Judaism

These posts address topics relating to the religious faith Judaism and my Jewish identity.

New & Noteworthy: legacies of struggle, words from Hedy Epstien & Angela Davis

This short post shares interviews from two women–Hedy Epstein and Angela Davis–each speaking about the interconnections among different struggles for justice and equity.

The first clip is Democracy Now! Journalist Amy Goldman’s interview with Hedy Epstein, the newly famous 90-year-old Holocaust survivor arrested in St. Louis during a protest demanding justice for Mike Brown’s death. When Amy questioned Hedy about the arrest, and asked “what keeps her going?” Hedy responded that because of her experience being oppressed, she must act “because anyone who stands idly by becomes complicit.”

1. Democracy Now! “Stop the Violence from Ferguson to Gaza: 90-Year-Old Holocaust Survivor Arrested in St. Louis.” August 20, 2014. http://www.democracynow.org/2014/8/20/stop_the_violence_from_ferguson_to

The second clip comes from a speech Angela Davis gave when she was honored by the UK-based anti-poverty organization War on Want. Among the topics she addressed was the passing of Nelson Mandela, and how “Mandela urged us to see connections in freedom struggles” to find solidarity among the people of South Africa, the American South, Vietnam, and Latin America. She also commented that we are living in the legacies of these struggles, and quotes Mandela directly: “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

2. Colorlines. “Angela Davis on Palestine and the Prison Industrial Complex.” July 22, 2014. http://colorlines.com/archives/2014/07/angela_davis_on_palestine_and_the_prison_industrial_complex.html

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Commemorating genocide through art, museum and memory

During my recent trips to Guatemala and Israel, I had the opportunity to visit two very distinct museums that commemorated two different genocides. The museum in the collective farming community of Sant’Anita La Union honors the guerrillas who fought in Guatemala’s 36 year Internal Armed Conflict (from 1960-1996), in which approximately 200,000 Guatemalans were killed.  Yad Vashem, located in Jerusalem, commemorates the Shoah or Holocaust (from 1933-1945) in which 6 million Jews perished.

Visiting both museums led me to reflect on these devastating genocides, and ways that the two cultures memorialized such profound losses. The contrast of Sant’Anita and Yad Vashem had been percolating in my mind for a while, but emerged to the forefront following my recent participation in an activist art project called “One Million Bones,” which convened people to array one million paper-mache and cardboard bones on the lawn of the National Mall as a tribute to past and present genocide victims and survivors around the world.

I joined the Guatemala Human Rights Commission in placing bones to honor the Guatemalan victims killed in the Ixil Triangle region. I was surprised at how moved I felt placing the bones–which were made of cardboard, gauze, and paper mache–on the National Mall lawn.  Some bones were painted in rainbow colors and others were inscribed with messages such as: “stay strong” and “rest in peace” yet despite their cartoonish appearance, I felt overwhelmingly sad reading the names of the Ixiles as I placed one bone at a time in honor of each victim. Placing the bones on the National Capitol Lawn also felt like a complex gesture–acknowledging the United State’s past role in funding the Guatemalan military during the genocide, and asking the United States to pay attention now to Guatemala’s pursuit of justice in the genocide trial of Efrain Rios Montt, the dictator in power when the massacres in the Ixil Triangle occurred.

This photography by Teru Kuwayama shows the One Million bones displayed on the National Mall Lawn as a tribute to genocide survivors past and present

This photography by Teru Kuwayama shows the One Million bones displayed on the National Mall Lawn as a tribute to genocide survivors past and present

My visit to Sant’Anita la Unión

Santa Anita la Unión is an organic coffee and banana growing community formed by ex-guerilla combatants. I visited Sant’Anita with my language school, PLQ, and in addition to touring the fields where the coffee grew and the facilities where it was roasted and packaged, the residents of Sant’Anita showed us their “guerrilla museum.” The one-room museum had a cracked wall from the recent earthquake, visible as our guide gestured to the framed photos of “our fallen comrades.” On the floor, a guerrilla’s camouflage uniform and radio were neatly displayed. Newspaper clippings explaining the unfolding history of the armed conflict hung on the other walls. I was most moved though by how our guide brought this room of artifacts to life with his sincere appreciation for his fellow ex-combatants and his community’s collective wish to preserve their memory.

This closeup of one of the main buildings at Sant'Anita was taken from an article about Guatemalan activist and Desgua co-founder Willy Barreno

This closeup of one of the main buildings at Sant’Anita was taken from an article about Guatemalan activist and Desgua co-founder Willy Barreno. The link to the article is included at the post’s conclusion.

My visit to Yad Vashem

Yad Vashem is physically imposing–built in the shape of an arrow to evoke how “the Shoah pierced our hearts,” our tour guide explained. The grounds are lavish, and surrounding the entrance are carob trees, planted in honor of the “righteous gentiles” who rescued Jews during the war. Inside, we walked a zigzag path from room to room, a route designed to mimic the unfolding years of 1933 until the establishment of Israel. What most moved me fell outside of tangible bounds, it was learning about how Jews used “trickster behavior” to help one another survive.

Trickster behavior can be explained as how people who are marginalized use their cleverness to subvert the rules that oppress them to attain power. Tricksters can span cultures, and examples of trickster figures can be found in Chinese mythology (the Monkey King), African American Folktales (Brer Rabbit), Brazilian Santeria (Eshu)–I could go on and on about representation of tricksters and how people can use trickster figures as metaphors to express and enact coded rebellion against the powers that oppress them.  Learning how Jews in Concentration Camps would subtly trick the Nazis to improve the living conditions for themselves and others so moved me because trickster behavior is a topic that deeply fascinates me. In fact, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on how Chinese and Latino immigrants  in three contemporary American works of fiction use “trickster language” to subvert the status quo and gain power. Because I have grown accustomed to thinking of myself as white and carrying around a knapsack of privilege whose contents I am oft ignorant of, I felt surprised and moved to consider trickster behavior in connection to myself and my own ethnic and religious identity.

Entrance way to Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem

Entrance way to Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem

Learn more about the exhibitions discussed above 

1. One Million Bones. June 8-10, 2013. http://www.onemillionbones.org/the-project/ This link is to the official website for One Million Bones, and explains about the project and includes a photo gallery of people who have made the bones.

2. After participating in laying the bones on the National Lawn with the Guatemala Human Rights Commission (GHRC), GHRC received hateful comments from genocide deniers. GHRC has written this response on their blog. “GHRC Target of Hate for Commemorating Genocide Victims. Guatemalan Human Rights Updates. June 11, 2013.  http://ghrcusa.wordpress.com/2013/06/11/ghrc-target-of-hate-for-commemorating-victims-of-genocide/

2. Sant’Anita. May 24, 2013. http://www.santaanitafinca.com/ This is the official website for Sant’Anita farming collective.

3.  Mychalejko, Cyril. “Resurrecting the ‘Guatemalan Dream.'” August 31, 2009. http://upsidedownworld.org/main/guatemala-archives-33/2084-resurrecting-the-qguatemalan-dreamq  This article from Upside Down World is about Guatemalan activist and co-founder of DESGUA Willy Barreno, and also describes Sant’Anita la Union and information regarding the documentary “Voices of a Mountain.”

4. “Genocide in the Ixil Triangle.” Guatemala Human Rights Commission. June 13, 2013. http://www.ghrc-usa.org/resources/important-cases/genocide-cases/genocide-in-the-ixil-triangle/ This webpage from GHRC provides historical information regarding the massacres in the Ixil Triangle region during Guatemala’s Internal Armed Conflict.

5. Yad Vashem. May 24, 2013. http://www.yadvashem.org/ This is the official website for Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. The website contains a wealth of information about the Holocaust, including podcasts and a database to search for the names of victims and survivors as well as a virtual tour of the museum’s galleries.

 

Reflecting on the Rios Montt ruling & introducing reflections on Judaism and Guatemalan Human Rights

On January 28, 2013, judge Angel Galvez ruled that former Guatemalan general Efraín Rios Montt and intelligence officer José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez would stand trial for genocide and crimes against humanity. This announcement, which according to the Guatemala Human Rights Commission’s News Roundup, “drew a large crowd which included many survivors of the armed conflict as well as journalists, retired military personnel, and human rights activists” fell one day after International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27th.

When I think about these two dates and how they connect in my mind, I also mull over what Judaism means to me. I think about how Judaism taught me empathy. In learning the story of the Holocaust, it was not only 6 million of my own people who were massacred, it was all people perceived as different and less than–political activists, people with disabilities, the Romani (Gypsies), gays, lesbians, and transgendered people.

As a conclusion to my delegation with GHRC, my fellow delegates and I had talked about next steps for outreach and activism around Guatemalan land rights and women’s rights. During the delegation, I had observed many parallels to the historical oppression that Jewish people had experienced and Guatemala’s past and present day struggles.

Having recently returned from Guatemala and Israel, I wish to pursue this connection. More specifically, I will explore the intersection and commonalities that exist in the histories of Guatemala and the Jewish people. These explorations written here on my blog will address history, culture, society, art, and politics, with a focus on how both peoples’ have suffered oppression for belonging to ethnic minority grops.

One goal of these explorations is to raise awareness within the Jewish community of the rich history of our own people as well as the complexities of the human rights situation in Guatemala. My goal is that through learning about these intertwining histories, the Jewish community will become engaged in promoting and protecting human rights in Guatemala.

Learn More about Efraín Rios Montt and José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez’s Trial

1. Mychalejko, Cyril. “Ríos Montt and the Need for International Accountability for War Crimes in Guatemala.” Guatemala Human Rights Updates. February 13, 2013. http://ghrcusa.wordpress.com/2013/02/13/rios-montt-and-the-need-for-international-accountability-for-war-crimes-in-guatemala/ Cyril Mychalejko, an editor for Upside Down World, online magazine addressing politics in Latin America, has written an article that gives valuable historical context of the genocide that occurred during Ríos Montt’s administration as well as the support he received from United States President Ronald Reagan.

2. Malkin, Elizabeth. “Ex-dictator is ordered to trial in Guatemala for War Crimes.” New York Times. January 28, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/29/world/americas/ex-dictator-is-ordered-to-trial-in-guatemala-for-war-crimes.html?ref=efrainriosmontt This article provides a clear explanation of the trial.

Learn More about Holocaust Remembrance 

1. Gera, Vanessa. “International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2013: Victims Mourned At Auschwitz And Beyond.” The Huffington Post. January 27, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/27/international-holocaust-remembrance-day-2013_n_2561839.html This article describes how Poland and other European countries honor January 27th as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The article concludes with a quote from President Obama that also illustrates why the ruling against Efraín Rios Montt and José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez is an important step forward in enabling Guatemalans to commemorate the lives lost in genocide: “”Many brutal crimes have been left without punishment, redemption and commemoration….I want to believe that by remembering the death and suffering of the victims the new generations will be obliged to fight any form of prejudice, racism and chauvinism, anti-Semitism and hatred.”

Privilege and Positionality

I was as young as six when I understood that six million of my people perished in a Holocaust during the Second World War. But I was as old as twelve before I learned that the Nazis also persecuted many others–people with disabilities, homosexuals, religious and ethnic minorities. This was around the time that I learned that my people’s Holocaust seemed to attract much more attention than the suffering that many other people around the world experienced.

In my sixth grade Civilizations class, the story of the Japanese internment during world War II was a slim textbook supplement to the bulky Holocaust narrative. My teacher added, as she read about Japanese internment camps in California, that our school librarian, Mrs. H– had been interned not far from our Philadelphia neighborhood. Two years later, my United States History teacher walked my class through a discussion of slavery in the American Antebellum south and asked, “why isn’t there a movie as popular as Schindler’s List about the American Civil War?” She answered her own question, pointing out that in such a movie, white Americans would need to look at ourselves as people for responsible for enslaving more than 600,000 Africans.

Stories of  unacknowledged suffering surrounded me.  Browsing a book catalog, I discovered the Armenian Holocaust, and was horrified to learn that the Turkish government massacred more than one million Christian Armenians during World War I, in what many regarded as inspiration for the Final Solution.  Adolf Hitler even quipped eight days before invading Poland, “Who today, after all, speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

Soon, I learned Hitler’s rhetorical question reached far beyond the Armenian Holocaust. From stumbling upon The Rape of Nanjing in my beloved Reader’s Digest, I learned the Japanese military massacred  over 200,000 people in Nanjing, China during the years 1937-1938.  The author Iris Chang, was the daughter of  Nanjing massacre survivors. She grew up hearing about the atrocities her family experienced, yet when she tried to find books about her parents’ experiences, none existed.  She wrote The Rape of Nanjing to ensure that the stories of her family and people of Nanjing would not be “reduced to a footnote of history.”

Although the massacres in Armenia and Nanjing predated my birth, I was coming of age with Rwanda and Kosovo on the evening news, and Cambodia’s genocide not to far in the distant past.   I was itching to shine the spotlight on these stories, to give all these Holocausts the textbook chapters and classroom space they deserved,  that my own Holocaust had.  I confided these feelings to my best friend. She encouraged me to find a way to talk to my school, and even offered to help me find a way to teach nearby middle schools about these genocides. But I balked before the idea taking a project so close to my heart into the public, speaking to others would open myself up to ridicule and rejection, which to my thirteen year old self felt almost as excruciating as the stories I yearned to share. Ultimately, my adolescent shyness spoke louder than my passion for giving voice to the suffering of so many all over the globe.

I silenced myself, and I shelved my project in the recesses of my mind, where it has not emerged until now. Learning about Guatemala’s own genocide–more than 200,000 people were killed or disappeared during the 1960-1996 Civil War, awoke my memories of this project, and re-ignited my passion to uncover and share hidden histories of suffering around the world. To explain why I want to excavate and these share these histories, I will defer to the words of another.  Regarding Rawanda’s genocide,  Mahmood Mamdani’s stated, “Atrocity cannot be its own explanation. Violence cannot be allowed to speak for itself, for violence is not its own meaning. To be made thinkable it needs to be historicized.”

I believe  all violent atrocities must be historicized to ensure that history does not repeat itself. Judaism observes Yom HaShoah, a day of remembrance for the six million lives lost in the Jewish Holocaust. We also have an expression, “never again.”  But never again tends to be an exclusive phrase, referring only to the suffering of the Jewish people. Insight into this exclusivity comes from a surprising source, the television show “Weeds.” In a fourth season episode, an adult son of a Holocaust survivor tells his thirteen year old nephew about his mother’s experiences, and concludes, “never again.”  His nephew says, “but it has happened again,” and lists genocides in many countries including Rwanda and Kosovo. But his uncle cuts him off with the words “may never again such a thing happen to Jews.”

As a Jew, I deeply believe that my positionality, which stems from losing six million of my people in a Holocaust, as well as my privilege of having this loss acknowledged and memorialized in history books, blockbuster films, and a National Remembrance Day, that gives me the perspective and drive to advocate for  people experiencing oppression everywhere. It is my privilege and positionality that also connect me to German Choc, and give me the determination to use my clay and colored pencils, my beads and blog to help give him and his family the smallest measure of what I take for granted each day.

Source Notes

1. Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. 1997

2. Sanford, Victoria. Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala. 2003

3. 60 Minutes. Turkey and Armenia’s Battle over History. February 28, 2010 http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/02/26/60minutes/main6246574.shtml?tag=currentVideoInfo;segmentUtilities This 60 Minutes episode

4. United Human Rights Council. Genocide in Rwanda. http://www.unitedhumanrights.org/genocide/genocide_in_rwanda.htm

5. Holocaust Museum Houston. Genocide in Cambodia (1975-1979) http://www.hmh.org/ed_Genocide_Cambodia.shtml

6. Kosovo Genocide: Massacres. 1999. http://www.ess.uwe.ac.uk/kosovo/kosovo-massacres.htm