Jewish in Guanajuato

This post originally appeared in The Forward on February 4th, 2013.

I recently spent several weeks studying Spanish in Guanajuato. It’s an important historical city in central Mexico, where influential mines once stood and where the first battle of the Mexican War of Independence took place. Guanajuato is also a predominately Catholic city; my host family had large paintings of Catholic saints, ornate crosses and other Christian décor in every room of the house. Outside, every restaurant I ate in and every bus I rode bore prominent symbols of the faith.

In many ways, this city was like nothing I had ever experienced before. At the same time, it felt surprisingly familiar.

I have great Christian friends in the U.S., and I have been invited to decorate their Christmas trees and join their families on Easter egg hunts. But being in Guanajuato was different. The feeling of faith and religion in this community was far more intense and palpable. In my short time there, we celebrated two Catholic holidays I’d never heard of before: Los Dias de Los Reyes and Levantar Al Niño Dios. The first, which falls every year on Jan. 6, commemorates the arrival in Bethlehem of the three Wise Men, Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar, who followed the Star of Bethlehem bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the baby Jesus. The second holiday, which can be celebrated any time between Jan. 6 and Feb. 2, marks the day the baby Jesus was presented in the temple by his parents and formally ends the Christmas season.

Despite feeling like the only Jew in town, I experienced no exclusion or anti-Semitism. Instead, I was offered a special opportunity; in Guanajuato, I found I was able to be openly Jewish, and to grow Jewishly, while still immersing myself in a new culture and religion very different from my own.

One night during my trip, I took a taxi home and my driver asked, “¿a dónde vas?” (Where are you going?) I told him my address. His next question was, “¿Es usted católico?” (Are you Catholic?) “No, yo soy judío.” I replied. He looked momentarily puzzled, processing my Jewish identity, and then the moment passed.

This experience, while initially unsettling, ultimately made me feel a strange sense of understanding. How many of us have been in Israel and had an Israeli say to us in the very first moments of meeting, “Are you Jewish? Are you going to make aliyah?” The people of Israel and the people of Guanajuato share this fierce sense of pride about who they are and where they live, and they also look to share that feeling with others.

What’s even more interesting is that Guanajuato reminds me of Jerusalem, another city carrying the responsibility of history and tradition while also facing the financial challenges and tough choices of modernization. Aesthetically, they even look similar. Guanajuato is reminiscent of a rainbow Jerusalem with its architecture, its valleys, its mountains and its past.

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Guanajuato, Mexico. (photo: Rachel Cohen)

During one weekend of my trip, I traveled to Mexico City and was startled by how high-tech, hip and cool the city felt. It was worlds apart from the historical tranquility of Guanajuato. Again, I couldn’t help but draw connections to Israel, with Tel Aviv’s modernity creating stark contrasts to Jerusalem’s more serious milieu.

I’m humbled by the chance to travel to all of these places and to visit incredibly holy sites for both Catholics and Jews. I know travel is a privilege. The wall of my hostel in Mexico City said, “Traveling is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” The warmth and hospitality I received was invaluable, and I also feel grateful that being Jewish and having a relationship with Israel only deepened my connection to and understanding of the city of Guanajuato.

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Jerusalem, Israel. (photo: Rachel Cohen)

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On the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank

There is a fundamental Catch-22 with the security rationale of the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank. When Palestinians respond in violence to their oppressed situation, be it through acts of terrorism or riots, Israel justifies the occupation as a national security need. The Palestinian people need to be governed by martial law, in order to protect the Israeli population from security threats.

But then when Palestinians renounce violence and switch their resistance tactics to more nonviolent demonstrations and protests, Israel justifies the occupation as a successful national security tool. The Palestinian people need to be governed by martial law, as evidenced by how improved the security of the Israeli population has been over the past half decade. We can’t stop now, or else they’ll just return to their violent ways.

Thus there is no end in sight. And in the meantime, Israel continues to expand settlements which make the prospects of a two state solution much more difficult to achieve. An occupation is supposed to be a temporary situation. It is a distinctive characteristic that separates occupation from annexation and colonialism. But the Israeli occupation has existed for over 45 years.

Beyond the problematic state of the occupation in a legal context, it is immoral and undemocratic to maintain the situation that exists today in the West Bank. You have Israeli settlers living in the same region as Palestinians, and if an Israeli commits a crime, they are subjected to Israel’s civil courts, like any other Israeli citizen living anywhere in Israel. But if a Palestinian commits the exact same crime, in the same exact spot, they are subjected to an entirely different set of laws and legal proceedings, and they’re sent to a military court.

First of all, there is no due process for the military courts. Second of all, the military courts have astonishingly high conviction rates. (99.74%) And thirdly, Palestinians don’t have a right to vote for the Israeli government, even though the government is the body that makes the decisions and appoints the individuals that control their lives.

So why doesn’t Israel just annex the West Bank, instead of occupying it? If Israel wants to continue to expand settlements and build up the West Bank, why don’t they just de-facto annex the territory, like they did with the Golan Heights?

There’s a simple and oft-cited calculation for this issue. It goes like this:
There are three variables. 1. Israel as a democratic state. 2. Israel where the majority of citizens are Jewish. And 3. Israel controlling all of the land.

^In any final scenario, Israel will ultimately have only two of these three variables.

To annex the West Bank would mean Israel would need to grant all the Palestinians living there citizenship, and give them the same rights as any other Israeli. Which they don’t want to do because they want to maintain a Jewish majority in Israel. Because of demographic realities, including the Palestinians in the citizenry would effectively end the Jewish majority. And to grant Palestinians citizenship but deny them equal rights would make Israel a patently undemocratic state. And so their solution for now is to continue to build up the West Bank with Jewish settlements, say they’re waiting for a “peace partner” (even though the current President of Israel has categorically said they already have one) and justify the occupation with “security concerns.” I’ll say it again. These Palestinians have been living under occupation for 45 years.

I care about the state of Israel. A lot. I spend an inordinate amount of my time reading and thinking about these issues. And I want the citizens of Israel to be safe and secure. Yet it really disturbs me when people, especially Jewish people, roll their eyes at the notion of “human rights”. Or even “democracy” and “dignity.” I really want to know, would all of the individuals who say the occupation is a necessary evil for security purposes, be able to look into a Palestinian’s eyes, as I did last week, and say to them, “I’m sorry but my need for safety is more important than your basic human rights.”

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photo credit: Rachel Cohen

Final thought: in terms of history, and especially history of countries engaged in conflict–one thing I learn over and over in my history classes is, there is really no such thing as a status quo. 

‘Apolitical’ Israel Fairs? No Such thing

Below is an an op-ed I had published in New Voices Magazine about the troubling trend that exists on many college campuses in America when celebrating or discussing Israel. Full article can be read here: http://www.newvoices.org/opinion?id=0160

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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen

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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen

Two weeks ago we celebrated Yom Haatzmaut – Israel’s birthday. It’s an exciting time of year for those of us who care and advocate for the state of Israel. Celebrations commemorating Israel’s Independence Day happened on college campuses all over the country. And yet I observed two troubling trends surrounding many of these events that do injustice to Israel, to pro-Israel advocacy, and to the intelligence of college students.

Many of these fairs are framed as “cultural events” – an effort to create an apolitical space for the discussion of Israel. This goal is impossible. Whether the organizers realize it or not, Israeli society and the American Jewish conception of it is so heavily politicized that it is incredibly difficult to have, do or say anything about Israel that is totally apolitical. As a result, the organizers of these events end up presenting political opinions disguised as facts.

In January I read a powerful op-ed by Haaretz journalist Merav Michaeli. She wrote, “There is no such thing as ‘not political.’ Everything is political. Economics, culture, the media, fashion, consumerism – they are all political. The statement ‘I am not political’ is in itself political. It is a politics that accepts the existing order and reinforces it. It is the politics of not taking responsibility.”

Even though she was talking about Israeli citizens, her sentiments ring true for American Jews as well.

At Johns Hopkins University we recently held our annual Israel Fair, a large campus-wide event. The event was advertised as a day to “learn about the history of Israel and all the amazing accomplishments that have been achieved over the past 64 years.” The event was fun. The falafel tasted delicious. The music was happy and familiar. And yet, something about the event was disconcerting.

I am the leader of our chapter of J Street U – the college arm of J Street, the American pro-Israel pro-peace group. As a co-sponsor of the event, we were told explicitly that this event was intended to be apolitical. Meaning, in effect, that there should be no discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the peace process in general. The goal of the organizers was to avoid creating an environment that could potentially elicit “anti-Israel sentiment.”

This type of event happens at campuses all across the country.

At the University of Michigan every year they have Israel Birthday Bash where the mainstream pro-Israel group sets up a big moon-bounce in the center of campus and distributes falafel and cake – along with facts about Israel’s achievements and history. Recently at the University of Maryland they celebrated Israel Fest, pitched as “a celebration of Israeli culture with free food, camel rides, inflatable activities, face painting, and more!”

There is nothing wrong with celebrating Israel’s successes, but doing so is only one part of the broader picture of how we should engage with Israel, and the way these successes are presented inevitably carries with it political implications.

All too often, events that are framed as “cultural” partner with national organizations that have explicit political agendas. I watched as pamphlets were distributed at our Israel Fair that reported on Israel’s human rights record, Israeli LGBT tolerance and Arab voting rights. Maps of Israel were disseminated. Fact sheets were passed out about the Israeli Defense Force and Israel’s humanitarian aid to other countries. I do not oppose these topics being discussed, however I reject the claim that these are somehow “not political.” They are.

One popular handout used on college campuses, including mine, is the StandWithUs “Pocket Facts” booklet.  Some “facts” from this booklet:

  • “Israelis resettled lands their families had owned in the West Bank, where Jews had lived for millennia until the 1948 War when they were expelled.”
  • “Iranian leaders are racing to build nuclear weapons.”

When the Chief of Staff of the Israeli military, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, says that Iran is likely not building a weapon, it is not a fact to say Iran is “racing to build nuclear weapons.” It might be a mainstream opinion, but it is certainly not a settled fact. When the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly, in accordance with the law, that numerous settlements in the West Bank are built on Palestinian land, or land with contested ownership because it was not farmed by anyone for a certain number of years, it is not a fact to say that settlements are categorically built on land once owned by Jews, as implied by the StandWithUs literature. Let us be intellectually honest. These statements are opinions.

Israel fairs are great. We should have them. But they should also directly address the political situation Israel faces. And if they opt not to, we must acknowledge that these fairs are still political. Even when we engage in discussions about Israel’s technological achievements or their treatment of the LGBT community, we must be open about the political nature of these things. Politics does not have to be a dirty word.

More importantly, we’re not doing Israel any good by avoiding the peace process. We should be talking about the two-state solution, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, Israeli settlements, and rocket attacks. All of these are crucial elements in envisioning and understanding Israel and its future. We should embrace the complexity, and give people actual answers instead of pretending that these issues don’t exist. This is how we can do justice to Israel, get more people involved in pro-Israel activism and show students that we trust them to be smart people.

Pro-Israel advocates cannot shield college students from the conflict. Students will read about it in newspapers. They will watch documentaries they find on Netflix. It is unavoidable. But let’s be proactive and embrace the challenges head on, precisely at a campus-wide event created to learn about Israel. We can provide people with the opportunity to develop a real, deep relationship with Israel, not just one that’s based on a universal love of falafel.

Günter Grass’s Bad Poem. Israel’s Troubling Response.

On April 4th, German Nobel Laureate Günter Grass published a controversial 69-line poem entitled “What Must Be Said.” It has since sparked world-wide debate.

Some quick background on Grass:
He is one of the leading literary figures of the 20th century; he has written a series of internationally acclaimed novels that explored both the origins and the implications of the crimes of the Third Reich. For a long time he was viewed as a thoughtful conscience of the German nation. In 2006, at 78 years old, (after he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999) he confessed that at 17, he served in the Waffen-SS at the end of World War II. This confession made many see Grass as a hypocrite, where they had once seen an important moral voice.

ImageGrass’s poem was published in the Munich-based newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.  The poem accused Israel of endangering “the already fragile world peace” by its warnings to Iran that it might strike their nuclear facilities. Mr. Grass contended that by supplying weapons to Israel, Germany risked being complicit in “a foreseeable crime.”

Two days after the poem was published, Grass clarified in an interview that he did not mean to vilify Israel as a whole, but to attack the policies of Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

The international community’s condemnation of this poem was immediate and strong.

Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman issued a statement saying that Grass’ poem is an example of, “egoism of so-called Western intellectuals, who are willing to sacrifice the Jewish people on the alter of crazy anti-Semites for a second time, just to sell a few more books or gain recognition.”

German leaders from across the political spectrum denounced the poem’s message, ranging from “ill-informed” to “outrageous” to “Anti-Semitic.” Many artists said it was simply a “bad poem.”

However, while Grass’s poem was cringe-worthy and deeply misguided, some responses to the poem have been seriously troubling.

Israeli Interior Minister, Eli Yishai has declared Grass a “persona non grata”, (which literally means an “unwelcome person”) thus barring Grass’s future entry into the state of Israel. He justified this by saying that Grass was making an, “attempt to inflame hatred against the State of Israel and people of Israel, and thus to advance the idea to which he was publicly affiliated in his past donning of the SS uniform.”

This response is worrisome. This type of measure sets a very dangerous precedent for Israel’s democracy. To ban individuals who say things that are critical or offensive from entering the state has raised serious concerns about the future of free speech.

“It’s dangerous when one politician can decide a poem is grounds for banning people. I’m sure there are quite a few short stories of mine that Yishai doesn’t like. I wouldn’t want him to prevent me from returning home next time I’m abroad,” said  Etgar Keret, an Israeli short-story writer.

Famous novelist and essayist, Salman Rushdie tweeted in response to all of this, “OK to dislike, even be disgusted by #GünterGrass poem, but to ban him is infantile pique. The answer to words must always be other words.”

Even Alan Dershowitz, one of Israel’s most vocal supporters in the United States called the move, “foolish and self-defeating.”

Dershowitz wrote in the Huffington Post last week that, “By misusing border controls to make a symbolic gesture of contempt against a writer, Israel’s Minister of the Interior weakens his nation’s otherwise strong case for excluding individuals who pose genuine threats to the physical security of Israeli citizens. Border controls should be reserved for real security threats.”

In other words, terrorists should be barred from Israel. Not poets.

The Future of Pro-Israel

Today J Street launched its new national campaign: The Future of Pro-Israel

Photo Credit: Shereen Shafi

Hundreds of people, young and old, from all over the country, are writing short responses and recording videos about why they are the Future of Pro-Israel. Together we’re redefining the term. To be Pro-Israel no longer means you have to be “Anti-Palestinian” or place the conflict into a context of “good guys” and “bad guys”. People are smarter than that. People are tired of that. People know that for a complicated issue that has been going on for over sixty years, both sides have had their share of serious transgressions and mistakes. People want to start being intellectually honest, open and critical. People want to be Pro-Israel while still actively supporting a two-state solution.

Here are some videos from students I’ve met through my involvement with J Street U, that I’m proud to now call my friends. Maya Lee-Parritz from Bates college

Simone Zimmerman from UC Berkeley

Logan Bayroff from the University of Pennsylvania

Jenny Ferentz from Johns Hopkins University

Jacob Plitman from UNC

It’s incredibly important, empowering and necessary that J Street and J Street U are redefining what it means to be Pro-Israel in this politically frustrating country.