When United States Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently compared immigrant detention facilities to concentration camps, the weight of the conservative establishment, from Republican politicians to right wing pundits, predictably descended on her. By using the phrase ‘concentration camps’, they charged, she was guilty of diminishing the traumatic legacy of the Holocaust in exchange for progressive political expediency.
As a point of fact, Ocasio-Cortez never invoked the Holocaust. She linked to an Esquire article citing historian Andrea Pitzer, who defines concentration camps as ‘the mass detention of civilians without trial’, which covers American Japanese internment camps during the Second World War and a litany of other historical and current examples. The Rights’ response was indicative of a broader conservative trend of cynically weaponising Jewishness to suit its own political agenda.
Representative Liz Cheney, for instance, said that Ocasio-Cortez had ‘disgraced [her]self’, while Anglo Catholic Fox News anchor Bill Hemmer proclaimed that she ‘owe[d] every Jew on this planet an apology’. Ultimately, for those on the political Right there exists no meaningful link between the brutality of the past and the cruelty of the present. One is tragedy, the other is necessity.
Unfortunately, sectors of the Jewish establishment has also pushed back against Ocasio-Cortez’ usage of the phrase. The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) – the central organisation of many Jewish groups in the New York area – asked that she ‘refrain from using terminology evocative of the Holocaust to voice concerns about contemporary issues’, also claiming that the use of ‘Holocaust terminology’ in describing ‘contemporary concerns diminishes the evil intent of the Nazis to eradicate Jewish people.’ Abe Foxman, the former director of the Anti Defamation League also argued that such comparisons both ‘trivialise the Holocust and thereby undermine the lessons of history we must learn’.
Ultimately, these interpretations of the Holocaust and its place in collective memory indicate that there are no political lessons to be gleaned from this atrocity, and that it speaks solely to our unique persecution as Jews. This myopic philosophy is also what underpins much of the Zionist movement in its support for the colonial Israeli project. Indeed, it is this reasoning which draws a straight line between Jewish safety and the need for that safety to be bound up in bombings and occupation.
Importantly, however, whilst the Jewish establishment took issue with comparisons and semantics, and as the Democratic Party continued ceding ground to Trump, thousands of Jews across the United States – young and old, secular and orthodox – are mobilising in a grassroots campaign against the country’s anti-immigration policies, with the call to abolish ICE under the name ‘Never Again Action.’
These Jews reject the language coming from figures in conservative Jewish institutions. For them, never again is not just a museum slogan memorialising horror. It is a banner under which to organise, premised on the fundamental principle of solidarity. Never again means never again for everybody, not just Jews. Contrary to claims that politicising the Holocaust or other tragedies ‘demean[s] their memor[ies]’ – as Cheney claims – ordinary American Jews are acting because of their memories, whether direct or intergenerational, to quash the inhumane immigration-deportation machine. Their history compels them to act.
Never Again Action began on 24 June this year from a Facebook status on a personal profile. In less than a week, thirty-six people were arrested in Elizabeth, New Jersey for blocking the entrances to a detention centre. A leaked email written by the acting director of ICE indicated that the group’s action at the ICE headquarters in Washington, DC caused the building to go into lockdown. On 14 August, as protesters peacefully blockaded the Wyatt Detention Centre in Rhode Island, Thomas Woodworth, a prison guard that worked with ICE drove a truck through the crowd, injuring several and hospitalising two. The guard has since resigned. In a press release addressing the matter, Never Again Action wrote: ‘we urge all ICE officers to join us in making the moral choice: quit your jobs, stand with us.’
Never Again Action has since led tens more actions in cities across the United States. These are not symbolic or aesthetic displays, as is often the case with more tempered opposition to Trump. These actions are having a material impact, actually shutting down ICE operations and disrupting business as usual.
This movement highlights once again the importance of grassroots mobilisation as an effective method of resistance and points to the usefulness of social media when it comes to coordinating meaningful direct action. Most importantly, it argues for the need to politicise tragedy, to act from memory in order to forge a more just world for all. As Rabbi Zimmerman put it at one of the demonstrations: ‘our whole lives we were taught, you shall not stand idly by.’