Jewish Youth Say “Never Again” As They Protest Trump’s Concentration Camps

Activists are risking arrest during two weeks of actions in Boston, Chicago, Newark and other major cities.

Stephanie Russell-Kraft

LilyFish Gomberg, left, and her sister, Maya Gomberg, protest in Boston on July 2 over the detention and deportation of immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico Border. (Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

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.

"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.”

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.

Stephanie Rus­sell-Kraft is a Brook­lyn-based free­lance reporter cov­er­ing the inter­sec­tions of reli­gion, law and gen­der with the work­place. Her work has appeared in The Nation, The New Repub­lic and The Progressive.
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