Justice, Politics

What Would Ira Gollobin Do? On the Utility of Historical Metaphor

A photo from the archives of the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born (ACPFB) depicts a multi-racial group of protesters in grade school Fourth of July pageant colonial-style hats; one wears an Abraham Lincoln mask. They carry signs protesting deportation raids and demanding full amnesty for foreign born residents. Staged in 1973, this action represents the later stages of the ACPFB’s evolution, before it closed its doors a decade later.

Founded in the late 1930s to defend mostly leftist, mostly European-American migrants against politically motivated deportation and denaturalization, the ACPFB survived intense McCarthyist repression, including the imprisonment of its executive secretary, Abner Green, the loss of many of its supporters, and inclusion on the list of proscribed organizations issued by the Subversive Activities Control Board. Throughout the worst of McCarthyism and into the 1960s and 1970s, the central office in New York City, comprised mostly but not entirely of leftist first- and second-generation Jews, continued to work with a wide variety of foreign born communities against the depredations of what they called “the deportation terror.” (I write about the organization in Against the Deportation Terror: Organizing for Immigrant Rights in the 20th Century.)

Recent assays in Jewish left periodicals, such as the Jewish Currents Editorial Collective’s ‘Responsa’, “How Not To Fight AntiSemitism,” Mark Tseng-Putterman’s “Fear and Isolation in American Zion” and Ben Ratzkoff’s essay, “Against Analogy,” question such political uses of metaphor.  While no one chooses their history, everyone chooses what to do with the history they inherit: what to do with the history they inherit, which connections to the present to insist on, which to vigorously oppose.

As Karl Marx famously wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonapart, no one chooses their history. For Marx, history is mobilized through “time honored disguise and borrowed language”: through metaphor. Creating historical metaphor is a dynamic practice, in which the nightmares of prior generations haunt the present, filling the living with dread and inspiring new political forms.

In organizing the 1973 protest, the ACPFB and its allies posed historical metaphors between the founding fathers and contemporary immigrant rights advocates, lampooning the lack of democracy displayed in federal policy. At the time, the Nixon Administration’s Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS; the agency which became after 2001 the Immigration Customs Enforcement or ICE arm of the Department of Homeland Security) perpetrated frequent deportation dragnets and racial profiling in immigrant communities through its ‘Operation Area Control.’

Throughout its existence, the ACFPB drew on historical metaphors between the straits of contemporary immigrant communities and those of past generations of migrants as inspiration for its ongoing work in collaboration and solidarity with the foreign born.  When New York Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described immigration detention centers as concentration camps in 2019, touching off a firestorm of debate in Jewish communities as well as inspiring the formation of Never Again Action, she similarly accessed the power of historical metaphor.

The creation of historical metaphor is a potent practice.  As Marx explains, the past can be distorted for political gain or mobilized for inspiration.  Either one can transpire at any given time. American Jewish Committee assented to comparing the internment of Japanese Americans with the holocaust of European Jewry in its 1998 collaboration with the Japanese American National Museum in the Ellis Island Immigration Museum exhibit, “America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese American Experience”. In 2019 a group of scholars rallied to support Ocasio-Cortez’ comparison in an open letter to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, which had criticized them.

Such debates are productive. By forcing consideration of the past, they create solidarity, mobilizing people to engage with the present.  If describing facilities that detain asylum seekers against national as well international refugee laws, separate families, drug children, and forcibly sterilize women as concentration camps rallies people to organize against them, that’s a good thing.  Right?

Not, apparently, to everyone. Collectively, the Jewish Currents “Responsa” and two other essays noted above provide a bulwark against a Jewish exceptionalism which, in Tseng-Putterman’s words, fixes “anti-Jewish prejudice as transhistorical.” They caution against overemphasizing parallels between the contemporary resurgence of antisemitism and the enduring structures of white supremacy. In exercising caution about the uses of historical metaphor, however, they unnecessarily curtail the creative political acts of envisioning and repurposing the past.

White supremacist ideology often incorporates antisemitism, but ongoing indigenous dispossession and state violence against African Americans and other people of color are politically and economically foundational. While this is a crucial and undeniable distinction, I’m not convinced by these authors that the work of fighting antisemitism is over, unimportant, or incompatible with the work of fighting white supremacy. As Benjamin Balthaser argues, “antisemitism does not follow the neat historical tracks laid out by the Currents’ Responsa”.

Further, in an effort to de-emphasize anti-Semitism, these authors proscribe the making of historical metaphor, or what the Jewish Currents Collective describes as “Jews’ historical suffering as the basis for political organizing.” Reacting to what they describe as overly sensitive antisemitism trope sensors, these essays unnecessarily throw out the important work of deploying history to create solidarity and facilitate collaboration. Further, though Tseng-Putterman goes the farthest towards engaging questions of empire, all three of these essays fix Jewish life in the United States.  Nothing in Jewish history indicates that current access to the benefits of whiteness and citizenship here will last. It is always in the best interest of Jewish people to create solidarity with those with the least power; it is not only the moral, but the strategic thing to do.

As demonstrated by the 1973 protest depicted above, by the 1970s, longtime ACPFB organizers recognized that the so-called “new immigrants” – migrants from Africa, Asia and the Americas who were able to enter the U.S.  after the landmark Hart-Cellar reform of 1965 ended the racist system of national origins quotas – faced the same kinds of repression by the INS that the organization had been founded to combat. Ira Gollobin, a first-generation Jewish immigrant, worked as legal counsel for the ACPFB throughout the organization’s existence and continued working for immigrant rights, fighting with Haitian American and Latinx organizers, until his retirement in 2005 at the age of 94.

A veteran of the Pacific arena of World War II, Gollobin organized protests in Manila in 1945 when U.S. GIs there were informed that, though the war had ended, the army would be staying in the Philippines to combat the Hukbalahap (Huk) Uprising.  Subsequently, Gollobin represented William and Celia Pomeroy in their fight to re-enter the United States after their solidarity work with the anti-colonial Huks.  A Marxist theorist and contributor to Jewish Currents, Gollobin was legal counsel for the ACPFB as the organization expanded from its base representing foreign born European Americans to collaborate with advocates in California and the Southwest against Operation Wetback, a mid-1950s deportation campaign targeting Mexican American & Latinx communities.

Ira Gollobin at a meeting of the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born. (Image from ACPFB files at the Tamiment Library, NYU, used with permission of Ruth Gollobin Basta).


The organization advocated for the rights of Asian maritime laborers often targeted for detention during their shore leaves in port cities like New York. It worked with the Civil Rights Congress to support Black organizing against domestic racial terror and coordinated defense committees for foreign born Afro-diasporic labor leaders like Hugh Musial, Ferdinand Smith and Claudia Jones, who were marked for deportation because of their political activities. During the uprisings of the 1960s and 1970s, the ACPFB recognized the deportation terror as one of the technologies of state power used against protesters.  By the 1980s, Gollobin and others allied with Haitian American and Latinx organizations to advocate for migrants from the Americas.  Such solidarity efforts brought them into the coalitions that eventually evolved into the contemporary immigrant rights movement.

How did Gollobin and other ACPFB organizers move from representing people that looked like and lived near them to recognizing that immigrant rights advocacy entailed working with an array of organizers who were spread out geographically, often spoke different languages, and experienced different kinds of repression by the state? Just as GIs in the Philippines recognized the anti-colonial language of the Huk uprising as parallel to the struggle against fascism, Gollobin and other ACPFB advocates like Rose Chernin, Abner Green, and Carol Blanche Weiss, drew on their internationalist analysis as well as their backgrounds as first and second generation Jewish migrants to recognize parallel – not equivalent, but parallel – experiences of oppression.

These maintained active connections and worked closely with aggrieved communities. Gollobin maintained a lifetime correspondence with Mexican American labor leader Bert Corona. Chernin and David Hyun, a Korean American architect and activist, faced deportation and denaturalization at the same time: together, they founded the Los Angeles Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born.

The connections made by the ACPFB were often facilitated by metaphor. Anti-colonial, diasporic Korean Americans like Hyun, like the Huks, often invoked the American Revolution against British tyranny. Such recognition led them into the work of solidarity.

A few weeks ago, I stood outside the Kenosha Detention Center with organizers from Never Again Action and from Voces de la Frontera , the powerful Wisconsin immigrant rights and workers’ center.  We were about to hold a rally calling for the end of ICE detention and deportation and for the inclusion of undocumented essential workers in federal covid relief efforts.  Subsequently, we planned a car caravan from the detention center to Civic Park, site of protests last summer after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, to convene a second rally with local Movement for Black Lives organizers.

It’s always a fraught transition from the work of organizing and planning into the moment of action.  I took a deep breath, asked myself, as I frequently do at such times: “what would Ira Gollobin do?” Then, together, we moved into the day.

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