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American Jews Divided On Israel Are Uniting — In Anti-ICE ‘Never Again’ Protests

If you’re liberal, Jewish and Zionist, it has been difficult to find a home in the earth-shaking activist movements of the past decade.

A leading Black Lives Matter group called Israel an “apartheid state” in its platform. Leaders of the Women’s March earned the ire of many Jews for their unapologetic anti-Zionism and ties to an anti-Semitic preacher. Dyke Marches in Chicago and Washington, D.C. have banned LGBTQ Jews from waving “Jewish Pride” emblems because of their similarities with the Israeli flag.

But with the movement to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, things may be changing.

In recent weeks, a new movement called Never Again Action has organized protests at ICE facilities around the country. Jewish activists singing protest chants in Yiddish and Hebrew have been arrested by the dozen. They’ve invoked the language of the Holocaust to shame the Trump administration’s policies towards undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers.

But unlike in other protest spaces, Never Again Action is a home — at least for now — to broadly Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews alike. Protesters from Israel-critical groups Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow are standing alongside people who would never be members of either. It is a moment of unity, at least on the left, that protesters say is necessitated by the gravity of what they call a crisis in American immigration.

“We’re not here to fulfill a narrative — the good Jew/bad Jew positions on Palestine and Zionism,” said Ari Krasner, a painter and an activist with Never Again Action who is taking part in the group’s Tuesday protest in Washington. “We took action because addressing the border crisis and the treatment of asylum seekers is a moral imperative.”

Never Again Action formed within the last several weeks, as reports of worsening conditions at migrant detention facilities and of deaths of people in custody of ICE have driven news coverage of immigration. It plans to hold its largest protest to date Tuesday, in Washington, D.C., on the National Mall, co-hosting the event with Movimiento Cosecha, an immigrant-rights group. As of Tuesday morning, hundreds of people had indicated they were going on the protest’s event page on Facebook.

The group was formed by people of various activist backgrounds, including IfNotNow, but organizers and participants have specifically decided not to bring any Middle East political debates to the events. The Never Again Action’s official guidebook stresses, “We are trying to unite the Jewish community, not divide, so no flags of any kind please.”

That’s a very different attitude than what some liberal, Zionist Jews have experienced in activist spaces in recent years. Krasner, 33, summed up the attitude as, “If you’re not the kind of Jew I want you to be, you can’t be involved and we don’t want you involved.”

But within Never Again Action, she said, there isn’t a focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because it would “overshadow what we’re trying to do.”

At the actions outside ICE facilities, protesters lead chants, sing songs, and recite prayers like the Mourner’s Kaddish to commemorate children who died in government custody. The goal, organizer Alyssa Rubin said, is to leverage the Jewish community’s unique historical resonance as victims of genocide to draw attention to what she said were similar conditions for migrants.

“Because of our history and our ideological and faith backgrounds, that this is what we need to do — and this is what we would have wanted Germans to do in the 1930s,” she said.

The protests have also been amplified by the arrests of Jewish activists by the dozen, sometimes in multiples of 18, the number that means chai or “life” in Hebrew numerology.

The group is loosely organized and independent of the organizations whose leaders helped found it. Its primary source of funding — used in part to pay bail for arrested protesters — is from a GoFundMe page that has raised more than $180,000.

The protests began last month after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez compared migrant detention facilities to concentration camps last month. Some progressive Jews grew frustrated that the ensuing debate had focused on whether that comparison was historically accurate, rather than what they saw as the Jewish obligation to draw attention to the conditions there.

“Obviously there are folks who don’t like using Holocaust references to discuss what’s happening now, but clearly there are enough people who are afraid of what’s happening because of [the Jewish] historical experience, and the fear of not taking it seriously enough,” explained Karla Goldman, a Judaic studies professor at the University of Michigan who studies Jewish social movements.

Jewish activists affiliated with Momentum, a progressive training organization that helped incubate IfNotNow, quickly organized a protest outside an ICE facility in New Jersey. After three dozen Jews were arrested — two times chai — thousands of people signed up for their email list and 200 people committed to planning similar actions in their communities, Rubin said.

“When people started putting their bodies on the line, that’s when it started blowing up,” said Joshua Potash, 26, a teacher who has been involved in Jewish and anti-ICE protests.

Organizers with the newly-formed Never Again Action — all of whom are volunteers, Rubin said — quickly began connecting eager would-be participants with experienced protest organizers.

Despite the fears of some observers who were skeptical of the involvement of IfNotNow members like Rubin, or those who have overheard chants at progressive rallies comparing walls on the Mexican and Palestinian borders, participants say Israeli-Palestinian issues have not been a factor at Never Again Action’s events. Potash said that the issue did not come up at a recent planning meeting at the offices of Jews For Racial and Economic Justice, which has close ties to activist groups like Blacks Live Matter which deemed Israel an “apartheid state.”

“I was with about a hundred people at a planning meeting this past week, and it just didn’t really come up,” Potash said.

Goldman, who participated in a Never Again Action protest in Boston earlier this month, said that while some Jews are turned off by the Holocaust comparison, many more would feel that way if the movement compared American immigration to Israel.

She added that from a historical perspective, she was “fascinated” by the organizers’ decision to create their own Jewish protest, instead of the traditional move of organizing a Jewish delegation to a broader protest.

One of the few ties to this kind of movement is the effort undertaken in the 1960s-80s to allow Soviet Jews to emigrate, which saw Jews of many backgrounds joining together to protest Soviet diplomatic buildings.

“The Jews have benefited enormously from a certain attitude about people coming into the country and making their homes here, and that cuts across divides when it comes to Israel,” said Gal Beckerman, the author of “When They Come For Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle To Save Soviet Jewry” (and a former Forward opinion editor). The Never Again Now movement “might be really unique in that case.”

But, Beckerman added, Never Again Action still had a way to go before it reached the anti-Soviet movement’s wide participation level. Current protest participants come mostly from the community’s progressive wing; the Soviet Jewry protests featured everyone from Jewish socialists to the fascist rabbi Meir Kahane.

Never Again Action’s website has scheduled protests through August 1, but what they do next is unclear, even to themselves. “We’re trying to build the plane as we fly it,” Rubin said – though she stressed that they were directing donations they had received to Latino advocacy groups, and were against the idea of forming an organization that will exist in the long-term.

Goldman said she expected the movement to gain momentum, despite opposition to Holocaust comparisons.

“While there are aspects of the organized Jewish community trying to make these distinctions,” she said, “there’s a broader group saying, ‘We have been told all our lives ‘Never Again’ — if it doesn’t mean something now, when will it?’”

Update, 7/16/19 — This article has been updated with information on Never Again Action’s D.C. protest.

Aiden Pink is the deputy news editor of the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @aidenpink

Ari Feldman is a staff writer at the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @aefeldman

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