‘Some Jews Just Rolled Up with the Torah’: #NeverAgainisNow & Wisconsin Jews against ICE

My elderly friend Rose Daitsman died last week.  An inveterate organizer, she once told me about a campaign she led against class inequality in the elder care home she inhabited during her last several years.  Once imprisoned in the same New York City jail as Ethel Rosenberg, Rose devoted her whole life to fighting injustice. She was a native Yiddish speaker, a lifelong communist, and a founding member of Milwaukee’s Human Rights Commission. 

            Though Rose did not live to see our Wisconsin Jews Against ICE, #neveragainisnow protest on August 1, we dedicated it to her.  The twenty-two people committed to civil disobedience carried white roses, a symbol of anti-fascist struggle, in her honor. We laid them in front of the driveways of the Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency office building in downtown Milwaukee before sitting in front of them for the entire day, 8 am to 4 pm. For one day, no one was transported to detention through those doors of no return.

            Starting at 8 am, about two hundred Jews and allies from across Wisconsin rallied in front of the ICE building. By 10, the agency had closed its doors, turning away people who had appointments scheduled with either ICE or the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service.  We stationed someone at the door to explain what was going on to the mostly foreign born clientele turning up there.  Many were sympathetic; others expressed frustration. Two left and returned an hour later with coolers filled with drinks and ice.  They thanked us for our action and encouraged us to keep it up.

            A non-Jewish activist friend of mine posted about the action, concisely collapsing thousands of years of diasporic struggles for social justice: “Jews against ICE rolled up with the Torah and blocked the ICE office.” Indeed, the presence of the torah and four rabbis, the sound of the shofar, and some tefillin and shawl-clad marchers powerfully marked the action as a specifically Jewish one.

Ah, but the rolling up.  It takes time.

            Since Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez characterized the vast U.S. system of immigration detention with concentration camps, Jewish groups have responded.  Some have disavowed the contrast, arguing for the uniqueness of the Shoah, and explicitly laying claim to related terms.  Many others have embraced the comparison, claiming that, as Jews, we have a responsibility to work against concentration camps. Never Again Action, a national network of Jews and Jewish organizations organizing against immigration detention camps, emerged from this controversy.

            Over a decade ago, Rose and I and two other Wisconsin Jewish activists, Harriet McKinney and her daughter, Shahanna McKinney Baldon, both of whom took part in the August Never Again action in Milwaukee, founded a Jewish group to work for immigrant justice. We recognized the particular connection between the history of Jews as excluded outsiders and harsh contemporary immigration restriction directed predominantly at migrants of color. Calling ourselves MIKLAT!, Hebrew for refuge, we did some fundraising and marched together in the Days without Latinx organized by Voces de la Frontera, an immigrant rights organization and workers’ center that also co-sponsored the #NeverAgain action last week.

            MIKLAT! occasioned some lively meetings and events, including a “Hanukah Immigrant Freedom Party” fundraiser featuring all-you-could-eat tamales and latkes, a culinary wish-come-true for me, personally.  But, while we cited the Torah frequently, particular its 36 injunctions to “welcome the stranger,” the group remained small, and eventually dissipated.

            “Rolling up with the Torah” can be tricky. Jewish organizing for social justice is fraught, divided as Jews tend to be by multiple affiliations and identities. Our relationships to the U.S. white supremacist racial hierarchy are diverse and complicated.  Just in terms of race, there are Ashkenazim, the majority of whom have come to be considered white in the United States; Sephardim and Mizrachim, who are less likely to be considered white people; and Jews of color, who identify as African-American, Latinx, Asian-American as well as indigenous people.

Similarly, Jewish political organizing is complicated by denominational and ideological loyalties.  We are divided by our beliefs about many things, including Israel/Palestine.  Our political work takes place in local institutions, such as synagogues and the Jewish Federation, as well as national denominational organization and broad non-denominational institutions such as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now.

Our August 1 Never Again action drew a diverse cohort of Jews from across Wisconsin.   Allies from Voces de la Frontera, the Milwaukee chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, the Working Families Party of Wisconsin, and other organizations were present, as well. Congresswoman Gwen Moore stopped by. A friend texted me from out of state: “I haven’t felt this proud of Milwaukee Judaism in a REALLY long time.”  Imperfect and shimmering, it felt like the beginning of something.

I imagine Rose, urging us to do better next time, reminding us that the only hope is in solidarity.


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