I’m one of the 36 Jews who was arrested for temporarily shutting down an ICE detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey, as part of the movement known as Never Again Action. We’re part of a wave in the Jewish diaspora that’s joining the networks of protection for and by our immigrant siblings. We won’t bear seeing any person shut away in a concentration camp, separated from their family, sexually abused, fatally denied health care or used as a human pawn in a political scheme to rile up Trump’s racist base.
Many in my community are acting in solidarity with those held in ICE’s concentration camps, because we see that these camps resemble the ones early in the Holocaust, which eventually became death camps. Many participate in Never Again Action to honor the Holocaust survivors in their families, and those ancestors who didn’t make it out alive. That remembrance is integral to their Jewish identities and a way to ensure that nothing like the Shoah ever happens again.
I join them in crying out, “Never again, para nadie.” I have my own reasons to: my boyfriend was indefinitely barred from re-entry into the U.S. in 2018. And my understanding of and commitments to collective liberation are growing. This all requires me to speak up and act out. But I wasn’t raised in a household that discussed Jewish oppression or celebrated our identity much at all. There are as many ways to be Jewish as there are Jewish people. But the garb some of my fellow protestors wear, the terminology, the rituals—most of it is entirely new to me. Growing up, my self-conception as an Ashkenazi Jew was practically reduced to a quirky personality trait, an explanation for my self-deprecating wit and curly hair. We never spent time in Jewish spaces other than my grandparents’ house. My brother and I have often wondered, “Why do we feel so detached from our Jewishness? How do we connect to it now?” Only recently have I started to put the pieces together that could explain why my dad says, “I don’t know” to so many of our questions about our family’s story.
“Major league baseball player, Rockette, soldier in World War II, liberator of concentration camps, child star—these are all iconic touchstones for what people might consider Americana. But they are probably not the first things that come to mind when envisioning a pair of Jewish kids who grew up together in the Bronx during the 1920s and 30s.” This is how my father opened an article about his parents, the children of Eastern European immigrants who arrived in New York, before America imposed severe limits on Jewish immigration in 1915.
My grandparents led prosperous, exciting lives adjacent to New York City, in the whites-only suburbs made for WWII vets. They left their majority-Jewish Bronx neighborhood to “make it” in America. But in America, “making it” is tacitly understood as assimilating into whiteness.
Whiteness, we know, is a legal and cultural construct made to seize and maintain control of wealth and resources. It’s baked into America’s history of genocide and slavery, stripped nude of its claims about freedom and justice for all. As James Baldwin writes in his essay, “On Being White and Other Lies,” “no one was white before they came to America.”
Reaping the benefits of the so-called American dream doesn’t require you to be a white supremacist, but it does require you to collude with a system that guarantees more power to light-skinned, European-descended non-Jews. This system relies on obstructing the self-determination and prosperity of Black people, Indigenous people, People of Color and to a lesser extent Jewish people.
Only recently did I learn that among my Jewish great grandparents—who all came to New York through Ellis Island—one was an unaccompanied preteen in charge of some young children, probably his cousins. Naturally, I think of the many unaccompanied minors sent by desperate parents to the U.S. from Central America, as well as those children yanked from their guardians upon arrival and then scattered across a system of abusive camps and foster homes. “Why did he make that journey so young and with no adults?” I ask my dad. “I was always told it was just to find a better life,” he answers. “You never heard anything about where they were coming from?” I ask this, having just recently discovered the history of pogroms, the riotous ethnic cleansing that erupted in Eastern Europe while they lived there. “No, there was never any talk of where they came from.”
I believe that my ancestors enacted a process of forgetting major aspects of their rich history, and enlisted their own children and children’s children in this project. I believe it was an effort to move on from the trauma of life-threatening antisemitism and to fold themselves into America. With deep love and gratitude for their attempts to shield me from the violence they escaped, I hold that the approach they took perpetuates traumatic cycles. Because the result is that, as relatively prosperous, white American citizens now disidentified with our history of struggle, we think we’re separate from the immigrants in camps. That it isn’t our problem, and we don’t need to be unified and protect each other. I am where this cycle stops.
By doing civil disobedience with other Jews, I resist powerful efforts to dehumanize those who aren’t white, cisgender, wealthy, heterosexual, temporarily able-bodied, male, non-Jewish citizens. I refuse to let them silence our stories and erase us. My own ancestors fell victim to their attempts. But I won’t. “The root of oppression is loss of memory,” says Native American novelist and activist Paula Gunn Allen. So by never forgetting, I say never again.
This piece was originally translated into German and published on Oct. 4, 2019 in Neues Deustschland, a socialist daily newspaper tied to the German political party Die Linke (The Left).