Senator Ed Markey with AJWS staff Tracey Gurd, Rabbi Penzner, AJWS President Robert Bank, and Boston- area Rabbis Michael Rothbaum and Jill Perlman.   Photo courtesy of Chuck Kennedy for AJWS

Senator Ed Markey with AJWS staff Tracey Gurd, Rabbi Penzner, AJWS President Robert Bank, and Boston- area Rabbis Michael Rothbaum and Jill Perlman.

Photo courtesy of Chuck Kennedy for AJWS

Earlier this week I exercised my civic and sacred duty as a citizen of the United States to speak to our representatives in Washington, D.C. about issues of global human rights. Telling stories from our recent trip to Guatemala, of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who are living in starvation, squalor and fear of returning to their home country, and of the chilling effect of the US Global Gag Rule (preventing any health care organization from providing, advocating for or even mentioning abortion) on the health of women and girls and LGBT folk across the world, we met with people who truly have the power to make a difference. With rabbis and staff of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), we made 63 visits to our Senators and Members of Congress, as well as staff at the State Department and USAID. It was an important lesson in the power and responsibility of individuals living in a democracy, a topic I hope you will discuss with your children, and consider getting involved in yourself.

For those who have not yet heard what brought me to Guatemala and what I learned there, below you can read an op-ed that I have written to explain the crisis in Guatemala. Very soon I will recommend ways to make your voice heard on this, and on the other two issues..

In awe and gratitude,

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

There definitely is a national emergency—in Guatemala.  

What would you do if your own government evicted you from your home, destroyed your town, then chased you into the woods where soldiers pursued you and your family?

This happened to a Holocaust survivor in my congregation, who barely survived while the rest of his family was murdered in his Polish town. This also is the story of many people in Guatemala, who are on the evening news as they flee their homeland to seek asylum in America.

I witnessed these Guatemalans’ struggle last month on a study trip led by American Jewish World Service (AJWS), the leading Jewish organization working to end poverty and support human rights in the developing world. As part of the Global Justice Fellowship of AJWS, I was one of fifteen rabbis from the U.S. who spent a week meeting local heroes in Guatemala. We heard heartbreaking tales from civil society leaders, lawyers, journalists, midwives, and advocates for women’s rights. They each risk their lives daily.

Most Guatemalans can’t earn enough to feed their families. Nearly half of children age 5 and under suffer from chronic malnutrition.  In all, 11 million people, nearly 60 percent of the population, earn less than two dollars a day, according to the World Bank. And 23% live in extreme poverty, earning less than a dollar a day.

I was struck by the courage and commitment of the people we met. Even now, back in Boston, I am inspired by a young woman named Anna. She traveled 27 hours in buses to tell her story to us, a group of Jewish foreigners. In her region, women are not expected to get an education. Though she stopped going to school after fourth grade, the organization that Anna now represents helped her graduate from high school and get a degree. Today she fights to end violence against women and girls, and she works to give women job training and leadership skills. Because of her achievements, her father overcame his opposition to allowing her nine younger siblings to pursue an education.

Anna admitted that she has been tempted to leave for the U.S. because she can barely eke out a living. But she has decided to stay in Guatemala—she feels a duty to fight for rural women.

When I asked her what her dream job would be, she responded, “I would defend women’s rights, as I do now…only, I would get paid for this work.”

Unbeknownst to most Americans, the democratic government of Guatemala is quickly becoming a dictatorship. As a result, more and more Guatemalans will make the painful choice to leave their homeland, taking their families on the dangerous journey through our southern border in hopes of finding a better life in the U.S.

Guatemala lives with the legacy of a 36-year-long internal armed conflict sparked by a U.S.-sponsored military coup in 1954.  During the conflict, close to a million people were displaced from their homes, and 200,000 people were murdered or “disappeared.” And since a peace agreement was reached in 1996, Guatemala has faced rampant corruption and impunity for elites, politicians and perpetrators of war crimes.  

In 2006, an anti-corruption commission called CICIG was created by the Guatemalan government and the United Nations. Over the last decade it succeeded in prosecuting 310 government officials, military officers, and business leaders—including a former president. But while the overwhelming majority of Guatemalans support these investigations, the current president of Guatemala, Jimmy Morales—who is himself under investigation—expelled CICIG from the country last month.

During our visit to Guatemala City, thousands of protestors blocked roads and converged on the presidential palace. Everywhere we went, people warned that the president is undertaking a “technical coup,” quietly using the military to eliminate political rivals.

The individuals we met are taking great risks, not knowing whether they will see any results in their lifetime. They are planting seeds for a better tomorrow for their children and grandchildren, but those seeds will only able to grow and flourish in Guatemala if democracy is upheld. We must therefore demand that Congress and the Trump Administration put pressure on President Morales, standing up for democracy and the rule of law in Guatemala. We must recognize the true national emergency—the one in Guatemala.

Posted on March 14, 2019 .