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Cantor Naomi Hirsch blows the shofar, a Jewish instrument, as a call to action at the July 4th protest in Philadelphia. 
Cantor Naomi Hirsch blows the shofar, a Jewish instrument, as a call to action at the July 4th protest in Philadelphia. 

Jewish Activists Say "Never Again Para Nadie"

Activists are drawing on their Jewish heritage to take a stand against inhumane conditions at detention centers. 

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Lizzie Horne, with her silver Hebrew nameplate around her neck, stood with bullhorn in hand in front of the 300 protestors gathered in Philadelphia on July 4. She addressed the crisis at the border and at detention centers across the country while invoking the memories of the Holocaust, which many of their own ancestors had experienced. 

“After the Holocaust we made a commitment as a Jewish people to say never again,” she told AL DÍA on July 3. “What we really mean by never again is never again for anyone.” 

In the uproar over the horrific conditions at immigrant detention centers at the border, some of the loudest voices of protest have come from the Jewish community. Over the last few weeks, Jewish activists have taken to the streets, alongside their allies and members of immigrant rights groups, in Philadelphia and across the nation to protest these conditions.

For the Never Again Action movement, the injunction “never again” expresses their goal to never again witness what their ancestors experienced during the Holocaust and to never again witness injustice and violence towards any vulnerable group. This has been applied to emphasize the severity of the human rights violations taking place against the immigrant community. 

The movement has affirmed Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s characterization of the centers as “concentration camps” to represent inhumane conditions experienced by the asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants who are placed there. In a recent report of conditions of detention centers at the border, USA Today described conditions of overcrowding, with the smell of urine and feces. 

Previous reports have stated that children are being separated from their parents and that 24 adults and six children have died at ICE detention centers. Also, there are reports of children living in inhumane conditions in detention centers, some without access to adequate food, water or sanitation and that people are being denied the right to medical care. 

One of those detention centers is only three hours away from Philadelphia, in Berks County, which many of the protesters were calling to be shut down, especially because there have been reports of sexual assault made by the detainees. 

The comparison of concentration camps has drawn criticism and praise from different members and groups throughout the Jewish community. 

Marcia Bronstein, regional director of American Jewish Committee (AJC) Philadelphia/ Southern New Jersey, said, “AJC also takes issue with appropriating Holocaust language to describe other events — as horrible as other events may be.”   

However, Horne, like the other Jewish organizers in the Never Again Actiomnmovement, disagreed. 

“Calling the immigrant detention centers “concentration camps” is expressing “the reality of what they are,” she said.

 On July 4, over 300 protestors gathered at Independence Hall in Philadelphia to demand the shut down of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the closing of detention centers, and to say “Never Again." 

 Participants chanted, “Refugees are welcome here. Immigrants are welcome here. Never again means never again para nadie. Close the camps!" and sang songs like “Your people are my people. Your divine, my divine.” The same songs and chants have echoed at Never Again Action protests organized throughout the country. Protestors have shown up with signs in Spanish such as  “Ningun humano es illegal.” and in Hebrew like “Tzedek” or justice. 

At the protest, 33 people were arrested for civil disobedience when they interrupted the Independence Day Parade. They are among the more than 150 people across the country who have been arrested in civil disobedience actions for the Never Again Action movement, according to Horne. 

These protesters have shared that they are protesting because they understand their own history and do not want to see it repeated. For some, there is a connection to the Torah, the Jewish Bible, and the need to speak up for justice. For many, they are morally ashamed and disgusted by the conditions at the detention centers, or, as many have said,  concentration camps. 

Lessons from History

At the July 4 protest, Horne pointed to the rise of the Nazi regime as an example of the horrors that can happen when society as a whole disengages from a government’s acts of violence and abuses towards a particular group of people. 

“We have seen this before. We know what happens when average people look the other way,” Horne said.

In fact, this idea of looking away not only applied to Jews during the Holocaust, but also when Jewish refugees were refused entry into the United States in 1939. 

Dr. Rafael Medoff, the director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, wrote a book titled, “The Jews Should Keep Quiet,” regarding President Roosevelt’s policy of closing America to Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, and his effort to silence Jewish critics of this policy.  

Recent protests show that Jews are critics of the current policies in the country, and are drawing on their personal history as a way to speak out. 

Sandy Lieberman, one of the protesters in Philadelphia said, 

“I am here because my family, my people were refugees and I didn’t want to be a bystander to an atrocity where refugees are barred from our country.” 

 Laura Levitt, a professor of religion, Jewish studies and gender at Temple University, explained the government’s role in the creation of policies that seek to divide by “othering whole groups of people and making them into criminals when they've done no criminal behavior.” 

“They've just tried to save their families. Refugees are vulnerable people and one thing that those of who study the Holocaust and most people in the Jewish community understand is the vulnerability of refugees,” Levitt said.  

She noted that during World War II, Jews such as Anne Frank’s father and those who traveled in the MS St. Louis were turned away from the United States as a result of what amounts to the same kind of other that is used today against undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers from Central America. 

Another connection many Jewish protesters share with today’s undocumented immigrant community is the fact that immigration is an inherent part of the history and identity of the Jewish people. 

Jews have lived in many countries and been kicked out of many countries; some have fled to Latin America, and Latin American Jews, such as those in Venezuela, have been forced to leave once again because of the economic crisis in the country. 

“We are a diasporic people and we come from all different places and all of us had to leave for one reason or another because we weren't welcome there,” Horne explained. “So we emigrated to the U.S. because we were promised the American dream that every other immigrant community is promised.” 

Sophie Ellman-Golan, one of the main activists for Never Again Action, said in reference to current immigrants in detention centers, 

“A lot of ancestors were fleeing the same persecution that immigrants are experiencing right now. Or fleeing the same violence that immigrants coming in are fleeing.” 

Holocaust scholars and Jews have drawn comparisons between the history of Jews and the current making of history, not only as a way of showing how their history is a means for them to protest, but using their history to point out the immorality they see at detention centers across the country. 

‘Inherently Immoral’

Anna Scanlon, a Holocaust educator who holds a PhD in Holocaust History, does not agree that referring to the detention centers as concentration camps is accurate or correct. However, she points out how Jewish history makes people aware of the need to protest injustice.  

“ As Jews, our history makes us astutely aware of where hateful rhetoric or detention camps can lead and motivates us to try our best to help those suffering from human rights violations.” 

This idea can also be tied to othering.

“I think the moral issue is that we come from a people who have been oppressed for being the other and so I think to watch the othering and the violence that is being inflicted on vulnerable people in this country, people who are trying to escape horrendous violence and poverty, is just heart wrenching,” Levitt said.  

For Sasha Balofsky, who marched alongside her husband, Nachum Balofsky, protesting for immigrant rights was personal for her, as she was a refugee.  

Balofsky came to the United States when she was five years old, alongside her parents, who were political refugees from Ukraine.  

“There is kind of a personal element in seeing people who emigrated, who are escaping violence so just seeing and hearing these people being locked up and the family separation is inherently immoral to me,” she said.

“We got the opportunity to come here and we were treated with respect and dignity and I think these people deserve it as well no matter what country they are coming from.”

Rooted in Scripture

Horne, who is studying to become a reconstructionist rabbi, said that it is “the moral duty of the clergy to stand up in moments like this.” 

“When there is a moral crisis we are ethically responsible to stand up and use our voices in ways that not everybody can,” she said. 

At every protest, rabbis, both male and female have participated and helped lead the protests, using Jewish religious symbols and prayers to remind people of the power of protest and the power of their roots to create change. 

On July 4, Rabbi Linda Holtzman led the Mourner’s Kaddish, a Jewish prayer to honor those who have died and at the protest as a way to honor those who have died in detention centers. She reminded Jewish protesters that the Kaddish is a way to remember, but also is an act of resistance. 

This idea of an act of resistance was also expressed by Daniel Holtzman (they/them), who participated in the protest in Philadelphia and the first protest in Elizabeth, NJ, when they talked about the shofar, a Jewish instrument. 

Holtzman shared, “To hear the Mourners' Kaddish, to hear the sound of the shofar, which in many ways is a wakeup call, a call to action, it makes me feel grounded, connected to my history and my ancestors and my community and gives me the spiritual grounding to continue to fight.”

Horne echoed this idea. 

“I think on a really basic level if we go all the way back to the Torah, it is literally commanded of us to take care of our neighbors and to take care of the folks around us,” she said. 

“When you boil it down, this is what has been commanded of us since the beginning of us as a people, and if we are really followers of our Torah then we have no other choice but to do this.”

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