Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The 21-year old Marine is the only known Jewish guard at the camp that houses Al Qaeda terror suspects. While the camp’s name is widely synonymous with U.S. abuse of power in the war on terror, Atani is proud of her mission there, and believes it reflects her Jewish values.
So how did a nice Jewish girl find herself in a place like Guantanamo?
Atani said she chose to serve here. For a while she considered joining the Peace Corps, but then decided to join the military instead. Her father was an interrogator in Vietnam, she said during a recent interview, under the blazing sun of Guantanamo, and she wanted to continue in his footsteps. “I also wanted to uphold the Geneva Convention like he did,” she said, echoing the military’s line that the practices at Guantanamo are in line with international treaties regarding the treatment of wartime detainees.
Being a Jewish woman guard in the male-only, Muslim-only detention center confronted Atani with unique challenges. “It’s something you don’t want to let out, you don’t want the detainees to know,” she said when speaking about her faith.
Atani has been on the island for almost a year and had never encountered any problems when dealing with the detainees. But still, she believes “they won’t take well” her being Jewish.
Atani grew up in Houston at a home were religion was largely off limits. “My mom didn’t want to connect to our Jewish roots,” she said. But Atani did. In college she joined a group of Jewish friends and began to attend regularly a Reform synagogue. Life on base made things a little more difficult. There is no rabbi at Guantanamo, and Jewish servicemen and women sometimes gather with a lay leader to observe Jewish holidays. “It doesn’t matter if I don’t go to synagogue, as long as I make time to pray,” Atani said.
Kosher food is also scarce on the island, and the most she could find so far was a jar of matzo ball soup at the Navy store on base.
To those within the Jewish community who are fighting vigorously to close the Guantanamo detention facility, Atani replies that they simply don’t know the situation on the ground and don’t see the humane way in which she and her fellow guards treat detainees. “I think the big thing about the Jewish religion is treating everybody like I’d want to be treated and to know that if I was in this situation, this is how I would like to be treated,” she said.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.