‘#JewsAgainstICE’ Is Transforming The Jewish Community, Returning Us To Our Diasporic Roots
This year, Jews across the United States marked the fast day of Tisha B’Av — the saddest day on the Jewish calendar which commemorates the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem — by protesting against a modern-day example of the destruction, uprooting, and banishment of communities: the detention and deportation of immigrants by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
These protests explicitly linked the themes of diasporic Jewish history memorialized by Tisha B’Av to contemporary political debates, which statements noting that “Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples and the generations of forced migration of our ancestors.”
But in using this uniquely Jewish diasporic lens on forced migration and uprooting, this Tisha B’Av action, and the public diasporic Jewish politics which it exemplifies, mark a key shift in diasporic Jewish political organizing. For decades, American Jews have defined themselves through Zionism, and a connection to Israel. But this new coalition is fighting against the nationalist instincts that have organized our community for so long. Instead, it is a return to a uniquely disaporic identity, and it’s sweeping across our community, erasing all other ideological divides.
When Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez argued that ICE is “running concentration camps on our southern border,” a whole host of American Jewish organizations, ranging from the Simon Wiesenthal Center to the Anti-Defamation League to the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, denounced her comments as demeaning to Jews and to survivors of the Shoah, by comparing their historical trauma to modern conditions in camps along the US southern border.
Though these denunciations differed in language and tone, what they shared was a sense that the history of the Shoah and the genocide of the Jews should be walled off from modern political concerns, that the Shoah should not be invoked in modern political debates. In short, those participating in modern debates about conditions at the US border should separate Jewish history from these debates.
Meanwhile, both the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Anti-Defamation League have explicitly invoked Hitler and the Shoah to defend the nation-state of Israel and denounce Iran. The message from our establishment Jewish organizations is clear: Jews may invoke our history to defend Israel, but not to participate in American political debates. Zionism on the one hand, silence about our Jewish identities in the public sphere on the other.
But a curious reaction happened, from increasing numbers of American Jews. We stopped listening to these organizations. We invoked our history not to zealously guard it from all political comparisons, but to inspire mass action against detentions of immigrants throughout the United States.
We said that we were much less concerned with debating whether Rep. Ocasio-Cortez is allowed to use the term “concentration camps” than we are in standing up and saying that we refuse to allow conditions to get to that point.
We participated in a contemporary political debate as proud Jews, informed by our own history and by our status as a minority community refusing to give up our Jewish identity in the public sphere.
In the face of a political movement that wants to preserve a monolithically white, identical notion of Americanness, diasporic Jews are saying that difference matters, and that we will defend the right of different communities of Americans to live here, free from threats of violence, deportation, and persecution.
Notably, these protests have sought to discourage the display of national flags, including both Israeli and Palestinian flags, in an effort to maintain their distinctively diasporic focus and to avoid internal divisions about Israel and Zionism.
Such activism is a shift for American Jews. And yet, it is also a return to an older tradition. It builds upon a long history of using the Jewish diaspora as a challenge to those in power. In the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War, and the near messianic wave of pro-Zionist fervor which it provoked among Jews across the global diaspora, a small group of Jewish intellectuals in France founded the Cercle Gaston Crémieux, whose mission was “to promote a diasporic Jewish existence without subservience to the synagogue or to Zionism.”
The founders of the Cercle, who included such prominent French Jewish intellectuals as literary scholar Richard Marienstras, “Shoah” filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, and historians Rita Thalmann, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, and Léon Poliakov, feared that the growing identification of all distinctly Jewish politics within the public sphere with support for Zionism and the state of Israel would mean a loss of the distinctive contributions and insights that centuries of Jewish existence in diaspora could offer to the modern state.
According to the Cercle, Jews since the nineteenth century had been trapped between a right-wing nationalist politics which asserted that political nationhood and ethnic peoplehood were one and the same, and therefore could only normalize the Jews by making of them a political nation-state of their own through Zionism, and a left-wing universalist politics which proclaimed a model of universal citizenship free of all ethnic and religious particularism, and so demanded that the Jews enter the modern state by erasing their differences and becoming identical to all other citizens, relegating the distinctively Jewish parts of their identity to the private spheres of the home and the synagogue alone. Surely neither option could exhaust what a Jewish politics means in the modern world.
Between the Scylla of the nationalist right on one side and the Charybdis of the universalist left on the other, the Jewish diaspora offered a third path, a model of maintaining cultural distinctiveness and solidarity without linking this cultural identity to a territory or political nation-state, a “way of life that assumes participation in a double culture.”
For the Cercle Gaston Crémieux, the simple will to exist as a diasporic community that refused either to give up its cultural particularism and assimilate to the majority culture or to leave and establish a nation-state of its own was a powerful political statement, an assertion that the Jew “has been, and in some countries still is, a counter-type, formidable by the very fact of his existence.”
Jewish political diasporism meant declaring that “what is subversive is the simple determination to survive in a manner deemed unacceptable by the majority.”
Instead of either identifying Jewish politics entirely with the interests of the state of Israel, or else insisting that Jews were just like all other citizens and could participate in political debates without emphasizing their Jewishness at all, the Cercle Gaston Crémieux called upon diaspora Jews to proclaim “the right to be different” proudly, and to build alliances of solidarity with other minority and diaspora communities struggling for cultural autonomy within nation-states that refused to recognize them.
Crucially, this diasporism would not entail directly opposing the existence of the state of Israel, for this would still trap diasporic Jews in a negative relationship to a nation-state where they do not live. Rather, it would mean using the history of the Jewish diaspora to imagine alternative ways of human thriving that challenge dominant political models entirely. In so doing, the Jewish diaspora could become a model for other diasporic communities, a demand “that cultural and ethnic pluralism be admitted by all nations.”
Tragically, this grand experiment in political diasporism lost the debate within the French Jewish community, where political Zionism on the one hand and quietism on the other won the day. Such a demand for diasporism was too theoretical, critics charged, and it was unclear what it would mean in practice.
But lately, I’ve been thinking that a half-century later, the growing movement of #JewsAgainstICE shows that the Cercle Gaston Crémieux was right all along. This movement embodies everything that Jewish political diasporism should be – proudly, publicly Jewish, informed by our tradition and history without being bound by it, standing in solidarity with other minority communities for our shared interests, and utterly separate from debates about Zionism and the state of Israel.
This movement of Jews looking at ICE and saying “Never again” is distinctively diasporist in orientation and organization, as well as its goals. It is proudly decentralized group, and anyone around the country can organize an event or a chapter with nothing more than “a couple of Jews.” Such a decentralized approach is essential to the movement, as it allows activists to build relations with other local activist groups, and to demonstrate that ICE’s inhumane policies operate all across the US, and not just along the southern border.
If diasporism is a way of asserting survival without centralization, cultural identity without an anchoring territory, then a diasporic political movement would be one that sprouts organically from a variety of communities, without a central organizing body — and this is just what Jews Against ICE is modeling.
Finally, this growing movement is not solely about standing up for immigrant and Latinx communities facing the growing threat of the violent state deportation machine—though it is certainly about that—but about ensuring Jewish survival in diaspora as well. At a time when white nationalist violence is on the rise across the US, American Jews have come to realize that we cannot depend upon either assimilating into mainstream American culture and relying on law enforcement, or on defending the state of Israel, to protect us from the well-documented rise in violent anti-Semitism. We cannot depend upon assimilation when the FBI refuses to prioritize white supremacist violence and we cannot depend upon Zionism when the state of Israel responds to the worst anti-Semitic violence in American history by sending Naftali Bennett to absolve Donald Trump of any culpability. (This despite the fact that 60% of American Jews believe Trump’s rhetoric bears some responsibility for synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway.) We cannot depend upon the strategy of political quiescence and assimilation on one side, and Zionism on the other. The solution to rising anti-Semitism can only come from building alliances with other threatened communities, and that is exactly what Jews Against ICE is doing.
Tellingly, the Cercle Gaston Crémieux predicted this turn of events a half-century ago, writing that in the US, “certain prominent Jews” would “turn their back” on their community, and would “enter into alliance with the powers that be, with some help from Zionists”—yet this would only threaten American Jewish safety in the long run, by empowering political groups that “will apply to the Jews the means used against other minorities.” In the long run, the only solution for diasporic Jewish survival can come from minority groups standing together. When Jews stand with allies against ICE, we know we are also building the relationships that will help us survive rising white nationalism.
Of course, Jews Against ICE did not emerge from nowhere, and credit must be given to groups such as Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, who have been organizing in diaspora communities for years.
But this moment feels like a new critical mass. American Jews increasingly feel unwilling to choose between assimilation and Zionism, and are demanding a new Jewish diasporic politics—public, decentralized, allied—that responds to the threats minority communities face today.
In so doing, we’re saying that an existence in diaspora is not a state to be negated, but a unique and essential way of participating in larger societies, a challenge to dominant institutions. As the Cercle Gason Crémieux wrote, for too long, Jews wanted the “drab normality” that could only come from either assimilating into majority cultures or becoming a nation like the other nations. But today, a growing number of diasporic Jews are standing up and saying, we don’t want to be normal. We want to be different, and we want that difference to mean something.
Joel Swanson is a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, studying modern Jewish intellectual history and the philosophy of religions. He recently gave a talk about the Cercle Gaston Crémieux and diasporic challenges to political nationalism at a university that will soon have to relocate due to opposition from political nationalists, the Central European University in Budapest. Find him on Twitter at @jh_swanson.