In the bookstore, next to those familiar signs — “Best Sellers” and “Customer Favorites” — there were other signs, made by hand and propped up on cardboard poles. “Never Again is Now,” read one. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” read another. The sounds of cheery, retail-friendly dance-pop mixed with testimonials, read aloud, of migrants held prisoner in U.S. detention facilities. Demonstrators crowded in between bookshelves and magazine racks to try and view the somber prayer service happening at the center of the sales floor. Outside, on 34th Street, tourists stopped to peer at the packed crowd of protesters and the steadily-growing police presence.
The demonstration at the Midtown Amazon Books was one of many similar rallies that took place on August 10 and 11, planned around the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av. The protests were organized by T’ruah, in partnership with other progressive Jewish groups like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and Bend the Arc. Immigrants rights organizations, including United We Dream and Make the Road New York, together with numerous local Jewish congregations and community groups, also took part.
More than 50 demonstrations took place around the country, although, broadly speaking, they didn’t receive much mainstream media attention. In Newark, members of over 15 New Jersey congregations held a morning Tisha B’Av service outside of the Peter Rodino Federal Building, home to regional Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices. In Houston, #JewsAgainstICE occupied roads and blocked traffic outside of a detention center for unaccompanied immigrant children. In Los Angeles, a coalition of local synagogues held a service and vigil outside of the Metropolitan Detention Center.
“The Bible is obsessed with the rights of the stranger, the non-citizen resident,” says Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet, one of the organizers of the Newark rally. “It says, flat-out, ‘If you want to know what God wants, just as God loves and protects the stranger, you too must love and protect the stranger.’”
At the Newark federal building, as at the Midtown Amazon store, texts from the Book of Lamentations — documenting the disastrous events surrounding the destruction of Soloman’s Temple in 586 BC — were read alongside accounts of children and parents suffering in ICE camps.
“Tisha B’Av is a day of fasting and mourning for catastrophes and tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people,” Rabbi Salem Pearce, an activist with T’ruah who helped organize the Midtown demonstration, told The Indypendent. “It’s very hard to look back on these tragedies and not also see this tragedy of immigration that’s unfolding right in front of us.
— Eli Valley (@elivalley) August 11, 2019
“We did this action as American Jews,” Pearce added. “Many of us have in our families experiences of being targeted in the countries we lived in and of being denied entry to countries as we tried to migrate. The same rhetoric that’s being used right now was used against us.”
The midtown demonstration was a mournful one, with rally-goers casting their eyes downward and marching quietly through the streets on the way to Amazon Books. Walking through Herald Square, people asked demonstrators why they weren’t smiling. Towards the end of the ceremony, the crowd sang traditional songs while NYPD officers dragged protesters outside of the bookstore. Several dozen were arrested. The police marshaled a literal city bus to haul people away, including eleven rabbis. In what may have been a grim attempt at humor on the NYPD’s part, most of them were given court dates on Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year.
At issue was not the bookstore itself, but Amazon’s connections to ICE. Amazon works with software firm Palantir to provide essential tech services to the agency, making it possible for ICE to track and deport immigrants. According to the Washington Post, the massive Mississippi ICE raid on August 7 in which over 680 migrant workers were detained — a raid on the first day of school in the rural region and seemingly planned to do maximum damage to local communities — was carried out with Palantir software. As several demonstrators noted, the situation recalls IBM’s role in the Shoah, when the company provided data services for the Nazis to efficiently find and imprison Jews.
“We’re asking these companies to have the moral courage to say, “No, we’re not gonna allow our technology to be used in such a way,’” says Pearce. “We know where this leads.”
For the past few months, the concept of anti-Semitism has been an uncomfortably prominent vector of right-wing political discourse. In June, when Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed out (correctly) that ICE detention facilities are concentration camps, some politicians were shocked that anyone would say such a thing. Earlier this August, President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu teamed-up to deny Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib entry to Israel based on flimsy accusations of anti-Semitism sentiment.
One week later, on August 21, Trump declared himself “King of Israel” on Twitter, claiming that American Jews would be foolish not to support him. That same day his administration unrolled plans to indefinitely detain migrant children.
Throughout all this chaos, there’s been a persistent appeal from right-leaning pundits: that comparing the experiences of recently-detained immigrants to those of Jews during the Shoah is anti-Semitic in nature since, by this logic, it minimizes or trivializes what those millions of Jews went through. They claim that our American detention facilities are, in other words, not that bad.
But, no, they are that bad. That was the message of this past Tisha B’Av. By integrating spiritual practice and solemn ritual into protest, Jewish communities are responding specifically as Jewish communities, with all that this entails, to the threat Trump’s policies pose to immigrant families. Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning, of bearing witness to historical catastrophe, from the fall of the First Temple to the Shoah. The point is to bring these tragedies into the present moment, to draw a clear line from then to now. On Tisha B’Av, mourners do not simply move on from past tragedy but live instead with the pain and sadness—they sit with it — in order to find transformation, healing and growth.
The catastrophe of U.S. immigration policy — based as it is in racism, carcerality and cruelty — finds antonymic resonance in some core principles of Jewish faith. “The Bible suggests that the experience of the immigrant is a unique entry point for coming to understand God,” observes Tepperman. “Being an immigrant or being concerned for immigrants are both paths to holiness.”
“What is happening right now is a humanitarian crisis, and I use that word carefully because I think this is about the dehumanization of people,” says Pearce. “In Jewish tradition, there’s the phrase b’tzelem Elohim, which is how humankind was described as being created in the image of God. That then dictates a certain kind of behavior that is owed each person, as a condition of their being human. To mistreat human beings, then, is a desecration of God.”