Ariel Goldberg, curator of community engagement at the Jewish History Museum in Tucson, AZ, in conversation with friend and comrade Laurie Melrood, local Jewish social worker and community organizer.
Ariel Goldberg: Can you give a narrative of your Jewish upbringing and how you understand your Jewish identity?
Laurie Melrood: I was brought up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, after World War II. During those decades, Jewish identity was still being redesigned. I think it still is. But during those decades after the churban, the destruction, I think life for Jewish children was defined by the loss of culture, the loss of language, the loss of family in Europe. My family came from Pilyaveh, Podolya Gobernya—near Kiev. I didn’t know much about that, but I knew we had a shadow over us and around us. My family was Yiddish-speaking. Although Yiddish had suffered some severe blows in Europe and then in Israel, where it wasn’t allowed to be spoken as an official language, in many houses in Milwaukee adults spoke Yiddish. So, I feel like I grew up in an interesting time because my family was still holding on to cultural elements from Europe without shame or embarrassment but just because that’s who they were. My grandfather was a Yiddish teacher and my father was an actor in the Yiddish theatre in Milwaukee, the Peretz Hirschbein Folk Teater. My maternal grandmother, what I remember most about her is she made all of her noodles at home. Everything was handmade. They also brought a very idealistic, visionary kind of Zionism, the idea that Zionism would be the culmination of all Jewish aspirations. It was a Zionism that was infiltrated by joy, really quite unrealistic and infused with huge misunderstandings. But that’s what I learned: that Israel was a land without a people for a people without a land, for the Jews. I don’t like using the word “idealistic” anymore, actually. I think that’s really a cheapened version of what it really was. I think it was hallucinatory. I learned about the Left from the Labor Zionist youth camp and youth movement I had attended for all of the 1950s and much of the 1960s. And with that understanding, a combination of socialism and Zionism, I went to Israel in 1964 at the age of 17, studying at the Hebrew University and then working as a social worker.
AG: Were you politically active while in Israel?
LM: I started to take a much different look at Israel’s position in the Middle East and why it was considered a star state by the United States. And I kind of left it at that for a period of time because it was hard for me to live in Israel and be able to examine those questions. It was a really uncomfortable period in some ways because—there’s an expression now called P.E.P., “political except for Palestine,” and I think that described me to an extent. But it also described me in terms of understanding the realities of other countries. A sort of “political except for” places I didn’t understand or know about. And it was on me to learn more. I also committed myself from that time on to humanitarian work. I don’t think you can be purely political without involving humanitarian aspects. And similarly, humanitarian work without a larger picture is not really doing justice to injustice.
AG: What does humanitarian work mean to you?
LM: Humanitarian work means, to me, listening and responding to what people say they need. This may translate into the formation and evolution of a movement, but there are also very concrete needs that people have, because there is so much inequity, so much inequality. When my grandmother and grandfather used to take me around on Shabbat, when I was little, they would take me to the properties they owned and my grandmother would bring groceries and clothes to her tenants. There was almost this refusal to recognize the origins of why people were in need. On the one hand, you are the owner of their building, they are your tenants, and on the other, you are creating a dependency by giving them all kinds of goods. Later on, I was able to distinguish much more clearly between what social movements require and the necessities that accompany the formation of a social movement. People need things. In order to sustain or survive, they need those really elementary things. And so, I would try to understand the macro picture and also be involved in the micro picture. Most people would prefer not to look at the macro and the micro but just stick with one or the other. I’ve always been uncomfortable in either camp. I’m uncomfortable with people who are purely about humanitarian assistance without looking at the large picture, the causative factors. And also, I’m uncomfortable in a purely politicized picture in which there isn’t an understanding of the needs the people have that accompany them on their way to change.
AG: How do you practice social work now?
LM: Do you know what a shtoch is?
AG: No. I wish I knew.
LM: I’ll show you what it is.
(Laurie pokes Ariel.)
AG: Oh, a poke.
LM: I practice social work in a way that I hope stimulates people to be conscious, rather than simply to follow the rules. To create something out of a world that doesn’t exist. Now, I address the macro picture along with the micro picture. Belonging to a series of social movements helped me move away from the idea that I have to be the source of everything. And I think social work is very much an “I” sort of position. In a way, going to school to study social work held me back, or I allowed it to hold me back. But now I practice it in the way I prefer to practice it, which is to use the skills when they are useful, to be an advocate, to take a step further when needed, to explain the macro picture to people who don’t get it, and I feel, to me, it’s a sort of anti-professional viewpoint. I’m not committed to professionalization, which I think many professions are. The less professional I am and the more I examine the way of the world, the better social worker I can be.
AG: So, what brought you to the Rio Grande Valley?
AG: The need for warm weather?
LM: No, I think after a number of years working for the Jewish Federation as the director of a social service program in Madison, Wisconsin, I woke up one morning and I said, “This is not what I want to do.” The Federation had hired me and I was working with the elderly. Some were survivors of the pogroms. They had come like my parents in the ‘20s and they had survived the pogroms in earlier years. A few, I think, were Holocaust survivors. I worked mostly with the Soviet Jewish emigres, the ones who came to the United States in the ‘70s, a number of those had been Holocaust survivors or had been relatives of people who had died in the Holocaust.
AG: You were exposed in a very kind of intimate, personal, relational way, to different types of survivors of antisemitic violence.
LM: Yes, and during the late 1970s, of course, antisemitism and Jewish exodus was still very pronounced in the Soviet Union. It was chasing a lot of Soviet Jews out. I was exposed to a lot of those stories. And they were pretty raw stories. These were people who experienced antisemitism to their face—and it didn’t simply affect their dignity. It affected their well-being, their ability to survive.
AG: How were the Holocaust and the pogroms being remembered in that period of time, post-college, while working at the Federation? What was the language around remembrance like back then?
LM: I grew up with a commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in Milwaukee. It was a tradition in many large and medium cities. That was the essence of what I took with me about the Holocaust: that it was the Jews being beaten down in the Warsaw Ghetto, and in the Warsaw Ghetto and in other ghettos they rose up. And I understood—barely, but beginning to realize—that those were Jews who had come out of social movements. They banded together to fight fascism and fight the Nazis. I grew up with that commemoration and it was really the concrete way I was first able to understand the impact of the Holocaust.
AG: That narrative of resistance does not seem to be the dominant narrative in how the Holocaust is historicized.
There’s a message and symbolism that is supposed to accompany the Holocaust, a symbolism that ignores all of the aspects of oppression and organizing, of what fascism means, and instead merely elevates the Jews to their moment of survival. It’s about survival.
LM: I like that word “historicized.” I have not heard it very much. “Historicized” to me means placing something in history. There’s a message and symbolism that is supposed to accompany the Holocaust, a symbolism that ignores all of the aspects of oppression and organizing, of what fascism means, and instead merely elevates the Jews to their moment of survival. It’s about survival. It’s about Jews acquiring a narrative that was not true to the entire scope of what the Holocaust represented. And I see that now many Jews are tied to that definition of the Holocaust that’s been fed to them by leadership. And they aren’t able to dig in and learn how fascism develops or what its impact is on people. It is seen as something special and different, as something that can only happen or only be represented in the Jewish narrative. I have found, post-World War II, that it has happened in many instances. There’s been a definition made for us, and I don’t accept those definitions.
AG: Is it that Jewish survival and the genocide of the Jews in the Holocaust isn’t defined in a structural way? It makes Jews exceptional and doesn’t look at how this system is deployed against other minorities, cultures, and countries?
LM: Yes, that’s my concern. The whole exceptionalism that Jews are invited to participate in. We are invited to view ourselves as exceptional. On the contrary, I wouldn’t view myself as exceptional but as one who should understand that much more deeply how these events have shaped the fates of minorities throughout history. I accept all the impacts of the Holocaust, even on my own family. But that doesn’t make me exceptional or special. On the contrary, it requires me to do the things that I now do.
AG: When you left your job at Jewish Social Services and went to the Rio Grande Valley, you said depression prompted that move.
LM: Yes. Depression, as in “no se puede.” I just can’t do this anymore. It’s called individual social work. I just really couldn’t do that. I got depressed for about three days and just stayed in bed. And that was the only time I ever had that kind of revelatory depression. It was a really constructive depression. I remember very distinctly thinking, I have to find something that addresses all of who I am and not just a piece of it.
AG: And so, you went to Texas?
LM: Not quite. I used to be a member of an organization called The Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). FOR put out a monthly magazine on all the peace and justice movements that were prevalent during those anti-war years. There was a short letter from a fellow named Jim Corbett. Jim was one of the people who founded the Sanctuary movement eventually, but at that time there was no Sanctuary movement.¹ It was just Jim’s letter saying that immigrants are flooding the prisons at El Centro, California. He had gone to investigate himself. He ended up putting down bonds for a lot of folks, pulling them out of El Centro, and dragging them back to Tucson.
AG: In the early ‘80s?
LM: Yes, in 1980 and 1981. The letter Jim wrote was, “Can you come down and help us? Sincerely, Jim Corbett.” I wrote to Jim and said I would come down. “I’ll do anything. Whatever you need. I’ll just come down. I’ll make soup, whatever it is. I know nothing about this, and I’ve never been to Central America. But I know this is so familiar to me, there is something terribly familiar about this, something drastically familiar about people surging out of the slaughterhouse that was Central America, especially El Salvador and Guatemala.” And he wrote back and said, “Come on down and I’ll let you run this whole organization.” And I said no, I’m not doing that. I don’t have the knowledge. I need something that’s more fitting to my humble understanding. I ended up in the Rio Grande Valley. A fish out of water. I was the only Jewish person that I knew of. I knew that I was there because of my Jewish roots and because of what I knew of the history of my own people, but none of that really took any significance in terms of the reality of what I saw. It didn’t matter why I was there. It was scary at the beginning.
AG: What was scary?
LM: Scary that I went by myself. I didn’t really consult with anybody. Jim’s letter really spoke to me in a way that I just needed to reply. In a selfish sense, I was on a search for meaning, a search for relief from the life I had constructed for myself in Madison. I felt like Madison was a bubble and I wanted to get out. In South Texas, it was a tough confrontation with reality.
AG: I’m thinking about Holocaust remembrance, about antisemitic genocide and refugee crises within Jewish histories that are deeply inside your family history and body. How does that connect to the Central American refugee crises of today? You talked about arriving in the Rio Grande Valley and you were the only Jew. I’m imagining you didn’t have much Jewish community there, but you threw yourself into this other world of doing humanitarian aid and “social work” for the refugees that were coming from Central America. How did you connect all those parts of yourself with the work you were doing on the ground?
LM: What happened to me in the Rio Grande Valley—I discovered America. I think I had always wanted to live out of this country as a young person. I didn’t feel strong allegiance to this country. I understand the sort of naïve appreciation that my family had for this country; they were immigrants. It was pretty troubling, actually—to my family—that I kept choosing the side of trying to understand and work with injustices rather than to simply let it go and live with the status quo. It wasn’t me. I couldn’t do it.
When I got to the Valley, I saw people on a daily basis surviving in a very poor region of the country. There was racism. One journalist I worked with compared the Rio Grande Valley to South Africa. The Latinos were surrounded by white communities; or vice versa, the Latinos lived at the edges of white communities and served the white communities. So, for me, it was really clear when I was welcomed by the Latino community and welcomed by the church and communities of faith that I did have a place, regardless of my inner turmoil. I could be an American like these other Americans and struggle along with them. These radical Catholic nuns took me in. They made me an honorary Sister of Mercy so I could get into the jails. I had a blue skirt and white blouse that I wore.
AG: Wow, so you had a pretend nun outfit?
LM: Kind of, yes. And they gave me a Sister of Mercy cross that I still have. I told them I was Jewish, of course. I was always—
AG: Out as Jew?
LM: Out. Yes. I was always out. We had a Seder in the Valley that was just tremendous, at the Catholic church, with a lot of Catholic participation. I was accepted for the jumble of identities I had accumulated for myself at that point. And it really didn’t matter because we all had to immerse ourselves in work. And maybe that was the grace. I immersed myself in this work. I didn’t have to trouble myself about identity or individual growth, all the things we were troubled about in the ‘60s or ‘70s. There was an all-encompassing reality of facing people who were fleeing genocidal conditions in El Salvador and Guatemala. By March 1982, the sanctuary movement had started in Tucson, Arizona, and I brought Jim Corbett to the Rio Grande Valley along with some others, and we began organizing for sanctuary in the Valley. In South Texas that mainly meant hiding people and not bringing them out in the open. They didn’t speak out in the open. It was by-and-large considered further left than any other group, so we were immediately stigmatized.
AG: What led your South Texas community to the praxis of sanctuary at that time?
LM: The Valley was really the crossroads for the understanding and implementation of liberation theology. And it was a place for Jewish thinking as well because the early base communities in Latin America were like the pre-Christian communities where people were organizing to discuss their fate and their lives and their futures under oppressive regimes. That was really what was being done in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and it led to massive persecution of the leadership of liberation movements. Throughout the early-to-mid-1980s, many of these leaders were showing up in exile in Mexico and entered sanctuary. Wars against the poor—mounted by military and paramilitary forces in El Salvador and Guatemala, and financed in large part by the United States—caused the death of hundreds of thousands of people, primarily rural, poor, and indigenous. Hundreds of thousands more fled to Mexico, Europe, Canada and the United States. We in the Rio Grande Valley also felt some of that persecution applied to us. For example, in South Texas two people active in the clandestine movement of refugees were arrested and sent to prison after spectacular months-long trials. Surveillance was also rampant. Also, the traditional Catholic Church was suspicious of us and we were seen as too radical for the times. But it had to be.
AG: You mentioned people were going underground and in hiding in this area. Was there a similar sort of prison industrial complex of detention centers, like there is in Arizona today? Now, the border is so militarized.
LM: In those years, there was one detention center near South Padre Island. They called it the Corralon and it had been there since the 1940s. They had always detained immigrants there who were undocumented. But it quickly outgrew its capacity and they added to it as more and more people came and were detained. I want to be very clear in saying that the numbers of people we were able to assist in the ways I described earlier were minuscule compared to the huge numbers of people coming from El Salvador or Guatemala, another period not unlike the current period in that the persecution was so severe that people were in danger of losing their lives and had to flee. In those years, government forces in El Salvador were decapitating people and their heads would be on the side of the road. That’s how serious it was. Now, the persecution people are fleeing is another type of violence. It’s still a state-bred violence; it’s still fed by the United States, as it was then. But then, the U.S. aid to Central America was much more blatantly military aid. Much of the aid was used for the governments to fight the people, especially in Guatemala and El Salvador. And certainly in Nicaragua. We understood all that and we talked about it.
AG: The U.S. connection?
LM: Yes, the U.S. connection. That was the reason the Sanctuary movement was persecuted so severely: we spoke out very strongly about the U.S. connection. It was very clear because the refugees were coming and literally begging the people of the United States to stop military aid to their countries. They got it. They understood that the U.S. was causing all the repression.
AG: You said you found America. It was all laid out for you in a way.
LM: Yes, it was very graphic.
AG: Did you have another social work job in addition to this volunteer work?
LM: You remind me of my zadie, who would call me from a phone-booth in New Jersey and yell into the phone, “How are you, are you making a living?”
AG: When you were in Sanctuary were you making a living?
LM: No! We were not making any kind of living.
AG: So, you were just living really close to the ground.
LM: We were living like the rest of the community. Our friend Jack used to raid the Hygeia dairy store. He would be getting all kinds of charitable, second-day and third-day dairy products and then he’d dole them out to all of us. We could all get our cottage cheese and lots of ice cream and we’d live with that. My friend brought shrimp from El Salvador, buckets of shrimp, and we ate that. Some of the nuns had access to groceries and we skimmed off of that.
AG: The collectivity of it all made it possible.
LM: Everybody shared what there was. I eventually organized something called the Rio Grande Border Witness, which was an opportunity for people from the interior to come down to the Rio Grande Valley and look at these stark circumstances, listen to local people talking about the conditions for refugees, listen to people who are providing the shelter and humanitarian assistance. Those groups were paying a little money and that was the money I was able to live on. Before that, it was my savings. I lived on that and we could live on very little. We didn’t need a lot of money and all the cars were donated. We’d have to throw them out eventually because the car would be fingered. We’d have to leave it somewhere and get another car.
AG: The government would take them?
LM: Yeah, mostly the government. Federal. The opposition to us was in part from the government but it was also—the people themselves were afraid of what this meant. We understood that. I mean, we were outside organizers that had come in and imposed this Sanctuary idea on the local communities.
AG: This question might seem abrupt but, listening to you, your background, and thinking about the work you did down there with the Sanctuary movement—do you think that because the United States was a refuge for Jews, and with the memory of the Holocaust so fresh, that there was a resistance to criticize the United States? Or, what do you think is the disconnect between humanitarian work for a refugee crisis at our border and what you saw in your larger Jewish community that you grew up with in Milwaukee—your family, or your friends from Zionist youth camp?
LM: I think fear played a major role. I actually just wrote this to somebody, an old friend from the Sanctuary movement. I said to him, “It’s the one who silently sympathizes that we have most to worry about.” And I still feel that way. Because many people were sympathetic, but they wouldn’t speak up and they wouldn’t act. The Jews among that huge group said that they didn’t want to risk their position, that Jews are always in a position of risk and they can’t afford to stick their necks out. That certainly wasn’t the case in all communities, but I think, in general, people were willing to support some of the work we were doing but they were weren’t willing to speak up. They weren’t willing to contend with the consequences of speaking up. And those are the people I worry about the most. Then and now. Because the ones who silently sympathize are the ones who have either lost their voices or refuse to recuperate a voice.
AG: How do we look at somebody like Elliot Abrams, a person who is involved at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and sits on a “Committee on Conscience” in that institution, but then was also a lead architect of U.S. involvement in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador? And now he was recently appointed to be Special Envoy to Venezuela. We have that version of a sort of public Jewish alliance with right-wing power structures in the U.S., and then we have the silent sympathizers.
In any Jewish community there’s going to be a tension between those who would prefer the mainstream liberal perspective, which doesn’t necessarily involve sticking your neck out but does involve providing some aid, some support, some voice, and those who do stick their necks out, who do kick the table over, who do want to denounce what they see.
LM: In any Jewish community there’s going to be a tension between those who would prefer the mainstream liberal perspective, which doesn’t necessarily involve sticking your neck out but does involve providing some aid, some support, some voice, and those who do stick their necks out, who do kick the table over, who do want to denounce what they see. Denunciation entails some risk. I understand why the Jewish community is reluctant to take that risk, but I also bemoan the fact that, for not taking that risk, we are often on the wrong side of justice. And the Elliot Abrams figures can populate the landscape rather than the people who have the perspectives that might be on the side of decency and justice. We get people who don’t agree with those like Abrams but who also do not stand up to provide another type of leadership. I think it’s very problematic. However, I think now we are in a period of great contradictions, but we are also in a period of great clarity. Everything is stripped down to its barest essentials in terms of where this society is heading. There’s no hiding from it.
AG: How can Jews who are motivated by a vision of social justice, as you are, start making connections? can we, for example, think about Jewish identity as connected to the Central American refugee crisis at our borders?
LM: Part of it is the willingness to take risks, to be misunderstood and then condemned or dismissed by your own community. Most people aren’t comfortable with that. For me, marginalization is really a gift. I appreciate the ability to see myself as a marginal person and have the ability to look into various realities without being deeply allied with the mainstream Jewish perspective on these issues. I feel privileged not to be affiliated with that. Because it lets me open my eyes wider. But I think for many people—
AG: It’s difficult to just listen.
LM: Exactly. Listening is something that we are not very good at as a community. And I will take a leap and talk about my experience working at a Palestinian farm this past summer in which the family that owned the farm and has received multiple demolition orders from the Israeli military said, “We would work with Israeli Jews, but we don’t want them coming here and telling us how to be good Palestinians. That we won’t accept. We are not going to have an Israeli Jew come in and tell us how we should run our farm or what my relations should be with the rest of the community or the world. No.” So, then, the Jewish community in turn interprets that as antisemitism. And all that really is at stake is that people don’t want to be told how to react to their own reality. I think we have a propensity to do that as a community and I find that very troubling. There is no monolithic Jewish community, but it’s troubling that there are attitudes about knowing the right way, or knowing better, or “just listen to me and we’ll figure this out.” What if people were saying, “I will listen to you and I will walk along with you, but I have no right to tell you what you need to be doing.” I learned that too in the Rio Grande Valley. Whatever ideas I had had at Jewish Social Services about how to make people’s lives better, I was just so thankful that nobody listened to me. Worthless ideas. I needed to listen first. So yeah, it could be as simple as listening and accompanying. I learned that the term acompanamiento, the accompanying of people, does not mean taking over their lives, does not mean dictating their social reality or which ideology they should pursue, but just literally walking alongside them. I feel that’s true not only of Jews but also of white, privileged persons. We are not used to those very passive roles. There’s always a need to be the leader and present the solutions. And I’ve learned in all the work that I’ve done, with a lot of humble pie, that practice of dominating and thinking for other people doesn’t work when you are working for change with others who are more directly affected.
AG: In this museum, we have this really interesting photograph of street art taken in Guatemala that says, “Si Hubo Genocidio” (Yes, there was genocide). Because, in one of our exhibits on the elements of genocide, there’s the denial panel. That’s where this 2013 photograph by Daniel Hernández-Salazar of the wheatpaste street art appears. But in this panel, it doesn’t have the space necessarily to speak about the genocide in Guatemala. It speaks about it through this image of street art inside this city where it happened. But there isn’t any recognition of the U.S. involvement in what led to the Guatemalan genocide. So, I’m thinking about how American Jewish identity can include an awareness of all the violence and imperialism.
LM: What is American Jewish identity? What is it composed of? I might have stated it quite differently when I was a younger person. And now as an older person, I think I have a much more encompassing definition that has to do with that listening and accompanying that I referred to. That I don’t know all the answers. I see and I feel that we are in a very degenerate period right now. And all of those realities of the United States being superior, of dominating the world conversation, we see the illusion of all that. Countries are losing respect for the U.S. That’s also an opportunity. It’s a gift. Because to see all that stripped away is really an opportunity for people to question, “What are the basic values and what are the requirements of survival in a society that portends to be the most powerful country in the world?”
If one can’t see the illusion in the relationship between the U.S. and Central America, or the relationship between the U.S. and the Middle East, one could possibly see it in the way in which this country is impacted by climate change. Because climate change is a thread that ties everything together, across the world. If one sees climate change, one has to address and understand how it’s allowed to progress to the levels it has. And then one has to look at the question of power and of the meaning of power opposed to environmental improvements for human survival. It’s really about survival of the entire world at this point. If Jewish people wish to define that as a Jewish question, I’m cool with that. If they want to see environmental degradation as something we as Jews can address, that’s good. If Jewish people wish to join with other communities that are addressing the impact of climate change, or addressing the impact of world power as defined by the U.S., I’m also down with that. I just wish people would stop the silence. Because silence clouds your eyes. You are not able to see as well when you are not saying anything.
- The Sanctuary movement was a faith-based political campaign in the United States to provide safe-haven, often in defiance of federal laws, to Central American refugees fleeing violence.