Jewish Activists of ‘Never Again’ Action Oppose Immigrant Detention Centers
Molly Amster of Jews United for Justice explains why the concentration camp analogy is more than just rhetoric when it comes to Trump's detention camps and policies
When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar were attacked for equating the detention centers holding migrant children and asylum seekers with concentration camps, they were attacked by Republicans, some Jewish organizations, and some Holocaust survivors. But other Holocaust survivors, Latinx Jews, and other Jewish activists who have formed Never Again Action and other groups to confront ICE, Trump, and the detention of immigrants living in inhumane conditions are speaking up in support of Ocasio-Cortez and Omar's comments, explaining that comparing these detention centers to concentration camps is the crux of the phrase “never again.”
“At Hebrew school we were taught 'never again' because we were instructed to never let anything similar, any kind of similar dehumanization of another group of people, happen. And while we could argue about semantics, 'Is it or is it not the same thing as what happened in the Holocaust?' really doesn't matter. What is happening is it’s completely unacceptable,” Molly Amster of the Baltimore chapter of Jews United For Justice told The Real News Network's Marc Steiner. “People are dying. Children are separated from their families. People are being tortured. And we believe that what that what we were taught by our elders never again, we don't need to wait until it is the exact same thing.”
Never Again Action has three goals, Amster explained.
“There are three goals of the Never Again Action, and one of them is to move away from semantics and to really talk about what needs to happen in this situation, which is that the treatment of people needs to be improved,” Amster said. “We need to abolish ICE and defund ICE, we need to close the camps, and we need to stop the raids that are happening just in our neighborhoods. These are these kinds of actions [that] are really terrorizing people.”
Never Again Action is also focused on the Democrats who largely, outside of a few representatives such as Ocasio-Cortez or Omar, have failed to stand up to Trump, and even voted to fund ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection: “The Democratic Party has frankly done very little to nothing to stop what is happening. They voted to give additional funding to ICE and CBP—totally unacceptable. The message needs to be not one more dollar for the border,” Amster said.
Amster praised Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro's argument that crossing the border without documentation be decriminalized rather than conceding or attempting to compromise with a corrupt and untrustworthy administration.
“I really liked what Julian Castro said during the debate about changing the law so that it's not a criminal offense to come to this country without documentation,” Amster said. “I think that, again, is a shift, and I know that the Trump administration is not going to budge, but continuing to sort of acquiesce is not going to shift anything, either.”
Lastly, Amster observed that Jews themselves must oppose immigration myths of the past, which cast some immigrants as arriving here “legally,” and also recognize the multitudes that exist within the Jewish community.
“This idea that we're somehow unique and different and better, or more, more good, more rule-following, whatever, law-abiding, is just a falsehood, and one that allows us to separate ourselves from connecting with the story and the plight of all these migrants from other countries who have a different color skin than us,” Amster said. “I think it's another myth of the Jewish community in America: that we're all white. Because there's about as many Jews of color in this country as there are Orthodox Jews. So you know, we really need to change the narratives both nationally, but also for ourselves."
MARC STEINER Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you all with us.
From the moment Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar were attacked for calling and equating the detention centers holding children without any daily sanitary amenities or beds, separated from parents and those who care for them with concentration camps, they were attacked by Republicans, by some Jewish organizations, and some Holocaust survivors. But other Holocaust survivors, Latinx Jews, and other Jewish activists formed Never Again Action and other groups to confront ICE, Trump, and the detention of immigrants living in inhumane conditions.
We’re joined now by Molly Amster, who’s the founding Baltimore Director for Jews United for Justice (JUFJ), which organizes the Jewish community in partnership with other communities in this fight for social and economic justice. And has been working on migrant justice issues for the last several years at the local and state level, and participating in the Never Again actions that are happening across the country over the last few weeks. And Molly, welcome. Good to have you with us.
MOLLY AMSTER Thank you. Good to be here.
MARC STEINER So it’s been interesting to watch this whole sojourn and this arc from the moment that Ocasio-Cortez used the word concentration camps that set everyone into a tizzy, upset that she would dare to compare what’s happening here with that, and there’s arguments to be made on both sides around that. That’s fine. To this moment now, when Jews from across the country have been organizing to stand up to ICE, surrounding detention centers. So talk a bit about what’s been going on from that moment to now in this community. And it seems to be engulfing in many ways more Jews than many of the popular media and others would like to realize.
MOLLY AMSTER Yeah, I mean, I think that especially for younger Jews who really grew up with significant Jewish education in day school, in—
MARC STEINER You being one of them, right?
MOLLY AMSTER summer camps— myself included— at Hebrew school, we were taught “never again” because we were instructed to never let anything similar, any kind of similar dehumanization of another group of people happen. And while, we could argue about semantics, you know, is it or is it not the same thing as what happened in the Holocaust really doesn’t matter. What is happening is completely unacceptable. People are dying, children are separated from their families, people are being tortured, and we believe that what we were taught by our elders, “never again,” we don’t need to wait till it is the exact same thing. We want to intervene now and when, you know, we feel like it’s at a real crisis moment.
MARC STEINER I want to explore that in some depth because given the latest actions and the words of Donald Trump, and how that might affect the future, and how that actually threatens what we’re talking about here. I want to get into that in just a few minutes. But first, what I’d like to do is to show all of you this short clip from a detention center in New Jersey when Jewish activists surrounded that detention center, and what happened.
NEVER AGAIN ACTION PROTESTER 1 We are calling on our people to put their bodies on the line to stop ICE.
NEVER AGAIN ACTION PROTESTERS [chanting] Never again! Never again! Never again!
NEVER AGAIN ACTION PROTESTER 2 My people have been here for many, many years. And for those years have been criminalized, they’ve been dehumanized, but yet, we are here strong and powerful.
NEVER AGAIN ACTION PROTESTER 3 This is just the beginning of many Never Again actions across the country. [crowd cheers]
NEVER AGAIN ACTION PROTESTERS [singing] Which side are you on? Which side are you on?
MARC STEINER So that was just a piece of what’s going on. It’s been happening across the country. And so, I mean, these demonstrations to me, when I first saw this happen, to me is a very powerful moment because this is making the connections we were alluding to before. And when you look at what Donald Trump has done, and the words he’s been using lately, telling people to go back to their own countries, and calling out these four women of color who sit in the House of Representatives, and what’s building around this nationalist movement that seems to have seized the executive branch and the mindset of a large number of our fellow citizens—So, to stand up means something at this moment in ways that we did not expect to have happened.
MOLLY AMSTER Yeah. I think that it’s honestly pretty scary what’s happening, even as a person who is not directly being targeted in this moment. You know, I personally see all of these similarities to what we learned about. And honestly, like, at least for me as a kid there was an obsession with the Holocaust, reading historical nonfiction from the age of— I don’t know— seven, eight. Until, I was in college getting a minor in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and finally just being overwhelmed by the brutality of it all, and since then, swearing off of it to a certain extent. But to see these things happening that we actually really never thought would happen again to another group of people, and seeing it be so similar— the messages of other, the messages of, you know, these are not only other, but not human. Like, using the word animals is just unbelievable to me.
MARC STEINER And criminalizing.
MOLLY AMSTER Absolutely. And saying that, you know, these people are responsible for the crime and the drug use. And, you know, all these things that are a problem in our society, that this is their fault and we need to keep them out to keep us safe— the real Americans. You know, it is just so disturbing. And we know it’s not new in terms of American policy, for sure, and the level of deportation and stuff. I mean, Obama deported what, like 3 million people? But the detention in particular, having ramped up so significantly, and children and families being separated, that is a new level of mistreatment that we’re subjecting people to and, you know, to stand idly by is not something that we’re willing to do.
MARC STEINER A couple of quick questions here. One, I’m very curious how you would make the argument for people that when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others use the word concentration camp, and clearly that inflames many people who are Jewish, and it inflames many people who are on the Right because it’s, I guess, a good foil to use to attack what they’re trying to say and do. So for you as an organizer, which is what you are, build that argument for us about that connection between the two. I mean, I too grew up in a home with people with numbers on their arms. I knew from a little boy what that meant since I’m from the generation just after the Holocaust. And so, I understood what that meant and in the most minute details, so it’s very meaningful and very powerful when you see this happening, when you see people sitting in cages locked away, and little children alone in cages, dirty diapers—I mean, it moves you to something, but connect that for us. What’s that connective tissue for people who can’t quite get it?
MOLLY AMSTER So I have an aunt who voted for Trump, who was posting different memes comparing Nazi extermination camps and the detention centers, pointing out these are not the same things, these are not equivalent situations. And again, it goes back to—And I said this on her page. She did not respond, but I said let’s stop arguing about what we call what’s happening. Let’s just work really hard to stop what’s happening because it’s an atrocity. There are three goals of the Never Again Action and one of them is to move away from semantics and to really talk about what needs to happen in this situation, which is that the treatment of people needs to be improved, we need to abolish ICE and defund ICE, we need to close the camps, and we need to stop the raids that are happening also just in our neighborhoods. You know, these kinds of actions are really terrorizing people.
MARC STEINER So the demonstrations themselves have had an effect on people because this has kind of opened people’s eyes. So I’m curious, what you think the opposition will lead to? I mean, we’re now talking about the potential of having these ICE raids. And where we’re sitting in Baltimore, we’ll be one of the ten or twelve cities that will be targeted in this country to go after the immigrants. So what is the response, and what do you do? I mean, is this a similar time to the period when the good Germans were hiding Jews? I mean, what are we looking at here?
MOLLY AMSTER There are people who are doing that. Especially congregations are looking at bringing, you know, opening their doors to people.
MARC STEINER In our community in Baltimore and across the country.
MOLLY AMSTER Yeah. The two tactics that Never Again Action is employing, in addition to changing the narrative and trying to get our community to see that it doesn’t matter whether we call them concentration camps or not— we just need to end what’s happening— the other is targeting the Democratic Party who has frankly done very little to nothing to stop what is happening. They voted to give additional funding to ICE and CBP. Totally unacceptable. You know, the message needs to be “not one more dollar for the border.” You know, here in Maryland even, there’s progressive legislators that are saying, well, why wouldn’t we submit a proposal for the RFI to the federal government to put additional detention center beds here in Maryland? Wouldn’t it be better for us to at least have them in good conditions? And the answer is no, we don’t want detention. Detention is unnecessary, and it’s cruel, and we shouldn’t be doing it.
MARC STEINER What about the argument that some liberal legislators would make, and others would make, and they’ve made with me of, look, that’s all very fine and I don’t disagree with that, but Trump is going to lock these kids up. And if we don’t put the money in those places, these kids are going to live in deplorable conditions, and we can’t allow that to happen to children and to other human beings. You got to do something. You just can’t sit there and go “we’ll close them” when they’re not going to close them. So what do you do for the people inside?
MOLLY AMSTER You do what we’ve been doing for years. You connect them with people that they have relationships with here in the US. You put kids back with their families. You know, the answer shouldn’t be that we need to reunite families, or we need to make sure that people have toothbrushes. We need to make sure that there are no cages, and that families are never separated. It’s a real shift in our policy. I really liked what Julian Castro said during the debate about changing the law so that it’s not a criminal offense to come to this country, you know, without documentation. I think that again is a shift. And I know that the Trump administration is not going to budge, but continuing to, sort of, acquiesce is not going to shift anything either.
MARC STEINER To me, before we conclude, I mean, to me that is—Another one of the arguments that Jewish activists might make is if you look at your great-grandparents or your great-great-grandparents or my grandparents, who came in here through Baltimore, Ellis Island, and whichever they came through, they came with nothing. They came with no papers. They came with no visas. They would have met at the border, and interviewed, and 90% of them were allowed into this country and became citizens of the United States. And they are our ancestors. I mean, that’s part of the story.
MOLLY AMSTER Absolutely. Right, it’s not only about the Holocaust. It’s about our immigration journey. And one of the things that we’ve been doing now for the last year or so is working to, kind of, dispel this myth that the Jewish community— Eastern European Jews— came here the right way, came here legally, followed the rules, because there’s several things to peel back there. One is that until 1924, as you said, Eastern European Jews could show up and didn’t need any documentation. There was no process. It was just, you know, come on in as long as you’re healthy, right? And after 1924, there were plenty of Jews who were desperate to get here, many of whom were turned away and died in the Holocaust, but also people who did come illegally and found other ways even pre-1924.
We had a JUFJ leader testify in Annapolis this year in favor of the Trust Act, which would prevent police in Maryland from cooperating with ICE, and he told a story of his grandmother who came to this country pre-1924, but was ill when she arrived at Ellis Island and was returned back to Europe. And she came back on another ship, and before they reached Ellis Island, she jumped overboard and swam to the shores. And that is how she ended up here, it’s how she survived the Holocaust, and that’s how this man who’s now sitting in Annapolis talking to these legislators, that is how he came to be, right? And so, this idea that we’re somehow unique and different and better or more good, more rule-following, whatever, law-abiding, is just a falsehood. And one that allows us to separate ourselves from connecting with the story and the plight of all these migrants from other countries who have a different color of skin than us, honestly.
MARC STEINER The example is a very stunning one that you just gave, I think. And we are about out of time. We don’t have time to get into this, but I think one of the most interesting aspects of this growth of the movement among Jewish activists are the Latinx Jews who seem to have taken a really leading role. Especially in the southwest and in New York and some other places that are really, kind of, leading the movement and pushing back from both ends.
MOLLY AMSTER Yeah. It’s wonderful. And I think it’s another myth of the Jewish community in America that we’re all white—
MARC STEINER Right, right.
MOLLY AMSTER Because, you know, there’s about as many Jews of color in this country as there are Orthodox Jews. So—
MARC STEINER It’s an interesting way to put it. [laughs]
MOLLY AMSTER You know, we really need to change the narratives both nationally, but also for ourselves. We need to see ourselves as a part of—You know, our people are also being impacted by what’s happening.
MARC STEINER Molly Amster, A, thanks for the work you do and thanks for being with us here today at The Real News.
MOLLY AMSTER Thank you. Thanks very much.
MARC STEINER Good to have you here. And thank you all for watching. We’ll do much more of this, as one of the most critical issues facing our country ever. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Take care.