A growing movement of American Jews is mobilizing against U.S. immigration policy across the country. ‘We’re fighting for the soul of our country, for our very humanity.’
NEW YORK CITY — Hundreds of American Jewish demonstrators staged a sit-in at one of Amazon’s flagship stores in New York on Sunday, to protest the company’s ties to the big-data firm Palantir, which contracts directly with Immigration and Custom Enforcement forces. The action resulted in the arrest of 44 people, including a New York City councilman, several rabbis, and high-profile public figures like Eli Valley and Molly Crabapple.
The protest, organized by a coalition of Jewish groups including T’ruah, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), and Never Again Action, as well a number of synagogues, was organized in solidarity with immigrants threatened with deportation by ICE and who are vulnerable to attacks by white nationalist terrorists. It was one of many protests involving thousands of American Jews in cities across the United States planned to coincide with Tisha B’Av, a traditional Jewish day of mourning.
After a silent march through midtown Manhattan, the protesters, dressed in black, occupied the Amazon store and conducted a Tisha B’Av service that combined the traditional liturgy with readings of testimonies from immigrants detained by ICE. Speakers drew direct parallels between the treatment of Jewish immigrants during World War II and that of Latinx immigrants today, and the crowd periodically chanted the refrains “close the camps” and “never again is now.”
“The cries of the Jewish people, of our people, against the forms of oppression visited upon us through our migrations across Jewish history, require us to speak out about what’s being done now,” said Brad Lander, a Jewish city councilman from Brooklyn who was among those arrested during the sit-in inside the Amazon store. Lander pointed to the similarities between the historical experiences of Jews and those of Latinx immigrants today, a parallel that the Never Again Action protests have insisted on drawing.
“Amazon has chosen to make itself a corporate partner to ICE,” he added. “And if they’re either so addicted to profit or so callous to suffering that they are willing to continue to be a corporate in ICE’s bloody work, then I think it is very appropriate for us to target them in today’s action.”
“Part of the idea of civil disobedience is to prevent something from becoming normal — but the times aren’t normal,” Lander explained.
Protest organizers connected what they described as the Jewish ethical imperative to fight injustice with the somber message of Tisha B’Av, the day the Jewish people commemorate the destruction of the Jewish Temple, asserting that Jewish suffering in the past obligates them to advocate for those suffering in the present. The impression left by the New York protest was that of a movement gaining strength despite – or perhaps because of – the seemingly constant outrages and tragedies of the past several weeks.
It has been a particularly deadly and devastating month for immigrant communities in the United States. A white supremacist gunman walked into a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in early August and killed 22 people, most of them Latinx. In a manifesto the shooter released online, he wrote that his attack was a “response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” echoing the xenophobic rhetoric employed by President Trump and many Republicans. Just four days later, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials raided multiple food-processing plants with predominantly Latinx workforces in Mississippi, arresting 680 people.
While Lander had attended one of the first Never Again Action demonstrations outside an ICE detention facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in July, for Rabbi Stephanie Kolin, who leads the historic Union Temple of Brooklyn, Sunday’s Amazon sit-in was her first with the immigrants’ rights movement. “As a rabbi, as a Jew, as a mom, I feel like I have to be here today,” she said.
Kolin, who was also among those arrested, credited the earlier Never Again Action demonstrations with moving her so much that she felt she had to join. “It is inspiring to see that these young Jews have so integrated our responsibility to the other, to the vulnerable, to all people who are created in the image of God, that they’re willing to put their bodies on the line,” she said.
Like many of the other protesters, Kolin expressed the feeling that present U.S. policies toward immigrants are extraordinary in their cruelty and, therefore, demand an extraordinary kind of response. “I feel like we can’t just go about and live our lives, business as usual,” she added. “It can’t be that the bottom line takes precedence over people’s lives.”
“We’re fighting for the soul of our country, for our very humanity,” Kolin concluded tearfully.
Indeed, the timing of the New York protest made for an especially emotionally charged event. Protesters cried as they recited the Mourner’s Kaddish, a Jewish prayer traditionally recited after the death of a loved one, for the 25 people who died in ICE custody. Even experienced organizers found it hard not to be moved by the show of spirit and force. So many protesters committed to risking arrest that the police had to commandeer a New York City bus to transport all of them to be processed.
Audrey Sasson, executive director of JFREJ, called it “one of the most powerful actions I’ve been a part of, and I’ve been organizing for about twenty years.”
The protests came just over a month after Never Again Action, a Jewish-led immigrant rights movement, launched a string of protests and civil disobedience actions outside ICE detention centers. Since then, several hundred American Jews have been arrested for protesting ICE and thousands more have taken part in the protests.
This time, Never Again Action were also joined by establishment American Jewish groups such as the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center and the liberal, pro-Israel lobby J Street. Participants included not only experienced left-wing Jewish activists but also mainstream Jewish community leaders and politicians — a sign that the segment of the American Jewish community that feels compelled to protest the U.S. immigration regime is continuing to widen. The protesters also appeared to span divides of denomination — Reform, Conservative, Orthodox — as well as generation.
The undeniable emotional power of the Never Again Action protests – the resonances between the darkest moments of Jewish history and the darkness of the present moment – appear to be driving the movement’s growing appeal. What is already one of the most significant American Jewish protest movements in over a decade could very much become a longer and more intense struggle by American Jews against the U.S. government’s immigration policies.
Sasson added that she felt the movement’s momentum was picking up, and that the protests would continue into the future. “We have an opportunity and an obligation as the Jewish community to respond with bold direct action and we’re ready to take part in a more escalated way.”
Correction: This article has been corrected to reflect that 44 protesters had been arrested and not 36, as was mistakenly stated.