NEWARK, NEW JERSEY — Planes on their way to the airport fly low over a crowd of young protesters chanting “Racist ICE has got to go!” More than 100 Jewish and immigrant activists have gathered outside the Elizabeth Contract Detention Center in New Jersey, where Immigration and Customs Enforcement holds approximately 300 detainees.
Rabbi Salem Pearce leads the protesters in the Mourner’s Kaddish, a Jewish prayer of mourning, for six immigrant children who have died in U.S. government custody.
“There are more who are not named,” she says. “There will be more.”
Periodically, the sound of a shofar horn rises above the chanting. The bugle-like instrument, traditionally made of a ram’s horn, is blown on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement that follows. By sounding it at the protest, “it’s like we’re collectively repenting for the sins of America,” explains Julia Davidovitz, a 26-year-old preschool teacher from Boston and the descendent of Jewish refugees. Her grandfather was incarcerated by the Nazis in the Minsk Ghetto, where he lost his parents and two sisters.
Down the road, a group of activists with a banner that reads “Never Again Means Close the Camps” links arms across the gate to the employee parking lot, briefly blocking employees from leaving as they demand the facility be shut down. Later in the evening, 36 protesters are arrested.
The protest marked the beginning of two weeks of action organized by an unofficial coalition of Jewish and immigrant activists demanding an end to the detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Their message: that “Never Again” — an expression used in remembrance of the Holocaust — means never again for anyone.
Many of the protesters say they’re doing what they wish non-Jewish Germans and other Europeans had done in the years leading up to the Holocaust: Speak up before it’s too late. “We don’t want to see what happens next, in terms of where this could go,” says Michaela Caplan, 23, a recent college graduate who was arrested in Elizabeth. Her grandmother was an Auschwitz survivor.
“We’re not just talking about what’s going on at the border,” adds Caplan. “This is happening in everyone’s backyard, in their own communities, that people are being terrorized. There are 11 million undocumented people in this country living in fear.”
Though they gathered outside of ICE detention centers, the activists are protesting the entire U.S. immigration and deportation régime. That régime has long included detention centers, but critics say it has escalated in cruelty since Donald Trump took office. Trump made immigration a signature issue on the campaign trail, often using racist terms to refer to undocumented immigrants, particularly those from Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. His administration has made it more difficult to cross the border and increased arrests and deportations of immigrants already in the country. ICE arrests increased 30 percent from 2016 to 2017, and 11 percent from 2017 to 2018.
After the demonstration in Elizabeth, activists organized similar actions in Boston, Providence, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Chicago.
The protests mark an inflection point in an ongoing debate over American Jewish collective identity. On June 17, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez set off a political firestorm when she said on Instagram “the United States is running concentration camps on our southern border.” Her comments were quickly denounced by Republican lawmakers as well as several prominent Jewish institutions. Leaders of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, which claims to represent “New York’s diverse Jewish community,” wrote in an open letter, “the regrettable use of Holocaust terminology to describe these contemporary concerns diminishes the evil intent of the Nazis to eradicate the Jewish people.” The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum put out a statement “unequivocally reject[ing] efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events.”
But Irene Lehrer Sandalow, a board member of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs who attended the Chicago protest, sees direct parallels to history: “I’m here because I’m a grandchild of a Holocaust survivor and I’m an immigrant myself, from Belgium. We grew up talking about how we never want to see this happening again, and it’s happening right now. I see children this age” — she gestures to her young son — “in camps.”
Miles Meth, a 25-year-old union organizer and the grandchild of two Holocaust survivors, says the words “Never Again” were a refrain in his youth. He doesn’t believe the collective trauma of the Holocaust should be off-limits for historical comparison.
“One of the facets of anti-Semitism is that it separates Jews from other people,” he says. “It’s important to recognize when we have the opportunity to be in solidarity with other people.”
Meth helped coordinate the Boston action along with other Jewish activists and members of Movimiento Cosecha, a direct action organization dedicated to protecting the rights of undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Sarah Gratz, 21, who was among those arrested in Elizabeth, believes the backlash over the use of “Holocaust” is a distraction. “Have we not learned anything?” she says. “It’s not about the words. It’s about seeing that the conditions of these people are due to the same hateful, racist and ignorant ideologies that caused these same things to happen to our grandparents and great-grandparents.”
Two days after the arrests in Elizabeth, protesters gathered in Boston at the New England Holocaust Memorial and marched three miles through rush-hour traffic. The crowd swelled to more than a thousand as it moved through the streets, ending outside the Suffolk County House of Correction, where detainees flashed signs in the windows reading “help” and “we love you.” 18 protesters were arrested.
Journalist Britni de la Cretaz brought her 5 year-old daughter to the Boston march to teach her about political action and help foster a sense of community. “She would talk to the people marching with us, and say, ‘I’m Jewish,’” says de la Cretaz. “And they would say, ‘So am I.’ On the way home, she said, ‘You’re right, mom, this is what Jews do.’”
“My Judaism above all is about liberation,” de la Cretaz says.
Anna Attie contributed reporting from Chicago.