As The US Debates “Concentration Camps,” These Jews Are Trying To Actually Shut Them Down
“My whole life I’ve been told these stories by my community,” said one young Jewish activist. “Those alarms are going off in my head.”
In a messy Airbnb in northeast Washington, DC, Alyssa Rubin, 25, and Ben Doernberg, 30, passed a stale loaf of challah back and forth on Monday as they planned how they were going to shut down ICE.
“Okay, let’s all share whatever updates we have aaand...your favorite ice cream flavor!” said Rubin, introducing an impromptu icebreaker during one of their regular video conference calls with other organizers.
Surrounded by open suitcases, an air mattress, at least one Popeyes bag, and a mishmash of chips and Cheez-It containers, the two-story row house in DC’s Shaw neighborhood could easily be the site of a sleepaway camp reunion. Instead, this week it served as headquarters for Never Again Action, a brand-new movement of young American Jews calling for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be shut down and the closure of immigrant detention centers nationwide.
About 15 activists from cities all over the US stayed in the house this week — sleeping on mismatched couches, a futon, and the floor — to pull off their biggest action yet: a march on Tuesday from the National Mall to ICE headquarters, where they planned to quite literally shut the building down.
There’s been a lot of talk in recent months about Jewish identity and anti-Semitism in the US. First-year Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar had to apologize in February for tweets against the pro-Israel lobby that she later seemed to acknowledge could be interpreted as containing “anti-Semitic tropes” — although she denied this was her intention. Then last month, Omar’s fellow “Squad” member Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez drew backlash from Republicans and Democrats when she used the term “concentration camps” to describe immigrant detention centers. Vice President Mike Pence said she had “cheapened” the memory of the Holocaust “to advance some left-wing political narrative,” while New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called it a “wholly inappropriate comparison.” Even the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC took offense.
But while politicians debate semantics, and the media discusses whether Jewish identity is being co-opted as a political “shield,” these young Jews are instead taking action. For them, there are clear and painful parallels between their relatives’ past and the present treatment of undocumented immigrants — and their Jewish identity is compelling them to do something about it.
So over the course of just three weeks, they’ve been working day and night to build a movement to upend Trump’s immigration policy and close the detention centers once and for all.
“I don’t care what we call them,” said Rubin of the centers. “I care that we stop them.”
Never Again Action is about as new as movements come. It started on June 24 when Serena Adlerstein, a 25-year-old organizer in Michigan with immigrant rights group Movimiento Cosecha, posted a Facebook status asking if any Jews would be down to protest at a detention center. They got on their first call the same night.
“It was kind of just this offhand Facebook post … and then people starting commenting like, ‘Yes, but actually!’” Adlerstein said. “I think we could all sense the political moment we were in, and we were like, ‘If we’re going to actually do this, we need to do an action fairly quickly.’”
Less than a week later, on June 30, 36 people were arrested during Never Again Action’s first protest when they blocked entrances to a detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey. They were subsequently charged with obstruction of a public passage, issued a summons, and released, authorities told NJ.com.
After that, the protests just kept coming. In Boston earlier this month, more than 1,000 marched from the New England Holocaust Memorial to the Suffolk County House of Correction, where ICE keeps some of its detainees. In San Francisco, they protested outside Nancy Pelosi’s office, chanting “Never again is now” and “Until you close the camps, we will close your building.” Protests have also been held in Philadelphia, the Los Angeles area, Chicago, and Buffalo.
Some of the young adult leaders have previous organizing experience through other Jewish social action groups. But taking on a project on this level — trying to build a brand-new national movement in Trump’s America — is a different beast. Almost like a mantra that they repeat as if to remind themselves, they frequently say that they’re “really building the plane as [they] fly it.”
They now have a Slack team with nearly 200 members. In one channel, called #i-want-to-do-a-thing, people volunteer for any task, big or small, that gets dropped in. Evan Feldberg-Bannatyne, a 21-year-old student at Earlham College in Indiana, serves as the group’s fundraising lead, despite having no previous experience doing that kind of work. On one of the first Never Again Action video calls, he volunteered to take on the role simply because no one else had. The next day, he set up a GoFundMe campaign with the intention of raising about $25,000 to pay bail for those risking arrest at the New Jersey protest. They wound up raising $180,000. “On the way back from the [New Jersey protest], I was just refreshing every five minutes watching the GoFundMe tick up and up and up,” he said.
Now, the 21-year-old is in charge of all the group’s financial operations, running a team that handles budgeting, reimbursements, and fiscal sponsorships, which he describes as “super dry stuff but super important.”
“This is really how I practice my Judaism — through social justice,” he said.
American Jews have a long history when it comes to social justice work, ranging from the labor unions of the 19th-century Eastern European Jewish garment workers to the large number of Jewish Freedom Riders during the civil rights movement. Today, Jews in the US overwhelmingly vote for Democrats, with 71% opting for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. But much like the movement that has fractured the Democratic Party in recent months, progressive Jews have also been making themselves heard. A number of progressive Jewish groups — many of which the Never Again Action organizers are a part of — have grown in prominence, including Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and IfNotNow, a group that opposes Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Unlike more senior members of the Democratic establishment, these Jewish activists are much more likely to speak out against Israel and much less likely to bristle at Holocaust comparisons.
Though comparisons to the Holocaust have not been universally welcomed, the current immigration crisis — seeing people rounded up in cages, separated from their families, humiliated by guards, and deprived of food, water, and showers — evokes a particularly painful and frightening sense of déjà vu for many Jews.
“This is authoritarianism — we’ve seen this before,” said Brandon Mond, 25. “This is a state agency that’s able to just roll around the streets and abduct people at random. My whole life I’ve been told these stories by my community that say that’s a bad sign, so those alarms are going off in my head.”
After working in Democratic politics, Mond had a bit of a reckoning after Clinton lost the 2016 election; he pivoted to organizing with a progressive Jewish group. He thinks many people “associate with the Democratic Party the way you associate with a sports team,” but he’s been frustrated with how the Democrats have responded to what he called the “human rights travesty” at the border. Like other progressives, he says his frustration has reached boiling point.
“I don’t feel accountable to the Democratic Party — I feel accountable to people, particularly people who are really getting fucked over by the system,” Mond said. “If the Democratic Party wants to step up and help those people, I’ll gladly back them. But if they’re going to stand there and fund Border Patrol and ICE facilities like Pelosi and the Democrats did last week, why would I be accountable to them?”
Much like the Democrats have been split on whether to fund the centers, they’ve also been divided on whether it’s appropriate to call them “concentration camps.” Sen. Brian Schatz and Rep. Jerry Nadler, both of whom are Jewish, defended Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the term amid the controversy. But Rep. Josh Gottheimer, who is also Jewish, called the comparison “cruel and disrespectful to the six million who were murdered in the Holocaust, including members of my own family.” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also said “of course she was wrong” to make the comparison, while even Sen. Bernie Sanders distanced himself from the comment.
But the Never Again Action members are leaning right into the comparison. They draw their name, after all, from a phrase directly associated with the Holocaust. Organizer Sophie Ellman-Golan, 27, said the label “concentration camp” is appropriate because “we should be using the strongest possible words to describe what’s happening right now.”
“If the use of that term does prompt people to feel uncomfortable or hurt,” she said, “those are the right feelings to have about what’s happening right now.”
On Monday evening, the Jewish organizers and many of the protesters gathered in St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in northern DC, where they trained for the next day’s demonstration, painted signs, and learned protest songs next to stained glass windows depicting Christian saints and beneath a hanging wooden crucifix. The local church is known for serving as a home base for progressive movements and for its association with the punk scene.
“We are the voice within your heart / Plus 11 million / So listen, so listen,” one of the songs went, referring to the 11 million undocumented immigrants estimated to be living in the US.
Emilia Feldman, 23, a Jewish Latina organizer with Movimiento Cosecha, spoke of how personal this movement feels; her grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and her friend, an asylum-seeker from Honduras, has been in a detention center for six months.
“He has been denied his basic human rights in really horrible ways,” Feldman said, tears forming in her eyes. “I’ve gotten phone calls from him saying things like ‘I can’t do this anymore’ and ‘I want to sign papers for my own deportation,’ but he knows if he is deported back to Honduras, he will be killed.”
Never Again Action and Movimiento Cosecha coordinated the DC protest, with Never Again Action’s main goal being to amplify Cosecha’s mission of securing permanent protection for all undocumented immigrants and ending deportation and detention. Cata Santiago, a 22-year-old Movimiento Cosecha organizer who is not Jewish, said she’s “really appreciative of the Jewish community who’s uplifting the voices of the undocumented immigrants.”
“[They’re] also collaborating with Cosecha as a movement that’s on the front lines, and that in itself to me is powerful and deserving of respect,” said Santiago.
In the late night hours of Monday, the protesters walked in the dark, carrying a 20-foot-long banner that read “PELOSI, NEVER AGAIN IS NOW #DIGNITYNOTDETENTION” through the streets of DC to a local organizer’s apartment. Along the way, several passersby asked what it meant.
“Dignity, not detention!” one of the people carrying the banner yelled back. “See you on the Mall at noon?”
Early Tuesday morning, the organizers furiously typed away on laptops and took phone calls, arranging last-minute details for the action. Ben Doernberg didn’t go to sleep until 4:30 a.m. and woke up just three hours later. “I know that’s not good, and I think there can be glorification of that — but when you’re this close to getting something done, you do what you have to do,” he said.
In a Lyft ride to the National Mall, the organizers sang along to Panic! at the Disco’s “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” as Rubin offered everyone sunscreen.
Protesters wearing yellow T-shirts that read “Never again, para nadie” slowly but surely gathered on the Mall. They eventually numbered over an estimated 1,000 people. All the planning had been a success. The leaders weren’t out here alone.
Singing songs in Spanish, Hebrew, and English, they marched through the streets of the nation’s capital.
Upon reaching ICE headquarters in southwest DC, the demonstrators formed human chains, blocking the building’s entrances, exits, and the surrounding streets. Eleven protesters entered the building and refused to leave, eventually being arrested for unlawful entry, police told BuzzFeed News.
According to a leaked email written by the acting director of ICE, the building went into lockdown during the protest.
“It’s not just symbolic — we’re actually shutting down ICE,” Rubin said.
A few ICE employees who were returning from their lunch breaks were unable to get back in the building. At least one employee confronted a Latina protester, who said he had called her a “little bitch” due to her sign comparing ICE to Nazis.
The older male employee, who declined to share his name with BuzzFeed News, wouldn’t confirm he’d said it but added that he “didn’t like her sign.”
“I’m not a Nazi,” he said. “I’m a hardworking government employee.”
Though mostly twentysomethings organized the action, the ages represented at the protest were incredibly varied. Parents marched hand in hand with their daughters. People in their sixties and seventies showed up in droves. Perhaps the youngest attendee was 4-month-old Norah, whose mother changed her diaper just feet from the ICE building. “We’re both descendants of refugees, and it’s important we stand with other refugees against hate and demonization,” said the 30-year-old mother, who asked to only be identified by her first name, Sarah. “We know what it feels like.”
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, an 86-year-old who was once active in the civil rights movement and Vietnam War protests, stood with his back against the doors of ICE. Cane in hand, he wore a T-shirt that said “Resisting tyrants since Pharaoh.”
“You can’t use a dictionary or an encyclopedia to understand the word ‘concentration camp,’” Waskow said in a speech to the protesters. “What you need is a calendar, because concentration camps over time turn into death camps if you don’t stop them.”
With temperatures above 90 degrees and the DC humidity in full force, it was not an easy day for a protest. A team of organizers walked around doling out water bottles, Nature Valley bars, and sunscreen throughout the day. Organizer Yael Shafritz frequently reminded people to reapply sunscreen and stay hydrated — “because,” Shafritz said, “I’m a Jewish mother.”
After the protest, the organizers retreated to their Airbnb “HQ,” where they took turns showering and wolfed down Chinese takeout served family style. People filtered back to the house throughout the evening, always greeted with a beer and “Have you eaten?”
The mood was exhausted yet celebratory, with many of the organizers expressing relief and amazement with how quickly they had managed to pull off the demonstration.
Still, there was an undercurrent of sadness. The protest had been a success, but their goals won’t be accomplished that easily.
Becca Lubow, a 21-year-old University of Michigan student, was exhausted and said she wanted “to sleep for a year,” but added that there’s still so much work left to do.
“I can’t believe it’s only been two weeks of this — but at the end of it, there’s still kids in cages,” Lubow said, adjusting the pillow on which she was lying on the floor. “I just don’t know how to want a normal life while that’s happening.”
Never Again Action already has about 15 more protests in the works, Rubin said, but members don’t currently have plans to register it as an organization or nonprofit. In August, they’re planning on having a retreat to talk next steps. “The Jewish community is so hyper-organized, and everyone’s trying to start a new organization,” Rubin said. “But this is a mobilization that’s trying to achieve a very specific goal, and we don’t need to exist for longer than the goal requires.”
Among this group, the concept of “tikkun olam” — the Jewish value of repairing the world — runs deep. Rubin said she hopes people who have never been involved in protests before feel inspired by what they achieved in DC and feel compelled to step up to the plate.
“In these moments there are people who are courageous and take action, and there are bystanders,” Rubin said. “You don’t have to think of yourself as an activist to do this.” ●