Rosa Druker considers her Jewish ancestors refugees: They escaped violent attacks, or pogroms, in Russia and Eastern Europe starting in the late 1800s and found their way to America.
“I do feel as a Jewish person, my identity has always been closely tied to my family’s immigrant past,” said Druker, a 25-year-old Minneapolis resident.
She’s among a group of young activists organizing a protest on Tuesday afternoon to oppose the policies of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Mexican border and to speak out against separation of families and conditions in immigrant detention centers. The event is part of a national movement, #NeverAgainIsNow, linking a widely used refrain about the Holocaust to America’s treatment of migrants arriving from Central America.
In recent weeks, a coalition of Jewish activists has organized events to advocate for the rights of undocumented immigrants and asylum-seekers in Newark, N.J.; Chicago; Boston; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Providence, R.I., and San Francisco. While many faith leaders have spoken out in recent years on national immigration policy, immigration advocates in the Jewish community point to a history of persecution and their families’ past as refugees fleeing violence as a strong motivator to defend the latest wave of immigrants trying to cross the Mexican border.
On Aug. 10 and 11, Jewish organizations are coordinating #CloseTheCamps events on Tisha B’Av, a Jewish day of mourning.
The Torah commands Jewish people to love the stranger as one of their own, and the majority of Jews in the U.S. have an immigration story, said Carin Mrotz, executive director of Jewish Community Action (JCA), which organizes Jewish Minnesotans for social change.
“That story also involves not being welcome. … Often in moments of history when we have not been welcome, we have come anyway,” she said. “So we have all of these textual but also historical and cultural and traditional reasons why we tend to prioritize immigrant rights.”
In recent years, JCA has advocated at the state Legislature for immigrants here illegally to have driver’s licenses and has been involved in a campaign to dismantle the system of criminalizing undocumented people. Some of the JCA staff are involved in Tuesday’s event.
But invoking the Holocaust when discussing modern immigration policy has provoked controversy.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum said in a statement in June that it “unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary.” In early July, Vice President Mike Pence said that comparing the work of Customs and Border Protection employees with the Holocaust “is an outrage. The Nazis took lives; American law enforcement save lives every day.”
Some local Jewish activists don’t see it that way.
“When the Jewish community says ‘never again’ … it means that we remember our history so that we can keep terrible things from happening to other people,” said Mrotz. “Our history is not this pristine thing that we keep in a glass box. It’s supposed to inform our actions.”
Druker and others described feeling driven by a sense of responsibility as Jewish people who had been taught about the Holocaust and oppression of their people from a young age. She believes that separating families and holding asylum-seekers in “dehumanizing and unsanitary conditions … echoes conditions that we saw in concentration camps in Europe.”
Mia Freiberg, a 25-year-old Minneapolis activist who is also helping coordinate the event, has long been aware of border issues, having grown up in San Diego. And social justice has always been a strong tenet of the Jewish community, she said: There’s a Jewish experience of being part of a diaspora and a persecuted minority group.
Questions about comparing immigration policies to the Holocaust are beside the point, Freiberg said.
“Compare it to the Japanese internment camps of World War II; compare it to whatever state-sanctioned violence,” she said. “The fact that we have to question whether or not it’s as bad as one of the most publicized mass genocides in the history of the world — that bar is too high. And I think it is a distraction from … the fact that people are dying, the fact that innocent people are in cages because they’re just trying to find a better life.”