For Progressive Jewish American Activists, 'Never Again Is Now' – and Israel Is Yesterday’s News

Never Again Action has put hundreds of young Jewish activists onto the streets – and some into jail – in the span of a week, going into battle against Trump's migrant policy

Members of the group Never Again Action protesting immigrant detention policies, Boston, July 2019.
Gili Getz

Until a few days ago, no one had ever heard of the group Never Again Action – literally. The organization is just a little over a week old.

But the group now has more than 20,000 followers on Twitter, with thousands more following its Facebook and Instagram accounts. A big enemy is U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has taken a  hard line under President Donald Trump in his efforts to deport Central American migrants.

Never Again Action states its cause clearly on its website: “a mass mobilization calling for Jews to shut down ICE and hold the political establishment accountable for enabling both the deportation machine that has separated immigrant families across the United States for decades and the current crisis at the border.”

The site provides detailed instructions, strategy, talking points, memes and hashtag-slogan suggestions: #NeverAgainMeans abolish ICE, #NeverAgainMeans close the camps, and an alternative name for the group: #JewsAgainstICE.

“When Jews Say Never Again, They Mean It” is the slogan that tops the site. Using capital letters, the group writes: “As Jews, we were taught to never let anything like the Holocaust happen again.”

It adds: “We refuse to wait and see – we know from our own history what happens next. Many of our ancestors narrowly escaped from conditions like what we are seeing today in concentration camps at the border and detention centers around the country. NEVER AGAIN IS NOW.”

Instead of rejecting the Holocaust analogy by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez when she described immigrant detention facilities in the United States as “concentration camps,” Never Again Action is leaning directly into it. And in return, the congresswoman has given them a shout-out on Twitter.

But it’s not the new group’s social media savvy that has grabbed headlines, it’s the fact that it has put hundreds of young Jewish activists onto the streets – and some into jail – in the span of a week. On Monday, 200 of them blocked the entrance to a detention facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and 36 were arrested. Through crowdfunding, the group has raised more than $150,000 from supporters to cover bail and court costs.

On Tuesday, Jewish activists took action in Boston, with more than 1,000 marching from the city’s Holocaust memorial to a detention facility for migrants in the South Bay area. On Wednesday, on the other side of the continent in Orange, California, the entrance to a detention facility was blocked by another group of Jewish protesters.

On Thursday, in Philadelphia, hundreds of protesters demonstrated outside an ICE office and then marched to the city’s Fourth of July parade. More than 30 activists sat down, blocking the street, before they were arrested.

The event was livestreamed to Never Again Action's social media channels, with the comments: “We are committed to putting ourselves and our bodies on the line, the way we wish European gentiles had done for us 70 years ago” and “we do whatever it takes to stop business as usual, to not be ‘good Germans’ who go about our daily lives while immigrants are starved in cages.”

These surges of online and real-life energy echo the activism in 2017 when Jews were among the protesters who swarmed U.S. airports to protest Trump’s travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries.

Keeping it local

Never Again Action’s emergence highlights a growing trend: progressive young American Jews interested in political activism while clearly identifying themselves as Jews – in causes that have no direct link to Judaism. They wear T-shirts with Jewish slogans, sing Hebrew songs and in some cases even conduct prayer wearing kippot and tallit.

Also, the issues that energize such leftist activists have nothing to do with Israel. For them, Israel has become a topic that divides their community rather than uniting it, depleting people rather than energizing them.

By contrast, the migrant crisis, like Trump’s Muslim ban, is more immediate. The struggle for humane treatment of migrants speaks directly to Jewish American history, bound up with the experiences of parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. Fighting for undocumented immigrants directly is a way progressive Jews relate to Jewish values.

“Young progressive American Jews are both value-driven and politically astute,” says Ori Nir of Americans for Peace Now. “Trump’s immigration policy moves them ethically while granting them an opportunity to make political alliances going into a presidential election year.”

Most American Jews tend to be on the same side in this issue, and many Jewish organizations have made the immigration crisis a priority.

At the same time, Israel has become a source of division – both within the organization and in families – as liberal Zionist parents raised with a connection to Israel clash with their college-age children who are members of IfNotNow or Jewish Voice For Peace.

Some right-wing critics, like the anonymous blogger known as Elder of Ziyon, portray these young Jewish activists as well-intentioned dupes. They argue that in reality, it’s all about Israel.

Noting an overlap between activists tweeting enthusiastically about Never Again Action and participating in its demonstrations, and the anti-occupation group IfNotNow, Elder of Ziyon has argued that Never Again Action is actually hostile to Israel and leading young Jews into a trap.

“Right now, IfNotNow has a lot of publicity but not a lot of members,” Elder of Ziyon wrote Monday. “They need to recruit more Jewish youth, but most of them don’t care about Israel one way or another. These extremist anti-Israel activists are trying to get Jews involved in any liberal cause so they can then join their recruiters in their main purpose: to destroy the Jewish state by pretending to uphold Jewish values.”

Getting ready for 2020

Whether or not Elder of Ziyon is correct, another key development happened as Never Again Action burst onto the scene. IfNotNow announced that it was transforming into a 501(c)(4) – a nonprofit group that is allowed to lobby and engage in political activities. Its goal: having “a major impact on the Democratic race for the White House” in order to “prod the Democratic Party leftward on the issue of Israel.”

Tactically, the two groups do seem to have a shared vision as well as similar tactics: to protest and resist not only Republican policies, but what they feel is the Democratic establishment’s failure to take sufficiently radical positions, enabling the status quo; for example, on immigration policy.

Never Again Action has called on Jews to dedicate themselves to shutting down ICE and holding “the political establishment accountable for enabling both the deportation machine that has separated immigrant families across the U.S. for decades and the current crisis at the border.”

IfNotNow has said it wants to “bring the crisis of the Israeli military Occupation over the Palestinian people to the forefront of the 2020 Campaign.”

In the past week, immigration is the fight that young progressive Jewish activists have deemed worth showing up for – and even getting arrested for. It’s not yet clear if their commitment to a just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict runs as deep.