NEW YORK – Within hours of the U.S. Supreme Court upholding President Donald Trump’s ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, some 5,000 people gathered in Manhattan on Tuesday to demonstrate their opposition to the policy.
The quickly organized rally, in front of the federal building housing immigration authorities, was called #StandWithMuslims and had participants chanting “Donald Trump, shame!” and “No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here!”
Miriam Schechner, a public school art teacher, said she came because of her own family’s history of fleeing Nazi persecution, with many members failing to gain access to the United States.
“Growing up, I heard stories from my mother of a large boat of refugees fleeing the Holocaust who were turned away from the United States by the president,” she said, referring to the SS St. Louis in 1939. Her mother, grandmother and two cousins were the only surviving members of a large extended family; the rest died in Poland, she said. They were unable to enter the United States because of strict limits on the number of immigrants allowed in.
“It’s very similar to today. There were quotas on Jews, and many would have escaped the Holocaust” if they’d been permitted entry to America, she told Haaretz. “We should be welcoming in refugees, not turning them away on racial and religious grounds,” Schechner added.
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Dozens of organizations co-sponsored the demonstration, with MPower Change’s Mohammad Khan coordinating the rally. The other key organizer from the Muslim grassroots movement was Linda Sarsour, the American of Palestinian descent who is also prominent in the boycott, sanctions and divestment movement against Israel.
Despite her controversial standing among some Jewish Americans, the rally had wide backing from progressive Jewish groups. Among a few dozen organizations co-sponsoring the event were the Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee, Jews for Racial & Economic Justice and Jews Against Anti-Muslim Racism. Demonstrators in the crowd held signs bearing the logos of Jewish groups HIAS, Avodah and T’ruah.
“It seems deeply un-American and un-Jewish to close the gates in front of the stranger,” said Rabbi David Rosenn, executive director of the Hebrew Free Loan Society, who emphasized he was speaking as an individual and not on behalf of his organization. Asked why he thought so many Jewish groups, relative to other religions, were among the sponsors, the Conservative rabbi said, “It makes sense that we’re more involved. ... We know what it is to be the canary in the coal mine.”
Rosenn said the fact Sarsour was one of the rally’s organizers didn’t overly concern him. “I am looking for the loudest possible megaphone” against the Muslim ban, he said. “I’m not going to let quibbles over who is organizing it get in the way of getting the message heard.”
Protesters gathered in Foley Square – the plaza in front of the federal building in lower Manhattan that houses the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the immigration court and the Department of Homeland Security.
A few yarmulke-topped heads were visible in the crowd, which included New Yorkers of every type.
Every Jew interviewed cited their immigrant parents and grandparents as the reason they felt it necessary to participate in the demonstration.
Adam Eli, for example, mentioned his great-grandparents, who came to the United States from Russia.
“Jewish people have an obligation to stand for anyone who is being marginalized for religious reasons or because of their immigration. Without immigration to America, my family and I wouldn’t be here,” said Eli, who is a social media and content creator focused on the LGBTQ community. He had been scheduled to speak about being gay and Jewish on a panel discussion, but said he came to the impromptu demonstration instead, adding that the panel’s organizers understood his reason for backing out.
Eli, who wore a pink kippa, said he made sure to wear a “Fiddler on the Roof” T-shirt because the iconic musical was about people being forced to become refugees because they were Jewish.
“My grandmother came to the United States as an undocumented immigrant,” said Yitzchak Lockerman, an Orthodox Jew who came to the demonstration from his job as a postdoctoral research fellow in computer engineering at New York University.
“I don’t agree with everything people here are saying,” he added, referring to Sarsour and some of the more radical signs held by some protesters that called for an end to capitalism. But, he added, “I am very frustrated with the Supreme Court decision. There is absolutely no data to suggest there is any harm to us by helping immigrants” settle in America.
Lockerman referred to a lack of correlation between undocumented immigration and crime, which contradicts Trump’s frequent exhortations to protect the country from the danger of Muslim, Mexican and Central American refugees.
The Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling, with the court’s five conservatives in the majority, seemingly brought an end to the fierce fight in the courts over whether the policy represented an unlawful Muslim ban, since its introduction in January 2017.
Rama Issa is executive director of the Arab American Association of New York and was at the demonstration with a contingent from her organization. Her family lives in Damascus, Syria, and she is worried she won’t be able to bring them over to the United States for her upcoming wedding.
Issa said she wasn’t at all surprised by the visible presence of Jews at the protest. “Our Jewish brothers and sisters have always stood in solidarity with black folks, brown folks and Muslims,” said Issa. “It’s natural for me to see them here.”
After about 20 speakers – local elected officials and representatives of co-sponsoring organizations – shared remarks, most in the crowd flowed out of Foley Square toward Broadway. They were headed for the park at Manhattan’s southern tip, right next to the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.
Their goal? To conclude the protest in view of the Statue of Liberty, whose base is inscribed with American-Jewish poet Emma Lazarus’ immortal words: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”