January 23, 2003

Not in my name, not ever

I have deliberated for some time if I should to post this or not. The few friends I have told were astonished. This story and a comment related by Michele made me realize that I had to sit down and write this piece. Now.

I work with a group of young techs...émigrés from various states of the Soviet Union. The youngest is a young woman whom I will call Irina.

Irina is an only child, her parents hold advanced degrees, one a metallurgist the other an engineer. They are Jewish. Her parents were refused better living quarters and advancement because of their faith. Life was not luxurious, food and goods were often difficult to procure, they persevered, determined to migrate to the US one day.

As the Soviet Union began to crumble her parents applied to immigrate to Israel, they only escape route open to Russian Jews. By the mid-90's they were allowed to exit. They went to work in Israel and applied for US immigration status. Irena completed high school, learned Arabic, Hebrew and English. After five years their number was drawn and they migrated to the SF Bay Area where there is a thriving community of Russian and Slavic immigrants, Jewish and gentile.

Irina's parents are free to pursue opportunities in their professions. They recently bought a small house and are moving into the middle class. They will become citizens. Irina works 20 hours a week, commutes 2 hours a day and attends college full time...majoring in math and engineering, maintaining a 4.0. Irina applied for transfer to UC Berkeley for her third year. Having the Cal computer science lab on her resume was one of her goals. She was accepted for the Fall 2002 term.

This happened last spring when well-publicized anti-Semitic incidents occurred at SFSU and Cal. Irina was visiting the Cal campus to meet friends for lunch the day a noontime rally went out of control. A group of Palestinian-Americans attacked a group of Jewish-American students and the melee spread quickly. Irina and her friends were just hanging out on the quad, they were not part of the rally or even paying attention to it. The campus police refused to respond to their 911 calls for help. The university did not wish to become “involved”. The Berkeley police escorted the Jewish students off campus as the mob chanted "Kill the Jews, Kill the Jews."

Irina looks Jewish and that makes her afraid, too afraid to walk from the train station to campus. She is right to be afraid, other students who appeared to be Jewish (some were not) have been beaten, Swastikas painted on dorm room doors, cars defaced with hateful epithets. It is very ugly at the nation's most tolerant campus. Irina attends another university, she has moved on, refuses let it get to her...but I see the disappointment in her eyes. How could we do this. Americans.

Imagine living under a repressive regime, denied opportunities because of your religion or ethnicity, ever fearful of the knock on the door in the night. Unable to leave or change your status. Finally you come to America only to be fearful once more, of your peers and neighbors.

This makes me very angry and ashamed. How about you? Still think anti-Semitism does not really exist in America? That it doesn't harm decent people going about their daily lives? That it isn't your concern?

Side note:I discovered the blogosphere when I sought more information online and found Meryl's cogent thoughts on the SFSU incident. So I have come full circle in relating Irena's story on my own blog...but you know what? Irina is still fearful and that sucks. Big time.

Posted by feste at January 23, 2003 07:09 PM

I live in NYC, the place with the largest jewish population outside of Israel, and some days I'm as afraid as you describe Irena being.

Posted by: Faith at January 23, 2003 09:27 PM

All we can do is speak out and keep the issue before those who don't get it until they do.

Posted by: feste at January 24, 2003 10:19 AM

All forms of oppression are evil. It is not only the Jews who are treated as second-class citizens in the US. Furthermore, the US is not the only country in the world. In their own country the Jews are persecuting the Palestinians in just the same way as they themselves have been persecuted in the last hundred years (or does ‘An Eye for an Eye’ apply all the way back to Time Immemorial?). In Northern Ireland the Irish are persecuting each other in the name of a God they both purport to worship! The US is persecuting the Cubans. The rulers in Iraq are persecuting their own people. The people of Afghanistan had a pretty tough time after September 11.

Do the lives of the people being persecuted settle the debt of persecution suffered by the persecutors? Does the US have the right to abet persecution and then complain when the tide turns? Does the bully have the right to make the rules because he is the biggest in the class?

Irena is fortunate to be capable and able to determine her own destiny. What of those who, for various insuperable reasons, are not so lucky?

Posted by: James at February 17, 2003 02:08 AM
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