December 11, 2019

Talking to Gabby

Gabriela Jacobo, known as Gabby, at age 17 is a rising radio star. Her supervisor Rebecca Martin, of NPR’s Youth Radio, told me, "She’s one of our best writers and a great commentator."

Which is why we in the Jewish community should listen up. If she’s the future, she is unaware of us.

Gabby’s talent jumped out at me one recent Sunday afternoon, when her sweet, melancholic voice read her opinion piece, "Suicide bombers," on the broadcast, "Latino USA." Her piece lasted less than 90 seconds. Here’s an excerpt:

"Lately, I’ve been following what’s happening in the Middle East a lot. I’ve always heard about male suicide bombers and that hasn’t shocked me. But when I started reading the stories of suicide bombers who are girls close to my age, I was surprised. I tried to imagine what they were thinking….

"Maybe they felt a little like I do, as a Latin American female. I have grown up feeling almost like I am not a real person, feeling ignored. In that way, I think my life is similar to the lives of the Palestinian women. They live in a culture that almost makes them invisible, and when you feel like people can’t see you, it’s hard to feel like you are even alive."

She ended by acknowledging that the similarities went only so far, why pathos shouldn’t lead to killing. "I have alternatives … where others may not."

Here’s what hit me, other than the raw emotion of youth:

In a piece about the Mideast conflict, Gabby made no mention of Israel, Ariel Sharon, Yasser Arafat. She didn’t refer to regional history, the eternal conflict over real estate, politics and religion, the battle between Jews and Muslims. (Youth Radio has had commentary from both Israeli and Muslim youth, though not that day.)

Instead, Gabby retold the story of the Arab-Israeli conflict as only a young American immigrant might explain it: as a story of dashed feelings, of being ignored. This fits the biography she offered when I spoke to her last week. She was 5 when she immigrated to California from Mexico with her three older brothers, mother and father, who works for a bakery. This is the lens through which she sees the world.

"My parents always told me any other life would be better; that there was no life in Mexico," she wrote in a commentary honoring Martin Luther King Jr., "but I found being an immigrant in the United States can be just as bad."

But the lens of difference allows only a partial view. That’s why Gabby’s point of view is so challenging. She only knows half of the feelings that have been hurt, being unaware of 2,000 years of Jews wandering homeless, their tragic history of a pariah people, subject to blood libel and mass death. Even when statehood was declared, seven Arab nations declared war against Israel, vowing destruction.

Nor does she know the other half of the story, not of misery, but of triumph. How Israel, inspired by lessons of the Bible, turned around its tragic history. A small nation of outcasts took a rough homeland and made it something that could inspire the world, the land of Israel, a democracy however flawed.

It is understandable, given that Gabby is only a high school senior, that her knowledge would be imperfect, and that she would side so easily with the underdog. The media images and the newspaper coverage stress only the Israel of excess, of tanks and war and grief.

But who tells her the whole story, that "underdog" is just the easy way out.

But "underdog," is a choice, too. Apparently, no one encouraged Gabby to see things any other way.

Each American generation plays out the immigrant experience in its own way. For more than two centuries, American Jews have traditionally relied on the empathy of Eastern European immigrants to make common cause with Israel. Common experience in the Old World, the birth of democracy and the ethnic divisions provided the glue by which American foreign policy advanced. Now the axis has shifted.

The author Richard Rodriguez has noted that the immigration shift from "west" to "north" is more than a matter of port of entry. It can bring huge challenges.

That’s why Gabby speaks clearly to us. Unless we make explicit to her the lessons of Israel’s history, she and other new Americans may not naturally understand what we are about. They may be drawn to classes like UC Berkeley’s "The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance," rather than "The Zionist Dream in an Age of Cooperation." They may not instinctively see the connection between America and Israel.

When I asked Gabriela Jacobo about Israel, she drew a blank. She knows no one who is Jewish.

Who will fill in the blanks? Gabby’s education has only begun.