souls injured when the stands collapsed." Turning to Father Jack, my roommate, I said, "You know that's a ruse. They're taking us to see the hostages."
After yet another ride through Tehran, our van screeched to a halt at the American Embassy. Armed militants perched atop the towering walls. Led into a room in which blankets covered the windows and ever-present pictures of Khomeini adorned the walls, we waited anxiously until the militants led in some of the hostages. To ease their fears, we made small talk about life back home. I was close to tears wondering if they’d ever go free.
Told we could take letters from the hostages to their loved ones, one of them handed me a sheaf of letters. I clutched them as I embraced each hostage, whispering, “The American people are praying for you, and you are not forgotten.”
In one embrace, I handed a Hebrew prayer book to a captive for the Jewish hostages who were not allowed to visit with us. (Ten months later, at the White House, the Jewish hostages told me the militants had deceived them about my presence in Tehran. The prayer book, they said, had lifted their spirits, giving them hope and a will to survive.)
As we prepared to leave, the militants suddenly barred our way. “You can’t leave. One of you received a secret message from a hostage.” They pointed directly at me. Despite the terrifying thoughts that filled my mind, I called their bluff: “I am here on a humanitarian visit and will not be treated this way!”
I was separated from the others, led into a courtyard out-of-view, and made to strip down to my shorts before they searched me and my belongings, including every name in my address book. Luckily, I had crossed out the Israeli secret service agents who had briefed me before the trip. No doubt, the militants were itching to hold me hostage as a Zionist spy. As they led me back to rejoin the others, I couldn’t resist tipping up my yarmulke, as if to say: ”You forgot to look under here, boys!”
When the hostages finally were liberated in January 1981, President Reagan invited me to the White House to greet them. There I met Bill Dougherty, a hostage who had been isolated and beaten, but never complained. “Others had it worse than me,” he said. I was wearing a silver bracelet etched with his name and date of capture, given to me by his mother while he was being held. Seeing him stare at it, I said, “Bill, would you like to come to Newburgh? We’ll have a ceremony and I’ll present the bracelet to you.” “No,” he answered, “if you don’t mind, I’d like to have the bracelet now!”
After the reception, Bill wrote me a letter reads, in part: “Thank you for all your efforts and for the love shown to us by 250 million Americans while we were held hostage. As far as the bracelet, when you took it from your wrist and put it on mine, the pain began to go away.”
To mark the 40thanniversary of the Iranian hostage crisis, BBC World News will air a documentary, “A Call from the Hostage Takers,” on Saturday, June 15, and Sunday, June 16, 2019.