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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‘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

Image

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.