Fighting Terrorism with a Plane Ticket

fightingterrorism

A Jewish college student must decide whether to travel abroad as anti-Semitic acts are on the rise.

by Rachel Cohen

“Are you nuts?” a relative asked. “Studying abroad in Spain? Spain expelled the Jews!”

“European countries are so anti-Semitic,”another one said. “You’d better be extra careful when you’re there—and especially since you’re an American Jew… just be careful… and maybe don’t let anyone know that you’re either of those.”

As Americans, especially during the days of the Bush administration, it proved relatively easy to fear lands overseas, particularly since the media convinces us that foreigners harbor an intense dislike for us. Add to that a Jewish identity, and many people brainwashed by the news immediately presume an intense and imminent danger.

In retrospect, it appears natural that my relatives, well-informed news junkies, would hold these misconceptions and ask me, an American Jewish girl, such questions. Drawing on a lesson learned during the September 11 attacks, without hesitation I chose to spend my junior year spring semester abroad in Spain. If we’re afraid of terrorist danger, I thought, the terrorists win and no one would ever have the chance to see the world or live freely.

In the back of my mind, I had decided that in Spain I wouldn’t broadcast my Judaism. If asked, however, I would absolutely declare my religious affiliation. As a proud secular Jew, I have no qualms with claiming my association. But, I figured, no reason to flaunt an identity that might cause any sort of unpleasant ramifications on my behalf.

As it turns out, most people I encountered during my semester across the Atlantic appeared either neutral toward or, in some cases, even interested in my religion. Once, upon entering a bedroom in my home-stay apartment in Madrid, I noticed a polished hanukkiah standing alongside an impressive collection of souvenirs from other countries. Hoping that perhaps at some point my señora, or housemother, had discovered her own Jewish roots, I inquired about the piece of Judaica over dinner.

It turned out she was unaware of the symbolic nature of this metal piece and hadn’t even a clue as to its name. But, she explained, a favorite Jewish student who once lived with her gave her this keepsake when her family visited for Hanukkah. Together with the American family, my señora had celebrated those eight festive nights, lighting the candles and singing songs of prayer. She still keeps the menorah on her shelf, reminding her of those celebratory evenings.

In school in Spain, one of my Spanish professors also emphasized her respect for Judaism. She divided her course, entitled “Women in Spain,” into three major units. Each section corresponded to one of the three major religions present in Spain during the nation’s history: Catholicism, Islam, and Judaism. During her lessons on the Jewish women in Spain, she focused on the successful perpetuation of the religion on the part of the females. She highlighted the special nature of this system of religious maintenance, and it seemed as though this academically minded woman admired Jewish women for having been products of their time. Her respect encouraged me to share my Jewish knowledge with the class when appropriate, ultimately drawing attention to my identity.

As it happened, while traveling throughout western Europe, it seemed as if being American caused more of an uproar than did my religion. In southern France, my accent while speaking broken French emphasized my nationality. When a waiter asked where I was from, I told him truthfully. My response produced a grunt of disgust from the young server, followed by his hasty departure from the table.

A month later, when in Paris, I experienced more anti-American sentiment. A Metro ticket vendor verbally attacked my travel partner’s nearly flawless use of her language. A restaurant owner asked my group of American friends to leave his restaurant after having misunderstood a minimum order rule at his establishment.

It was not until over a year later, though, that concerns with anti-Semitism in Europe crossed my mind once more. Clearly my experiences with anti-Americanism had affected my travels in Europe far more than had any anti-Semitism. At the same time, however, my adventures in France failed to include any overtly Jewish activities or behaviors.

Upon considering an upcoming trip to London, a friend and I had contemplated a brief trip back to Paris. Since we had both already experienced the city in months past, we thought we might partake in some nontraditional activities. Instantly I remembered seeing a sign in the heart of the city directing tourists to the Jewish Museum. What a perfect activity for my second visit, I had thought.

Soon after this idea popped into my head, I recalled a friend saying that she “wouldn’t eat in a Kosher restaurant in Paris,” citing her fears of anti-Semitic attacks. Perhaps entering another Jewish venue, such as the museum, could endanger my safety. Unsure of how to proceed with travel plans, I chose to approach the subject with my academic advisor, the world traveler and Jewish studies enthusiast, Shulamit Reinharz.

Shula expressed her opinion tersely: “Of course you should go,” she remarked. “Don’t let the terrorists win.”

My experiences, in conjunction with the wise advice I received, encouraged my hopes of seeing the innumerable wonders of the world. A learned person lives life and sees all sites available to her; however, one may only accomplish these feats when fears subside and curiosity and intellect overpower all doubts. Anti-Semitic incidents and terror attacks can transpire at any given moment, and past events have indicated that even our own country stands vulnerable to such incidents. It would be naïve to assume our invincibility to acts of hate. However, apprehension of these situations must not prevent our travels. We should aim to prevent defeat by terrorists through living our lives, traveling, and experiencing the inimitable offerings of other places.

About the Author

author_rcohenRachel Cohen
Rachel Cohen is a senior at Brandeis majoring in sociology and Spanish.
She will graduate in May.

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