Jewish Tokenism and Tolerance: On Liberals, Narratives, and Costa Rica
Zach Cohen’s New Voices article was not exactly the most adulatory of Costa Rica. His piece prompted responses: one from Q Costa Rica and two from the Costa Rica Star – an initial piece and a follow-up. These pieces took a largely self-defensive, mocking, and somewhat anti-Semitic tone. Yet at the same time, the pieces demanded satisfaction from Cohen in a way – upset at his “myopic view,” that he didn’t see how good Costa Rica-Israel relations are, and that he didn’t see, well, how good Costa Rica is for the Jews. Cohen has since responded.
Let me be up front first: I was not the biggest fan of my colleague’s piece. I found the approach to be too broad-stroke, and I myself cringed at the description of San José. Admittedly, Cohen could have been more charitable. But I also found his piece to be honest, which I thought was important and refreshing.
But the response was unwarranted, cruel, and in some ways anti-Semitic. And in it, there is something interesting to examine: Underlying all of it is a subconscious narrative that, because Costa Rica has gone through certain activities to connote acceptance of Jews, Jews should then simply be happy with whatever experience happens in Costa Rica. Without critique.
“Bah, academic humbug,” one might say. Actually, it is more than humbug – this is an everyday narrative, created by those who are comfortable and who hold by liberal tenets: a narrative of tolerance, of national good, and of a country that is “open” – and must be accepted as such. Cohen’s article brushed with this narrative.
The narrative reads: “We are tolerant; we have placed your symbols in public places; now accept that we like you and do as we say.” That means no criticism or discussions of anti-Semitism and the difficult work of being a minority. That leaves no room to critique the broadly anti-Semitic (and to be fully honest, cheap and childish) tone of articles such as those in the Costa Rica Star. That leaves no room to point out that, if you are a Catholic in a Catholic country it is not really your place to demand that a Jew confirm your narrative. If you are going to claim tolerance, you must live it. Token Jewish symbols in public parks do not count.
This tendency falls into a wider trend. Flavia Dzodan, blogger, activist, and cultural critic, notes in her discussions of racism in the Netherlands that when a dominant group defines a culture of tolerance as a reflection of the national culture, it effectively silences any critique to the contrary. Such a tendency has also been seen in Norway, where a liberal, “progressive” élite markets itself as tolerant, and thus refuses in many ways to acknowledge the problems of anti-Semitism and racism in Norway today. The reactions – defenses of a Jewish record, anger that not everything was satisfactory, and shock that the pura vida – the “relaxed,” “real living” supposedly enjoyed by Costa Ricans – is not so for all – in these articles are in the same vain. “We live by ¡pura vida!, and how dare you say otherwise.”
Costa Rica, I am sure, is an awesome country; I have never been, but hope to confirm my inkling someday in person. Let us not forget that Costa Rica has done impressively in disarmament, historical preservation, and greening its economy. It’s even the happiest country on earth according to one study. But that does not mean that it should be immune to criticism. After all, the construction of the pura vida has largely erased Costa Rica’s non-white populations (and for those of you who cry, “don’t apply America’s racial categories here,” reams and reams of academic research shows very real correlations between race and class in Latin America). Jews in Costa Rica tend to be wealthy and Ashkenazi (thus, white). But that does not mean that similar concerns do not take part in their lives. It has also erased Costa Rica’s Jewish community’s real concerns – especially over trying to be both costariqueño and judío, over security, and over the simple inconvenience of trying to keep kosher in a country in a love affair with chifrijo. And to reject criticism is to simply say that you believe that you cannot do wrong, without remembering that tolerance is a two-way street. If you claim to be tolerant and then engage in the anti-Semitic tropes of “childish” and “selfish” Jews and “demanding” Jews, then you are not fully tolerant of Jews.
And, mind you, it is also a problem to ignore inconvenient critiques from within your own country. Many Costa Rican bloggers have gone on magnificent (Spanish-language) rants about things they want to see improved.
Jews, too, are not immune from this critique. Witness the hasbara machine’s repeated attempts to exaggerate Israel’s role as a place for gay people, women, or “animal lovers” – whilst delaying attention from the very real problems of the Occupation, discrimination against refugees, and sexism there. Or note Erika Davis’ explanation of her difficulty for being recognized as a Jew because she is black in many Ashkenazi spaces that then turn to describe themselves as non-racist. Many Jews reading this should not simply agree, but also reflect on their own tokenizing. I myself have had to learn not to tokenize.
But that does not mean that we should not speak out when tolerance doesn’t measure up, or when someone tries to say “we like you, do what we want you to do, be our token Jews!” We have wandered the earth for two thousand years and we are no one’s token minority. Zach Cohen’s article is not untouchable, but the response reveals a lot more. It is all well and good to say you like Jews, but the authors of these articles must live up to their claims, not just say “Costa Rica’s great, we’re safe and put menorahs in our parks.” And in this work, we also learn wider lessons.
Jonathan P. Katz is a student at the University of Chicago.