‘Resistance,’ Guatemalan style

‘Resistance,’ Guatemalan style

Rabbi Adam Baldachin, second from right, visits home of an indigenous midwife in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. The collective she belongs to gets funding from AJWS. Courtesy of AJWS
Rabbi Adam Baldachin, second from right, visits home of an indigenous midwife in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. The collective she belongs to gets funding from AJWS. Courtesy of AJWS

The liberal Jewish community has been part of the so-called Trump resistance for two years now, especially on the immigration issue. Delegations of like-minded rabbis have traveled to the southern border to protest the administration’s policy of separating families and connect with activists there.

For two metropolitan-area rabbis on a recent American Jewish World Service-sponsored visit with 13 other rabbis to Guatemala — a country that has seen scores of its citizens join the migrant caravans that President Donald Trump has railed against — the word “resistance” took on an urgent new meaning.

At a museum on the history of genocide in Guatemala, a woman told the rabbis that “the story of Guatemala is the story of resistance,” Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, told NJJN. “She encouraged us to think about persistence. Resistance is an ongoing process — that’s one of the key messages that I took home.”

Rabbi Adam Baldachin of Shaarei Tikvah, a Conservative synagogue in Scarsdale, N.Y., said he felt it was important to bring the Guatemalans’ stories to his congregation.

“All we have without my story is the news cycle, and the news cycle has really been focusing on Venezuela,” he said. “And I’m not saying that story is not important, it is very important, but there are other countries, specifically Guatemala, that are experiencing a very real threat.”

Guatemala’s government has a history of corruption. Many of the country’s citizens have been without basic human rights, or are suffering from the long-term effects of the Guatemalan Civil War. Recently, the Guatemalan government removed a United Nations anti-corruption panel.

“We can’t talk about migration in the United States without talking about why people are leaving the countries that they’re in,” Rabbi Kahn-Troster, a resident of Teaneck, said. “People want dignity in their home countries. It’s really important that our government hear from these leaders [activists in Guatemala] that they need to support the efforts of the Guatemalan people so that their democracy stays stable.”

To that end, the 15 rabbis from across the country who made up the AJWS’ Global Justice Fellows heard the stories of midwives, citizen journalists, activists, and lawyers throughout the Central American country, and they are telling those stories to colleagues and congregants. They plan to go to Washington, D.C., next month to lobby legislators on immigration policy. Right now, they are working on spreading their experience to make a local and national impact.

According to Baldachin, a farmer “with tears in his eyes” spoke to the group about being forcibly removed from his land. He cannot go back without being under a threat of violence.

“It was amazing to me that he cried and apologized to the group for bringing this bad news to us,” Baldachin said. “One of the people in our group said to him, we are crying alongside you, we know that there are real problems and we are here to support you.”

Kahn-Troster sensed a parallel between democracy under threat both in Guatemala and the United States in the way activists and journalists are under attack.

“Hearing about the way in which they’re [activists and citizen journalists] being criminalized, the slander against activists.… We’re seeing immense government corruption as well, and the sense that really democracy is at stake. I don’t have to worry about that kind of violence [here in the U.S.], but I do have deep concerns about the ways in which left-wing activists are being seen as illegitimate.”

For the rabbis, of course, the lessons of the Torah rang out on the trip.

“There is the importance of not taking bribes, in parshat Mishpatim,” Baldachin said, referencing corruption in Guatemala. “It’s anti-corruption; we are responsible for making sure there is justice in our country both locally and at the national level.”

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