In the spring of 2018, Rabbi Salem Pearce, director of organizing at Jewish human rights organization T’ruah, took a group of clergy down to El Paso to witness for themselves the escalating “border crisis.” The trip took place a month before the Trump Administration announced its new “zero tolerance” family separation policy—though federal law enforcement agencies had been separating parents from their children for over a year already. Despite having, at that point, seen scores of heart-wrenching photos of people in detention centers and read the stories behind them, Pearce wasn’t nearly prepared for what she saw.
“I thought I knew what was happening and then just seeing it right in front of me… ” she said, trailing off for a moment. Crossing the Paso Del Norte bridge checkpoint, Pearce and the clergy saw people shuffled into overflowing outdoor cages where some were kept for days under the Texas sun. Inside ICE’s Otero County Processing Center, a warden proudly told the clergy that detainees, though she used the word “inmates,” could work for a whole $1 a day. “Witnessing people put in cages and chain link fences and stuffed in there like chattel was horrifying,” said Pearce.
Soon after, Pearce became one of thousands of American Jews who are organizing protests against ICE to stop what they recognize as authoritarian violence—the kind that eventually led to the Holocaust—from taking root in the U.S., and putting their bodies on the line while doing it.
“They’re not death camps—not yet.”
In June, after reports that at least 24 people had died in ICE custody under the Trump administration, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called the detention camps along the Southern border “concentration camps.” While her words angered some Jews who felt that her use of the term disrespected and diminished the horrors of the Holocaust, other Jews, like Pearce, said that her choice of words was spot on. “They’re not death camps—not yet,” she said. “But the death camps that have existed throughout history often don’t start that way. They start being places where people who are targeted because of their race or status are put into isolated places and denied due process. The characterization is accurate.”
It is this characterization that inspired a group of friends to form Never Again Action, an organization of Jews mobilizing against ICE, in June of this year. “As Jews, we felt a particular moral obligation to act in a way that we wish people in Germany had acted during the Holocaust,” said Alyssa Rubin, an organizer with Never Again Action. The organization gets its name from the Jewish community’s long-held mantra “Never Again,” which seeks to honor the victims of the Holocaust and serves as a promise to never allow similar atrocities to take place again. In holding with the latter, Never Again Action is specifically dedicated to stopping the continuation of what they see as concentration camps in the U.S. before it’s too late. The group helps and encourages Jews around the country to plan their own demonstrations against ICE, providing a toolkit with resources on how to get started.
Not yet two months old, Never Again Action has already organized 38 protests throughout the country at ICE offices, detention centers, private prisons that are partnered with ICE, and more. Separately, Pearce has been working with T’ruah’s network of 2,000 rabbis and cantors to organize their own Jewish-led protests and demonstrations against ICE and CBP across the country—and American Jews have showed up by the masses.
According to organizers from various Jewish human rights organizations involved in anti-ICE activism, the overall movement has recently seen aggressive growth. “In the past couple of months, the Jewish community’s involvement has really deepened and intensified,” said Pearce. “What we’re seeing is the Jewish community much more willing to take risks, to be more outspoken, to intensify our rhetoric, too.”
Sometimes, those risks involve physical safety. Last week, Never Again Action’s demonstration outside of a Rhode Island prison ended when a truck, operated by a corrections officer from the prison, drove into a group of seated protestors. One man was severely injured, and others with minor injuries were treated at a local hospital. At the same demonstration, Rhode Island police pepper sprayed activists blocking the entrance to the ICE facility. While the events of the protest were the most violent reaction that Never Again Action has encountered so far, it was by no means the first time that Jewish groups have been met with violence or animosity from law enforcement during ICE protests.
Three days before the truck struck protestors in Rhode Island, 40 Jews were arrested at an Amazon bookstore in New York City during a sit-in demanding the company cut ties with ICE. The protest was part of a string of nationwide demonstrations against ICE led by Jews on Tisha B’Av, a Jewish day of mourning. Before the arrests, Jews from T’ruah, Never Again Action, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, and more occupied the Amazon bookstore. Both inside and outside the bookstore, the 1,000 people in attendance held signs that quoted the Hebrew Bible and Anne Frank. Others read, “Never again is now” and “Amazon close the camps.”
While law enforcement’s response to demonstrations against ICE has dramatically escalated over the summer, Jewish organizers have responded by planning more anti-ICE demonstrations. Jewish human rights organizations like JFREJ and T’ruah have partnered with immigrant rights organizations like United We Dream and Mijente in order to tackle ICE as effectively as possible with no plans of slowing down demonstrations any time soon. Never Again Action has averaged one demonstration every other day since the beginning of July.
“The stakes are very, very high.”
According to organizers and faith leaders within the movement, the Jewish community’s fight for immigrant rights is too personal to watch from the sidelines, and not just for Latinx Jews and others directly affected by current anti-immigrant policies.
“The stakes are very, very high,” said Audrey Sasson, Executive Director at JFREJ. “We see ourselves as Jews having a stake in this, the rise of white nationalism being a threat to all of us.”
In addition to a collective history of the very worst that can happen when persecution based on identity goes unchallenged, Jewish organizers against ICE believe that the current immigration crisis simply defies Jewish morals.
“This is a moral issue, a humanitarian crisis,” said Pearce. “As a rabbinic org, we believe all people are created in the image of God, and the way people are being treated in immigration custody, ICE facilities, CBP facilities is abominable. It’s not worthy of people created in the image of God.”
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