Baltimore Jews join Freddie Gray protests – but it’s complicated

Originally published in Haaretz on May 5th, 2015
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After a tumultuous couple of weeks in Baltimore, in which protests, marches and riots raged through Charm City following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray — the Jewish community moved to raise funds, organize volunteers and engage in interfaith outreach. But in Baltimore, which has a complicated, and often fraught, history of Jewish-black relations, there is both a commitment to fight inequality and a reluctance to ruffle long-established relationships with city officials and the police.

The Baltimore Jewish Council, which represents about 55 local congregations and institutions, issued a statement that called for Jews to “stand beside our African American partners to combat racism and economic inequality.” Arthur Abramson, BJC’s executive director for the past 25 years, says his organization “has not hesitated for one moment” to stand up for injustice.

But he was frank about the challenges that remain for Jews seeking to combat racism. “Look, Maryland is a southern state. It was a slave state. In general, it’s not what I would describe as a place where African Americans and Jews sit around and sing ‘Kumbaya,’” he said.

Throughout the decades there have been plenty of instances of Jewish racism and black anti-Semitism in the city. Still, Abramson feels proud of the improved relations the BJC has helped to build over the past 25 years, which he attributes to concerted engagement, dialogue and programs involving the two communities.

Rabbi Etan Mintz, who leads Baltimore’s oldest and continually active synagogue, B’nai Israel, spent much of last week – as protests spread in the city and elsewhere following the death of Gray, for which six police officers have been charged – working with other local clergy.

“It’s a very powerful experience just to listen to people, to pray with people, and to be a presence face-to-face with one another,” Mintz said. He noted what he called the “outrageous reality” of poverty, inequality and mass incarcerations, but also stressed that the majority of police officers in the city are “peace-loving individuals who are trying to protect us on a daily basis.” He is concerned about a phenomenon of “guilt by association” — linking the broader police force to a few bad officers who acted inhumanely.

Mintz’s synagogue, which is Orthodox, is located downtown near the Inner Harbor, the former epicenter of Baltimore Jewish life. Now B’nai Israel, which is the last of what were once 20 synagogues in this area, is sometimes nicknamed “the Masada of East Baltimore.”

Jews began moving out toward the suburb of Pikesville in the 1950s and ’60s, and Mintz says the real “nail in the coffin” of inner-city presence was the 1968 riots, where many Jewish businesses were looted and destroyed. The latest disturbances, he adds, have sparked difficult memories for some of his congregants.

Solidarity events

Another organization, Jews United for Justice, (JUFJ) has taken a more demonstrably public role in supporting African-American protestors. The group was formed in late 2014 to provide an outlet for Jews, mostly in their twenties and thirties, to engage in social justice work. Many of these activists turned out for Ferguson solidarity events earlier in the year, so it was not surprising to see 30 JUFJ members marching on April 25th in Baltimore with black-and-white picket signs that called for #JusticeForFreddie.

Last Friday, the day Baltimore’s State Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that the six policemen would face criminal charges, the number of JUFJ members who turned out to march rose to 100.

“I think this reflects the growing interest,” says JUFJ member Owen Silverman Andrews. “[We have] created a space where people can plug in within their own communities in a way that is still connected to the larger struggle.”

Marc Terrill, the president of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, says he is pleased with the fast response the Jewish community took, and continues to take, in showing solidarity with the Freddie Gray protests. He says that ultimately there needs to be an agenda, both with short-term and long-term goals.

In the short term, the Associated has helped to organize volunteers and raise funds for food, toys and other supplies in order “to rebuild the communities torn asunder by wide-spread looting and vandalism,” according to its website. In the long term, Terrill mentions the need to promote greater access for city residents to health care, job training, education, counseling and mentoring programs, and to contribute to an overall greater push for societal integration.

“Our relationship with the African-American community is collaborative,” Terrill says. “Not everything is good, but we have the will and desire to work at it.”

While the Jewish community is presenting a relatively united front for now, the question of how and if its members will come together around the issue of police reform remains unclear. This community is one of the more politically conservative Jewish communities in the United States. And the established relationships Jewish leaders have cultivated with city and state officials — which have helped ensure enhanced security and support for Jewish groups and institutions — are very important.

The BJC did not come out strongly for any of the police reform bills that were being considered in Annapolis this past legislative season, despite months of organizing and campaigning by local activists. By contrast, members from JUJF, including Rabbi Daniel Burg, who leads an egalitarian synagogue in Reservoir Hill, offered testimony in support of legislation that would alter the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

Jewish communal leaders have all expressed a commitment to tackle the “deeper issues” provoked by the Freddie Gray protests – specifically with regards to economic inequality and poverty. However, whether they will be able to do so without inserting tension into some of their long-standing political relationships remains to be seen.

Jewish Fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi Marks 100 Years Amid Sweeping Culture Changes

Originally published in The Forward on September 1st, 2013. 

Many kegs have been tapped since the night of November 7, 1913, when 11 Jewish students gathered at New York University to found the first official chapter of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity. Over the next 100 years, the organization, most commonly known as AEPi, would grow — from a small sanctuary for ostracized Jews into an influential international fraternity encompassing 177 active chapters in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France and Israel.

“The story of AEPi is the story of extreme upward mobility,” said Marianne Sanua, an American Jewish historian at Florida Atlantic University and the author of “Going Greek: Jewish College Fraternities in the United States, 1895–1945.”

“AEPi is absolutely unique. They are the only historically Jewish fraternity to still hold on to their Jewish identity. They don’t hesitate to call themselves a Jewish fraternity, and they don’t hesitate to say they prefer most of their members to be Jewish.”

AEPi reaches more than 9,000 undergraduates worldwide, and boasts an alumni network of more than 80,000 men. Their challenges reflect many of the same struggles of the larger Jewish Diaspora: its relationship to Israel, the increasingly pluralistic society in which it exists and the extent to which young people outwardly identify with Jewish institutional culture.

In August, more than 1,400 students, alumni and Jewish institutional leaders gathered at Manhattan’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to commemorate AEPi’s centennial anniversary.

“The audience heard a very unequivocal message about what AEPi is and the values we uphold,” said Elan Carr, AEPi’s international president and supreme master. “And those values are Jewish continuity, tikkun olam, Jewish leadership and support for Israel.”

One attendee, Barry Magen, who owns a Jewish art company in Elkins Park, Pa., reflected: “The conference gave me hope. I really believe that their leadership development is unparalleled.”

AEPi’s rise to such prominence was always an unlikely story.

In the early 20th century, fraternities across the United States were powerful presences on college campuses — and they unabashedly shut their doors to Jewish students. This exclusion, according to Sanua, was accomplished through restrictive clauses in fraternity constitutions and gentlemen’s agreements. In response, Jews formed their own Greek organizations; by the 1920s, at least 17 national Jewish sororities and fraternities existed in the United States, including Alpha Epsilon Phi and Zeta Beta Tau.

“This was their peak,” Sanua said. “Many of them went out of business during the Depression, or merged with one another.”

Additional attrition ensued in the 1960s and ’70s. Prompted by new civil rights legislation, colleges cracked down on such discriminatory practices as restrictive clauses in the constitutions of both non-Jewish and Jewish fraternities. The Vietnam War also contributed to the shifting milieu; liberal college students rebelled against authority as a whole and the Greek system — which they perceived as a conservative, hidebound institution.

“In America there was a general mood that fraternities were undemocratic, socially exclusive and destructive,” Sanua said.

The 1980s, however, brought a return to tradition, as well as Greek life’s revival as a vaunted campus symbol. “AEPi reaffirmed their commitment to Jewish identity while other historically Jewish fraternities were heading in the opposite direction,” Sanua said. “They also recognized that they likely could not compete with historically gentile fraternities.”

“We’re very proud that we stood our ground [in the ’80s] as a Jewish fraternity,” Carr said. He believes that committing to AEPi’s core values and history was the right decision not only “with regards to assimilation and loss of connection to Israel,” but also because staying true to what he calls “their brand” helped to ensure long-term success.

Today, AEPi’s challenges look very different.

“While our students don’t have to deal with anti-Semitism in nearly the same way as our founders did, they do face threats in terms of delegitimization of Israel — a place that is very special to our organization,” said Adam Maslia, AEPi’s Howard M. Lorber Director of Jewish and Philanthropy Programming.

It was after the second intifada that AEPi really began to tackle Israel advocacy from an institutional level. “We knew then that if being the last remaining Jewish fraternity means anything at all, it must mean that we are going to stand and support the Jewish people, which is the Jewish state,” Carr said.

But while AEPi’s leaders frame Israel activism as a fraternal mission, the extent to which individual chapters see themselves as pro-Israel advocates varies considerably.

“AEPi at Berkeley is pretty much the hub of the mainstream pro-Israel community,” said recent college grad Isaiah Kirshner-Breen, who now lives in Washington. “They’ve been always very active at organizing people against [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions], both in 2010 and this past spring.”

“Israel programming isn’t a huge thing for us, although every AEPi brother did show up for Israel Day,” said Jacob Plitman, an AEPi brother at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We’re rather culturally Jewish. We do a Seder, we all end up going to services. We’re Yom Kippur Jews.”

“Our school doesn’t really have an active Jewish community. We don’t do much with Israel,” said Michael Zysman, an AEPi brother at Bentley University, Mass. “We have a lot of non-Jews in our chapter.”

Certainly, non-Jews still pose a challenge for AEPi. While the group’s mission statement defines it as a nondiscriminatory fraternity, it also calls for efforts to “develop leadership for the North American Jewish community.”

Several students who asked for anonymity said that the recruitment goals of AEPi national versus those of local chapters are often divided.

“Nationals doesn’t really encourage you to recruit non-Jewish members, but we will actively recruit them if we think they will fit in with us,” said one student from a university on the East Coast.

Another college student in the Northeast admitted, “I think we tell Nationals we’re 75% to 80% Jewish but we’re probably more like 60%.”

Virgil Doyle, a non-Jewish student who served as president of Johns Hopkins’s AEPi chapter, embodies how much the fraternity has evolved over the years.

“I came to college with a pretty good idea I wanted to join a fraternity as a social thing, and AEPi just happened to be the group of guys I most identified with. There are enough people in the fraternity who are very involved in Jewish life around campus that me not being a part of that directly wasn’t something that I really worried about.”

The rise of AEPi has also begotten the rise of what is known as “APES,” an off-campus and unofficial AEPi spinoff. “When AEPi gets kicked off campus [for violating rules], they automatically [lose AEPi status] and have to become APES,” explained Ryan Erfer, an AEPi brother at Emory.

For some, the APES designation is seen as a punishment, since they are no longer recognized as an official chapter. Yet other chapters opt for APES status voluntarily. Two years ago, when the AEPi chapter at the University of Pennsylvania faced a two-year probation for violating pledging rules or disaffiliating altogether, they chose to “go APES.” Some argued it carried a “cooler” appeal, particularly since the Interfraternity Council is powerless to regulate them.

“APES tends to have a reputation for throwing parties that don’t adhere to the rules,” Erfer said, referring to the fraternity’s national reputation.

“‘Jewish bros’ is a real thing, those people exist,” Plitman said, referring to a contemporary pop-culture category of young men. “APES are the Jewish bros.”

Despite all this, AEPi continues to grow. Although it’s impossible to predict the future contours of the American Jewish community, the men of Alpha Epsilon Pi will quite likely play a role in shaping them. As Doyle sees it, “We probably have more discussions about the Middle East and Israel than the average Hopkins Greek male.”

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)

Solitary Confinement and Jewish Organizations

Published originally in New Voices Magazine on January 24, 2012 and reprinted in Solitary Watch.

If community is a foundation of Jewish life, what does Judaism have to say about solitary confinement, the forcible separation of a person from the community? A few months ago I began an internship with Solitary Watch, an investigative news organization dedicated to reporting on solitary confinement. Once I got started, I became interested in learning more about the work the American Jewish community organizes around this issue.

It turns out there is a lot of work being done, though it started quite recently. Beginning in 2012,T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights (recently renamed from Rabbis for Human Rights-North America), a coalition of 1,800 rabbis, and Uri L’Tzedek, a prominent liberal Modern Orthodox social justice organization, have both made the issue of solitary confinement a prominent part of their advocacy efforts.

Solitary confinement is a form of imprisonment where individuals are subjected to approximately 22-24 hours per day of isolated lockdown in tiny cells. Many Americans mistakenly believe that solitary confinement is used sparingly, only for the most dangerous or threatening prisoners. However, according the American Civil Liberties Union, there are more than 80,000 men, women and children currently in some sort of solitary confinement in United States prisons. Many have a mental illness or cognitive disability, and the majority has been placed there for nonviolent violations of prison rules.

The costs of solitary confinement are much higher than housing inmates in the general prison population. Mississippi recently reduced the number of prisoners it holds in solitary from 1,000 to about 150, and closed down their high-security Supermax unit. According to the ACLU, the reforms are saving Mississippi’s taxpayers approximately $8 million per year.

That economic perspective on solitary confinement is important, but there is a moral perspective to consider as well – and that is where the religious community can add a unique voice to the national conversation.

“We’re looking to provide some moral weight to the solitary confinement conversation by applying Jewish values,” said Shlomo Bolts, a prison consultant from Uri L’Tzedek.

“Sympathy for prisoners is not the most common sentiment amongst the American public. People do not want to be seen as weak or soft on crime,” said Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. “In the Torah however, it clearly says that if someone asks for forgiveness three times and you don’t forgive them, then the onus is on you. In Judaism we believe in repentance and that punishments don’t go on forever.”

While Uri L’Tzedek and T’ruah approach the issue of solitary confinement from a distinctly Jewish perspective, the scope of both groups’ work on the issue extends well beyond the Jewish community.

“We don’t want to make this a Jewish issue. We want to make it an American issue. As Americans we’re allowing for it to happen, we’re paying for it with our tax dollars,” said Kahn-Troster.

“We want to apply the Jewish values we learn to help all people,” said Bolts.

The two groups are part of a growing movement against solitary confinement. A feeling that the status quo is simply untenable is circulating in religious communities and among the politically engaged in general; change, while it may not be imminent, feels inevitable.

“This is an exciting time. We really do see ourselves as being a force to help pass legislation to abolish or reduce solitary confinement,” said Bolts.

In June, Senator Dick Durban (D-IL) led a congressional hearing on solitary confinement, the first in American history. The hearing focused on the human rights issues associated with isolation, the economic implications of solitary confinement and the psychological impact on inmates during and after their imprisonment.

Both T’ruah and Uri L’Tzedek contributed written testimony to the hearings. They also participated in the National Day of Fasting, an interfaith effort to raise awareness of the significance of the congressional hearing.

“Fasting serves as a way to repent and bear witness. For me to be at the congressional hearing, sitting with a group of religious leaders fasting was a very powerful experience,” said Rabbi Kahn-Troster.

Fasting also serves as an act of solidarity with prisoners in solitary confinement, for whom hunger strikes are often the only available form of protest.

“I think about the hunger strikers at Pelican Bay [a California Supermax facility]. They get poor food, and then they refuse to eat it in order to draw attention to their situation. When I fasted it really hit home what these people must be going through,” said Rabbi Kahn-Troster.

T’ruah and Uri L’Tzedek are also working with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. Founded in 2006 and comprised of more than 300 religious organizations, the campaign organizes protests against different forms of torture employed by the U.S., including those used at sites like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

Turning her organization’s focus toward solitary confinement now “seems like a natural outgrowth of our torture work,” said Rabbi Kahn-Troster.

Uri L’Tzedek and T’ruah now face the task of motivating American Jews to get more involved with the issue. Despite a history of involvement in a wide variety of social justice causes, the American Jewish community has generally avoided issues of prison reform.

“There is this misconception that Jews are somehow not incarcerated, yet Jews go to prison for the same reasons as everyone else,” said Chaplain Gary Friedman, chairman of Jewish Prisoner Services International, an organization that provides advocacy and spiritual services to Jewish prisoners and their families. Friedman estimates there are approximately 12,000-15,000 Jews in American prisons today, including some in solitary confinement.

Uri L’Tzedek’s approach to raising awareness is a mix of traditional advocacy combined with social science research led by the Tag Institute, a British-based think tank driven by Jewish social values. Among other things, Tag’s research seeks to generate quantitative survey data on the Jewish community’s perceptions of prisons and punitive punishment –and to find the most effective ways of organizing Jewish communities to advocate for humane alternatives to solitary confinement.

Meanwhile, T’ruah is mobilizing its network of 1,800 rabbis to raise the consciousness of members of their respective communities on the issue – and hopefully to inspire some activism about solitary confinement within their communities

As solitary confinement becomes an increasingly mainstream human rights issue, the work of the Jewish community is likely to grow and inspire further activism.

As it says in the Talmud (Ta’anit 23a), “Either companionship or death.”

Judaism and Politics

Originally published in New Voices on December 10, 2012

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The Forward’s Artist-in-ResidenceEli Valley just published a comic about a recent episode at Bnai Jeshurun, a non-denominational, liberal synagogue in New York City. The rabbis had sent out an email to their congregants praising the U.N. Palestinian vote, and then, after intense media coverage and mixed reactions from the community, they later apologized and said they regretted their decision to send this email. The rabbis wrote that their original email “did not honor the diversity of viewpoints in their community.”

I had the opportunity to meet Eli at this year’s New Voices student journalism conference and learned about the general political lens through which he interprets current events. In his new comic he contends that while the rabbis certainly say that Judaism can be a guide for moral clarity, in the face of political pressure they find themselves, “retracting, apologizing, and begging for forgiveness from [their] donor base.”

If I were a member of Bnai Jershurun, I might feel uncomfortable or offended by this comic. It could be read as a personal attack on their rabbis, their congregants, or on the eccentric nature of their spiritual environment. But I am not a member of that synagogue and I did not read it that way.

I read it not about the rabbis of Bnai Jershurun, but about rabbis in general.  I don’t think this comic would be so evocative unless it captured a larger phenomenon that many more Jews, living outside of the Upper West Side, are also grappling with.

Rabbis are leaders of their Jewish communities, and so one could say that they need to profess views that are sufficiently representative of their congregants. One could maintain that Jewish leaders must make efforts to ensure that everyone feels safe and comfortable.

Community and comfort are really important. To feel alienated is lonely and confusing.

But I wonder if we have come to a point where we’re so fearful of alienating people that we are unable to take strong, moral positions during situations in which a response is needed. The recent silence from the American Jewish community on Netanyahu’s decision to build settlements in E-1 is an unfortunate, yet sobering example.

Maybe the tension stems from the fact that political leaders and Jewish leaders aren’t supposed to lead in the same way, and yet in so many instances, they do. I would expect, and demand that politicians work to represent the views of their constituencies. In the face of enormous political pressure, watching politicians cave can sometimes be beautiful examples of our democracy at work—a government by the people for the people.

But if rabbis are leading congregations based on the lessons they’ve internalized from their years of studying Jewish moral teachings, then political pressure or even communal discomfort are questionable, and unsettling reasons to cave.

I suppose one solution could be for us to say, “Well, synagogues shouldn’t be so political anyway. Jews hold different views, they are all relatively valid, and rabbis shouldn’t assume that they can speak on behalf of others.  Let’s create a safe space for people to come together, and let’s leave politics out of it.”

This is an understandable and tempting idea. And yet, I wonder if those same people would say synagogues should also refrain from encouraging support for the state of Israel. My guess would be no. But what if there are congregants who feel alienated by certain Pro-Israel statements? Then the question becomes which political statements will be tolerated in synagogues and which will not be. Who draws that line?

What are the roles of our Jewish leaders, really? To represent us? To teach us? Is Judaism meant to provide us with answers to the tough ethical and political quandaries we currently face? Can it?

I don’t quite know what role exactly Judaism plays in politics anymore. It seems as though everyone has their own opinions and perspectives, and every email sent out has to be crafted quite carefully so as not to offend individuals or cause anyone discomfort. The price we pay for this however, I’m not so sure.

#PostModernProblems

Originally published 10/05/12 in The Forward.

This past summer, Anne-Marie Slaughter shook up the national feminist conversation with her provocative Atlantic piece “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Writing about the challenges she faces balancing her role as a mother and a professional, she argued that systemic changes must be made in both the workplace and society for women to finally achieve equality with men. Her piece sparked a wide debate, naturally, and as I begin my junior year of college at Johns Hopkins, I can’t help but ask myself, where do I fall in all of this? What choices do I face as a 20-year-old Jewish American female student?

In one of my sociology classes this semester, we began to analyze the concept of “family through a post-modern perspective.” As a history and sociology major, I have encountered post-modernism many times, yet this was the first time that the theory struck an incredibly personal note.

Post-Modern theorists embrace the notion that the world has changed so much from previous eras, that today individuals must make choices about virtually all aspects of their lives. Before, choices were limited and one’s life was generally pre-determined from history, tradition and custom. Now, when it comes to questions of self-identity, we increasingly rely upon our own construction of reality to dictate who we are. These choices range from big life decisions about relationships, religion and careers to the most trivial questions — what should I tweet? What should my profile picture be?

In all of my years of schooling, and now in my time at college, I have been taught to work hard for success, to learn avidly, and to not settle for anything less than what I’m capable of achieving. I have been raised to respect those who use their talents to improve the world.

And like Ms. Slaughter, I also recognize the significance of where I stand in this moment of women’s history. First wave, second wave and third wave feminists have all fought for girls like me to vote, to be able to attend institutions like Johns Hopkins (a school without women until 1970), and then upon graduation, to compete in the job market with men. Even in 2009 with the signing of the Lily-Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a law that helps women fight against gender-pay discrimination, I am reminded that women out there are continually making political sacrifices so that I can do more and be more than they once had the opportunity to be at my age.

I was also raised in the American Jewish community. I have been to Holocaust memorials in America, Israel and Germany. I write this piece cognizant of the fact that many of the Jewish people who lost their lives never even imagined there could be a world where they could live as freely and confidently as I do today.

The struggle to make sense of what I want to do in the future comes in part from knowing that these different identities are not always so compatible. It does not escape me that “continuity” is an oft-stressed priority of the Jewish community, including “marrying Jewish” or at the very least, “raising your kids Jewish.” And as Ms. Slaughter recognized, creating and raising a family often can come at the expense of an ambitious adult career.

Will I marry Jewish? I don’t know. Do I want to eventually start a family? Yes. Do I want to continue to help the feminist cause? Yes. Do I want to chase my professional dreams? Yes. Do I want the existence of the Jewish people to continue? Yes. But I have not figured out what all of this means for me personally.

In many ways, I know that these challenges are a blessing, a gift and a privilege. This confusion is something many have only wished to have. But I think it is important for people to try to understand how many girls my age are feeling — to realize that simply because we understand that having choices is a “gift” does not really make it easier or less confusing.

Many girls today are unsure about which path to take, nervous to let people down, and anxious about living up to our own potential because of the costs our dreams might have on our future families. We are nervous to not live up to our own potential.

Every day I continue to explore my options and choices. But often the process can seem all too intimidating. And when it does, I retreat to my safe, imaginary realities of fiction, Netflix and Facebook — avenues where the cost of a “wrong choice” comes with far less significant consequences to my future.

#PostModernProblems

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.