American Jews Mark Tisha B'Av With anti-ICE 'Close the Camps' Protests

Jewish groups in 50 locations throughout U.S. take to the streets during the holiday of mourning to demonstrate against Trump's immigration policies: 'This is a deeply Jewish thing to do'

Jews protest Trump's immigration policies in New York City, United States, August 11, 2019.
Gili Getz

NEW YORK — Jews across the United States took to the streets on Sunday, marking Tisha B’Av (the Jewish day of mourning) with protests against the Trump administration‘s treatment of undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers. 

In New York City, during the fast day commemorating the destruction of the two Jewish temples in Jerusalem, over 500 Jews joined the "Close the Camps" demonstrations, holding signs reading “Never Again."

Participants first gathered at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in Manhattan for learning, prayer and activities. Some made signs, others participated in a songwriting workshop or text studies of letters from refugees.

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One of the attendees, 32-year-old Brian Mawyer, sat at a communal table, drawing on a piece of white cardboard: “The land of the free should not have concentration camps.”

Preparing protest signs at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City, United States, August 11, 2019.
Gili Getz

“The Jews have suffered from such things before and we don’t want it to happen to other people,” he told Haaretz while diligently working on his protest sign. “It makes me feel powerless being so far away, but I feel it’s necessary to do something about it.” 

After the group assembled, they marched a few blocks to the Amazon bookstore on 34th Street to voice their anger with the online retail giant for its ties to the Department of Homeland Security and its Immigration and Customs Enforcement unit. “Amazon causes family separation,” one woman’s sign read. 

The group sat down on the store floor and disrupted business; those who could not fit inside the store gathered on the sidewalk outside. About 40 people were arrested during the Amazon protest and remain in police custody. 

“Amazon is an enabler of Trump’s deportation machine,” said Congregation Beit Simchat Torah’s Rabbi Yael Rapport. “The brutal anti-immigration campaign by ICE is powered by technology put forward by Amazon and it forms the backbone for ICE’s operations to track, identify and hunt down immigrants.” 

The demonstration was part of a wave of Jewish protests against ICE and the Trump administration’s treatment of undocumented immigrants that took place throughout the United States on Sunday. The protests were held in more than 50 locations nationwide, including 25 states and Washington.

Jews protest Trump's immigration policies in New York City, United States, August 11, 2019.
Gili Getz

Beyond the major cities with large Jewish communities, smaller ones also participated and organized their own events in North Carolina, Utah, Michigan, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Texas and Iowa. Another protest was held outside the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.

Jews also demonstrated in front of ICE offices and detention centers in over a dozen cities.

One of the groups organizing the protests, T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, released a statement saying: “Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples and the generations of forced migration of our ancestors. Today, as American Jews, we use this commemoration to mourn and resist the policies of our current government that are endangering, abusing, incarcerating, and deporting refugees and immigrants seeking safety.”

In Washington, a similar demonstration was held on Lafayette Square, near the White House. Hundreds of protesters attended, most of them from the Jewish community. They carried signs declaring "Reform Jews welcome immigrants" and "My people were refugees too." 

“I need to do something,” said Francine Smilen, who joined the New York City protests. “I read the newspaper every day and my heart breaks, I cry and I feel helpless.”

Jews protest Trump's immigration policies in New York City, United States, August 11, 2019.
Gili Getz

A daughter of Holocaust survivors, Smilen’s mother was separated from her parents at age 19. The current immigrant detention crisis is “extremely personal” for her. Participating in Sunday’s gathering, she explained, was a way to “put my actions where my words are. 

“The intergenerational trauma has affected me dramatically and I just can’t stand by,” added Smilen. 

Sunday’s nationwide protests came a week after 22 people were killed and 24 wounded in a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. The suspect, who confessed to the shooting, said he had intended to target Mexicans.

“The scary part is that I think I’m numb to this stuff already,” Smilen said. “I really feel like our country is in a kind of civil war, everything is politicized. I’m numb but I want to break out of the numbness.” 

“This is personal for the Jewish community,” Rabbi Rapport told Haaretz, holding back tears. “Public outcry, especially in our modern age, can really change attitudes, and change policy. This is a deeply Jewish thing to do."

As the crowds marched through midtown Manhattan, one little girl passing by asked her father, "What are they doing?"

"They're fighting for justice," the man replied, reaching for his daughter's hand and nodding at the crowd in approval.