A Tale of Two Documents

Note: I wrote this piece the day after Donald Trump was elected president and posted it on my Facebook profile. Due to the overwhelming response, and because I still feel as strongly now about what I wrote two weeks ago, I'm posting it here for posterity. That being said, I have made some minor edits to this piece to make it more appropriate to a non-Facebook format. I hope you enjoy it, or at the very least, engage with it - please don't hesitate to let me know what you think. And, on a brighter note, I've got more recipes coming soon. xo, S.

On Wednesday November 9th, 2016, the day that Donald Trump became the next president of the United States, I was in Ávila. I was there to see a copy of the Edict of Expulsion of the Sephardic Jews from Spain in 1492, also known as the Alhambra Decree. For those who know me and know the work I do as a Fulbright scholar, this date and, more precisely, this document, are extremely significant: they are, materially, why I study what I study and do the work I do. 

But even more than that, seeing this copy of the Edict – a parchment transcription of the text expelling the Jews, addressed to the municipality of Ávila and signed by the Catholic monarchs - illustrated for me in painfully ordinary detail what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil. It was and is just a letter – one with a royal signature and seal, but still, in a way simply a glorified note. And yet it initiated one of the most traumatic dispersions within the greater Jewish diaspora –  one that, to this day, people recall with anguish as they invoke Ladino refrains and pass on the antique keys that unlocked their Spanish homes – and that had a tremendous impact on the medieval world (and therefore, our modern one). There were grooved creases running through the center of the page where it had been badly folded and fading words where the ink wore off through the years; the document could so easily be ripped or torn by the lightest touch. It was almost laughable how hate and oppression could take on such an unassuming, now fragile form.

And yet, there was an appropriate, painful irony to seeing this edict particularly on the day that the most bigoted, racist, sexist (the "ist" list goes on) candidate - one who I never imagined would be elected - was voted into the office of president of the United States. On the one hand, the very thing that this document enacted – the mass expulsion of a group of people predicated solely on their ethnic definition – is exactly what Donald Trump has proposed multiple times in his campaign, regarding countless groups of people, in nearly the same language (even despite the Edict of Expulsion being written in medieval Castilian). The Catholic monarchs expelled the Jews because of their “corrupting influence” on new Christian converts, their “concerted” effort to rob Old Christians of economic opportunity, and because of what the Catholic monarchs perceived as their maliciously closed off community. The language sounds all too familiar, just instead of Jews, Trump has referred to Latinos, African-Americans, women, and so on. It became starkly clear to me that even though the edict is 524 years old this March 31st, and was only officially revoked in 1968, its main sentiments of fear and scapegoating carry on; especially as embodied by those people in our country who seek to demonize, oppress, and expel others. In a twist of cruel irony, it uses nearly the same rhetoric in 1492 as the Trump campaign did in 2016, enacted into existence by the absolute power of monarchy. It seems to me that that is exactly the type of power Trump would like to have as president.

That brings me to what’s on the other hand, because 288 years ago, another document was signed into existence: the US Constitution. It is a document that affirms the rights of all people, no matter their race, religion creed, gender, age, sexual orientation, or political belief, to live and participate in the democratic process. It is a yellowed parchment testament to the value and validity of each individual’s lived experience. While the original document, I’m sure, is just as fragile as that of Ávila’s Alhambra Decree, it expresses exactly the opposite sentiments of the Edict of Expulsion. Even in its most basic language it’s completely different: those famous first three words of “we the people” stand in stark contrast to the introduction of the Edict’s “King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel, by the grace of God.” And that image, that represents exactly the opposite of the Alhambra decree, is that of the United States in which I firmly believe. It is the picture of a vibrant, diverse country of dynamic, intelligent people seeking, growing, innovating, and engaging profoundly with questions and the problems with which they are presented. It is a country of acceptance of difference, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable that coexistence may be. A country that does not push out people simply because of some arbitrary categorization or the belief in their inferiority. It is a country of love, not hate. Essentially, and intentionally, everything medieval Spain was not.

In the last 150 days of this election cycle, and even before that, I have looked around my communities - on Facebook and real life, in the United States and abroad - and all I have and continue to see are whip-smart, complex, active, passionate people who want and work to make the communities and lives around them better. People of the 21st century with a modern, and yes, even millennial, sensibility that I believe emphasizes the “we” over “me.” And knowing that they – you all – are out there gives me such profound hope I can't adequately express it. At the end of the day, I see people loving each other, embracing difference – choosing the “we the people” of our Constitution over the “I, the King” and “I, the Queen” of the Edict of Expulsion (and, let’s be real, the Trump campaign).

We in the United States are lucky enough to have a document that openly, explicitly advocates for equality and the valuation of each individual perspective. I’ll be honest, I’m pretty devastated Donald Trump is our new president. And it’s hard to accept this decision without deep sadness and anger on my part. But I have a deep faith in the way our political system peacefully transitions from one presidency to the next, no matter how disparate their political ideologies may be or how uncomfortable that transition is. A value enshrined by our governing Constitution. So, rather than letting this electoral decision define my next four years or, even worse, allowing it to create hate or anger in my heart – the type of hate that leads to documents like the Edict of Expulsion – I’m making the active choice to accept the election of a political ideology that is very different from my own. At the same time, I choose to advocate every single day of the next four years and beyond for the vision of the United States that I believe our Constitution sets out – one that enables the coexistence of different ideologies and experiences for the greater good of all – to not let us fall into the trap of hatred of the other that permitted the existence of the Edict of Expulsion. I choose to hope, and I hope reading this might help you choose it too.