While most Americans were preparing for a long July 4th weekend, Aaron Regunberg, a policy adviser to Rhode Island Mayor Jorge Elorza, was getting arrested outside an ICE detention center in Providence. That was by design.
Leading liberal politicians like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have been slammed for conflating migrant detention centers with concentration camps, but a growing number of American Jews like Regunberg are pushing back with a message of their own: Yes, they're concentration camps, and we must stop them now. Invoking the Holocaust, they have been protesting outside ICE detention centers across the country, chanting "Never Again for Anyone."
“Never Again isn’t just about remembering how the Holocaust ended. It’s also about how it started, with a gradual process of legal exclusion and state-sponsored dehumanization that led eventually to the deaths of my grandpa’s family and so many millions of others,” Rugenberg, whose relatives were murdered in the Holocaust, said at the protests in Providence last week.
In the last two weeks alone, thousands of Jews, young and old, have turned up outside ICE facilities in Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities chanting “Never Again Means Now” and “Close the Camps.” As of this writing, more than 120 have been arrested. If the movement has its way, they’ll soon be joined by hundreds more.
"As mostly white or white-passing Jews, we feel obligated to make heightened risk the baseline of what we are doing,” Sophie Ellman-Golan, one of the organizers of Never Again Action, told VICE News.
The movement was inspired by a Facebook post by Serena Adlerstein, a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors who works with Movimiento Cosecha, an organization led by and for undocumented immigrants. Adlerstein posed the question, “What would I have done if I were alive during the Holocaust?”
“Most Jews are conscious to the experience of refugees and immigrants. It’s so recent in our history. It’s clear which side our community should be on.”
The response turned into the first action on June 30, when over 100 Jewish protesters gathered in front of an ICE detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and tried to block employees from entering. Eventually 36 were arrested and charged with obstructing public passage. The next day, 2,000 American Jews expressed interest online in taking similar actions in their city. Then on July 2, 1,000 Jews in Boston and a few hundred in Providence did similar location-specific anti-ICE actions, with 18 arrested in each place. More protests followed on July 4 in Philadelphia, resulting in 33 arrests. On July 5, nearly 500 protested outside Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office building in San Francisco with the message “Close the camps or we will close your office.” Demonstrations continued this week in Chicago, D.C. and Buffalo, New York.
“Most Jews are conscious to the experience of refugees and immigrants. It’s so recent in our history. It’s clear which side our community should be on,” said Alyssa Rubin, one of the organizers, who is also active with IfNotNow, a network of Jewish activists calling for an end to U.S. support for Israeli occupation. “It’s important to show up as Jews because, with our connection to the Holocaust, we have a stake and a moral authority.”
This willingness to draw direct parallels to the Holocaust has become a central tenet of the movement. While prominent American Jewish institutions like the Anti-Defamation League, The Jewish Community Relations Council and the American Jewish Committee rejected Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the term “concentration camps,” Never Again Action has embraced it.
They’re drawing headlines and national attention because of it.
“The Jewish community definitely has the ability to pull the heartstrings of people, and we’re seeing a shift of public opinion,” said Catalina Santiago, 22, a community organizer with Movimiento Cosecha, who was at the protest in Boston. She says there has never been a partnership on this scale before. “It’s been really powerful for Never Again Action to verbalize solidarity with communities being terrorized every day. They are popularizing the outrage on this issue and the demand for protection of immigrants.”
The movement’s GoFundMe page has already raised $180,000 in 10 days to pay for legal fees, with leftover money going to Cosecha, which has been protesting ICE since the Obama era. Meanwhile, their acts of civil disobedience at key ICE facilities across the country is helping keep outrage over the issue front and center, applying pressure on leading centrist Democrats to speak out. This week, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer called on the Trump administration to "clean house" at Customs and Border Protection. "The top people at CBP ought to be fired," he said.
“The Jewish community definitely has the ability to pull the heartstrings of people, and we’re seeing a shift of public opinion.”
Never Again Action may already mark the most significant wave of American Jewish activism in decades, said James Loeffler, professor of modern Jewish history at the University of Virginia. “Since World War II American Jews have taken to the streets in large numbers twice: once to fight for civil rights and once to free Soviet Jews,” Loeffler says. “The first we did as Americans who happened to be Jewish, the second as Jews who happened to be American. Now, we are seeing activists who seek to emphasize their braided identity as both Jews and Americans,” he said.
The movement’s sudden rise to national prominence is impressive, but it didn’t happen in a vacuum.
Jewish outrage has been steadily growing since Trump took office in 2017. Jews have watched as Trump called Mexican immigrants “rapists,” described African and Caribbean nations as “shithole” countries, said there were “very fine people on both sides” after neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us,” and directly targeted Muslims and refugees with hostile rhetoric. They’ve worried over the staggering rise of white nationalist speech and explicitly anti-Semitic hate crimes. And they’ve shown up to protests: at airports in the early aftermath of Trump’s Muslim Ban, at the national mall during the Women’s March, and in Pittsburgh, after the massacre of 11 Jews in in the Tree of Life Synagogue in October.
But all of this seems to have crystallized into this current moment, provoking wide swaths of mostly young Jews to not just join actions but also lead them.
“We are seeing an overlap of anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic rhetoric,” said Ellman-Golan, one of the organizers. “We have seen how the [George] Soros conspiracy theory targeting thousands of immigrants has led to Jews being murdered. There is deep outrage.”
Nearly every day, people are turning out to protest in their cities, big and small, with actions planned this weekend in Michigan and New Hampshire. Organizers are planning a large action in D.C. on Tuesday, July 16.
The pressing questions now are: Where are these protests headed and will they create broader action outside left-leaning Jewish circles? Thus far, aside from J Street, most major American Jewish organizations that normally influence Washington’s position on these issues have been noticeably quiet. While resolutely condemning conditions at the border and calling for an end to detention of asylum-seekers, immigration is not a core issue for them, and they do not appear to be taking institutional action. (The AJC did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The ADL, meanwhile, said that they “don’t have much to say about these actions.”)
“There is deep outrage”
Rubin, from Never Again Action, said the Jewish mainstream condemned Ocasio-Cortez’s comments almost more forcefully than the detention centers themselves.
“If they truly felt these camps are concentration camps, they might put a little more institutional force behind pressuring Congress to do something more drastic,” she said.
Their inaction, however, has opened the door for other parts of the Jewish community to take the lead.
“I think they’ve ceded the mic to us,” she added.
Cover: Protestors assembled by a majority Jewish group called "Never Again Is Now" walk through traffic as they make their way to Independence Mall Thursday July 4, 2019, in Philadelphia. Hundreds gathered during the city's traditional Fourth of July parade to protest the treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)