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The American Jews invoking the Holocaust to talk about Trump's migrant camps

In the face of dire conditions at U.S. border patrol facilities, many American Jews are increasingly unafraid to invoke their people’s history to warn against what may come next.

American Jews with Never Again Action demonstrate outside an ICE detention facility in New Jersey, July 1, 2019. (Gili Getz)

American Jews with Never Again Action demonstrate outside an ICE detention facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey, July 1, 2019. (Gili Getz)

Weeks after New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s comments comparing immigration detention centers along the U.S.-Mexico border to concentration camps, reports of dire conditions at U.S. border patrol facilities continue to pour in.

Men, women, and children, some as young as infants and toddlers, forced into dirty, squalid, and overcrowded cells, or in other cases, held within chain-link fence enclosures outside in the summer heat. At least 24 immigrants have died in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody since President Trump took office.

Despite all this, many Jewish organizations — from the right-wing Orthodox Coalition of Jewish Values, to the Republican Jewish Coalition, to the Anti-Defamation League — have continued to insist that any comparison between what is happening in the United States and what happened in Europe under the Nazis is not only offensive but impossible.

The Holocaust, they argue, was too horrible ever to compare to any present event, and doing so somehow harms the memory of those who suffered in the Nazi camps.

Quite a few American Jews, however, including the descendants of Holocaust survivors, seem to disagree. Over the past week, thousands of Jews have taken to the streets of major U.S. cities to protest the Trump administration’s policies of family separation and migrant detention along the southern border, as well as the aggressive detention practices of ICE and Border Patrol forces.

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Hundreds demonstrated outside an ICE detention facility in New Jersey, where 36 protesters were arrested, while roughly 1,000 protesters shutdown traffic last Tuesday in Boston, where 18 people were arrested. Hundreds more joined recent protests in Philadelphia, Providence, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.

At a time when many Jewish organizations have refrained from harshly criticizing the Trump administration because of its strong support for the right-wing Israeli government, these Jewish protesters, facing down police and often risking arrest, have rejected with their own bodies the narrow moral vision of the communal organizations that claim to represent them. The protests, led by a new Jewish group calling itself Never Again Action, have insisted on drawing a clear parallel between the U.S. government’s treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers and the Holocaust.

“The military camps where my people are being held today are concentration camps; just like the camps my people were held in 75 years ago were concentration camps,” said Tae Phoenix, a Jewish Latina activist and artist, in a statement released by the Never Again Action group.

The wave of Never Again Action protests comes amid the still-simmering debate over Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s assertion that the Trump administration had established “concentration camps on the southern border for immigrants, where they are being brutalized with dehumanizing conditions and dying.” Right-wing figures such as Liz Cheney, together with Jewish establishment groups like the Jewish Community Relations Council, jumped to attack the freshman congresswoman from the Bronx. Cheney tweeted that Ocasio-Cortez had “demean[ed] the memory” of the victims of the Holocaust.

An American Jewish protester is arrested outside an ICE detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey, July 1, 2019. (Gili Getz)

An American Jewish protester is arrested outside an ICE detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey, July 1, 2019. (Gili Getz)

Meanwhile, the JCRC, an umbrella group of major Jewish organizations, issued a statement condemning Ocasio-Cortez’s comparison between ICE detention centers and Nazi-era concentration camps. Hundreds of academics from the world, in contrast, have not only defended her concentration camp comments but asserted the importance of drawing analogies between the Holocaust and other events.

Republicans, even at the highest levels of the party, have made it their explicit strategy to attempt to peel Jewish voters away from the Democratic Party by weaponizing accusations of anti-Semitism against prominent progressives like Ocasio-Cortez. Speaking at the evangelical Zionist group Christians United for Israel’s (CUFI) summit in Washington on Monday, Vice President Mike Pence reiterated the accusation that Ocasio-Cortez had “cheapened” the memory of Holocaust victims. “This slander of law enforcement,” he added, “was an insult to the six million killed.”

In the perverse, kaleidoscopic reality of the Trump era, the right, aided by establishment Jewish organizations, has attacked Ocasio-Cortez for the very comparison that thousands of Jewish protesters have taken to the streets to make. Unsurprisingly, the Never Again protests have generated a backlash of their own, mostly from the usual suspects on the right and in the professional hasbara world, but from some liberal Zionists as well. Following the group’s New Jersey demonstration, The Forward’s opinion editor Batya Unger-Sargon mocked their invocation of the Holocaust analogy, writing, “Can’t wait for #NeverAgain to mean Abolish Student Loan Debt.”

The hostile reactions to Ocasio-Cortez’s comments and the Never Again protests reflect the shifting and increasingly fractious terrain of Jewish communal politics in the United States. On the one side are religiously and politically liberal Jews who, by most accounts, make up the majority of the American Jewish population, and who abhor President Trump and his administration’s policies. The imagery and rhetoric employed by the Never Again protests exemplify the willingness among these liberal Jews to extract universalist lessons from particular episodes in Jewish history, chief among them, the Holocaust. For them, there is no contradiction between Jewish and liberal values; in fact, being a good Jew means, for some, being a good liberal.

U.S. Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks at SXSW 2019, Austin, Texas, March 10, 2019. (nrkbeta/CC BY-SA 2.0)

U.S. Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks at SXSW 2019, Austin, Texas, March 10, 2019. (nrkbeta/CC BY-SA 2.0)

On the other side is an increasingly shrill, fanatical faction of right-wing Jews who have thrown in their lot with President Trump, as well as with the president’s xenophobic, racist, and sometimes anti-Semitic supporters. Trump has won strong support from the Jewish right for elevating observant and Orthodox Jews to positions of power in his administration — such as Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s Middle East envoy, and David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel — and for embracing the territorial-maximalist position on Israel. The Trump “deal of the century” does not include a Palestinian state and could very well pave the way for Israel’s annexation of the West Bank.

The newly aggressive Jewish right’s support for Trump is, however, not purely instrumental — it is ideological. They despise liberals more than they love their fellow Jews, and have opted to find common cause with anti-Semitic, evangelical Christians, such as CUFI, and white nationalists such as Sebastian Gorka, a member of a racist, Hungarian nationalist order. The Trumpianization of the Jewish right as produced no shortage of grotesque spectacles: from Miriam Adelson contemplating adding a “Book of Trump” to the Bible to Norm Coleman, lobbyist for the Saudi government and chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition, replacing God with Trump in the traditional Passover song “Dayenu.”

But while this Trump-supporting fringe may be small in number, it is comprised of plutocrats whose money carries significant weight within the Jewish community. In addition to donating hundreds of millions of dollars to the Trump campaign and other Republican politicians, the Adelsons are major donors to a range of Jewish organizations and educational programs, from Birthright to Hillel and more.

Hundreds of activists gather in New York City's Grand Central Station to protest the treatment of refugee children in U.S. custody, July 8, 2019. (Gili Getz)

Hundreds of activists gather in New York City’s Grand Central Station to protest the treatment of refugee children in U.S. custody, July 8, 2019. (Gili Getz)

To be sure, the refusal of many establishment Jewish organizations to forcefully condemn the migrant detention camps along the southern border, and their willingness to join the right in weaponizing false accusations against progressive politicians like Ocasio-Cortez, cannot be chalked up solely to the malign influence of right-wing donors. The leaders of these organizations appear to genuinely believe that suffering of Jews in the past cannot be compared to the suffering of Central American migrants — let alone Palestinians — in the present.

And yet the many American Jews who joined the Never Again Action protests have boldly refuted this kind of selfish politics. They have embraced instead a broad politics of solidarity with the vulnerable and the oppressed, putting into practice the notion that from the worst moments in Jewish history stems the obligation to fight for a better future — not just for Jews, but for everyone.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Bruce Gould

      Are Holocaust analogies valid? Recently the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum condemned the use of Holocaust analogies, prompting this open letter to the museum:

      “The very core of Holocaust education is to alert the public to dangerous developments that facilitate human rights violations and pain and suffering; pointing to similarities across time and space is essential for this task.”

      https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2019/07/01/an-open-letter-to-the-director-of-the-holocaust-memorial-museum/

      Reply to Comment
      • john

        the israeli secretary of education recently said jewish intermarriage is like a second holocaust; it’s clear who is actually cheapening the memory.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Ben

      Chemi Shalev today noted the “the Obscene holocaust hypocrisy of right-wing rage.”

      Netanyahu incessantly compares Iran to Nazi Germany, Arafat to Hitler.
      The ultra-orthodox blame the Holocaust on the Jewish sin of modernity.
      Education Minister Rafi Peretz says intermarriage is a “second Holocaust” and many a right winger heartily agrees.
      People sarcastically throw around “Shoah” to apply to everyday disasters like a botched wedding or a traffic jam.
      And no one says a word.
      Israeli newspapers routinely report on “concentration camps” the Chinese use to hold the Uyghur minority; and apply the same term to Rwanda, Bosnia and ISIS camps. Israeli protestors have said detention centers for African refuges “just like concentration camps.”
      And no one says a word.
      Bill Clinton called Serbian holding pens for Muslim Bosnians “concentration camps.” Republican Senator Marco Rubio called Chinese camps for Uyghurs the same. Pope Francis has said that overcrowding in camps for refugees is reminiscent of “concentration camps.”
      No one finds these statements objectionable.

      But let Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez call brutal mass detention centers for migrants along the US-Mexico border “concentration camps,” and the right wing has conniption fits, hysterical fainting spells, paroxysms of rage, and yells, “Oh my God! Ocasio-Cortez has desecrated the Holocaust! The horror!”

      Really the hypocrisy is mind-boggling.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Firentis

      Sure. Let’s compare detention camps for temporarily housing people (even in horrible conditions) to camps where millions of Jews were massacred. This is surely a valid comparison. Why would anyone be offended?

      It seems impossible to oppose Trump and stay sane. SMDH.

      You people really are scum.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        On the other hand it’s perfectly sane to support a US President who says, of American men with torches marching through the streets screaming “Jews will not replace us!,” that some of those men are “very fine people.” Yeah, sure, that’s really sane. Sure.
        But anyway, by your definition and framing of this, Bibi and Rafi Peretz are “scum.” We’ve found a small island of common ground, Firentis.

        Reply to Comment
      • Rivka Koen

        > You people really are scum.

        “I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made.” -FDR

        Reply to Comment
    4. Rivka Koen

      > The newly aggressive Jewish right’s support for Trump is, however, not purely instrumental — it is ideological. They despise liberals more than they love their fellow Jews, and have opted to find common cause with anti-Semitic, evangelical Christians, such as CUFI, and white nationalists such as Sebastian Gorka, a member of a racist, Hungarian nationalist order. The Trumpianization of the Jewish right as produced no shortage of grotesque spectacles: from Miriam Adelson contemplating adding a “Book of Trump” to the Bible to Norm Coleman, lobbyist for the Saudi government and chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition, replacing God with Trump in the traditional Passover song “Dayenu.”

      When the kapos coopt Judaism itself.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Mike Livingston

      I think it’s a mistake to be too free about Holocaust analogies. That said, there is a Biblical commandment to be kind to strangers, because you were strangers in Egypt. Plainly we are not meeting that standard.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Few of the right wing racists will admit this in public, but their way out of this command is that they interpret “stranger” as “Jewish stranger” and the rest be damned. For them, non-Jewish strangers don’t even really count as strangers, they are not really even human beings. So, they say, says the Lord. So the Africans and the Palestinians and everybody else outside the tribe, are for them this kind of not-even-strangers-biblically, and this is the kind of religious-zealot-based contempt, the dehumanization, that allows them to brutalize the Palestinians for fifty years and sleep well at night. This kind of dehumanization of the other is the necessary first step in any aggressive radical nationalist regime.

        Reply to Comment
    6. Eliza

      We are told in this article that ‘many American Jews who joined the Never Again Action protests have boldly refuted this kind of selfish politics. They have embraced instead a broad politics of solidarity with the vulnerable and the oppressed…’ But is this really a fair representation of their protest.

      The aim of the Never Again Action is held out to be protest of the incarceration of refugees in detention centres and their deportation by ICE and in an attempt to maximise the effectiveness of their protest, all intra-Jewish differences over Israel/Palestine are to be put aside for the greater good of the refugees at the US border. But I would have thought that the best way to maximise this protest would be to be extend this inclusiveness to include all like-minded people regardless of their religion; that is, to seek out and welcome the goy protester. This raises the question of what is really most important here for Never Again Action – achieving a sense of harmony and tribal Jewish togetherness and/or an attempt to elevate American Jewish identity to match the glory days of the Jewish participation in the civil rights movements of the 60s or alleviating the suffering caused by the detention/deportation of people wishing to reside in the USA.

      Now, regardless of the intentions behind Never Again Action, their actions align with advice to Jewish groups set out in a recent Reut Institute report headed up ‘Navigating Intersectional Landscape – Rules for Jewish Community Professionals’.
      This report sets out the intersectional problem as follows;

      ‘The challenge of intersectionality for the Jewish community emerges when anti-Israel groups utilize intersectional social circles by drawing parallels with their causes. This is most notably seen through conflating the struggles of Black America and Palestinians under the hashtag #PALESTINE4FERGUSION’. This trend undermines Jewish communities’ agendas, including the support of Israel.’

      So what to do? Well, go straight to Rule 2 which instructs the following:
      ‘A broad tent approach based on a narrow definition of “delegitimization”. Unite broad coalitions around ;
      (1) a narrow definition of delegitimization
      (2) red lines that establish agreed upon boundaries,
      (3) an approach of “constructive ambiguity” regarding polarising issues, and
      (4) continuous civil discourse.

      So, how much of this protest by Never Again Action is based on their own identity needs and how much is really support for the oppressed? I have no issue with the plight of South American refugees being front and centre of a protest around the detention/deportation of South Americans and the issue of Palestinians under Israeli rule not being in the forefront. However, I do question the need to set up an exclusively Jewish only protest group to achieve this end rather than a protest group of all like-minded Americans regardless of their religion. I do think that it’s a leap to attribute to Never Again Action a readiness to extract universality from the Holocaust; its more a limited extension of the Holocaust to a particular set of refugees that suits liberal American Jews and that only the Jewish community has the ‘right’ to make this extension.

      Reply to Comment