Founded with Michigan ties, the activist group unites young Jews and undocumented workers … but its messaging has drawn ire.
Serena Adlerstein heard the phrase “Never Again” regularly throughout her Jewish upbringing. As a member of the Reform community, her lessons in Sunday school stressed the importance of preventing another genocide after the Holocaust.
Often, warnings against forgetting the past came from those that lived through it, like Adlerstein’s grandfather Arno Goetz. His family fled Germany after Kristallnacht in November 1938, when Nazis set fire to Jewish homes, synagogues and businesses and killed scores of Jews.
“I thought a lot about if I were alive during that time, what would I have done, and I also remember hearing from my mom saying that her father, my grandfather, would also frequently tell her, ‘Don’t think that it can’t happen again here,’” Adlerstein said.
Conversations like Adlerstein’s with her mother are unfortunately a dime a dozen among the Jewish community. When she watches reports of undocumented migrants in the U.S. being detained and held in detention centers, Adlerstein sees these narratives of persecution and imprisonment as all too similar to sit back and do nothing. This is why, while working in Grand Rapids, she became one of the founding members of Never Again Action, a Jewish activist organization calling for the release and protection of detained undocumented immigrants in the United States.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, approximately 11.3 million undocumented residents live in the U.S. In 2018, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations Report claimed 396,448 people were booked into an ICE detention facility and, since 2004, 193 detainees have died in ICE’s custody.
In one detention facility in Clint, Texas, the New York Times found migrants lived in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions and, according to agents at the facility, “Outbreaks of scabies, shingles and chickenpox were spreading among the hundreds of children and adults who were being held in cramped cells.”
With researchers now claiming detention centers have the potential to be hotbeds for COVID-19, Never Again Action and their partner organization Movimiento Cosecha, an activist group that focuses on undocumdnted immigrants, are demanding the release of detainees in order to prevent a public health emergency.
By adopting the mantra of Holocaust survivors as a moniker, Never Again Action claims to link past atrocities against the Jewish people to the modern system of persecution and imprisonment toward undocumented immigrants.
And sometimes that line is even more explicit. In 2019, Jewish undocumented immigrant Nylssa Portillo Moreno, who was born in El Salvador and grew up in Houston, was detained by ICE. This August, Never Again Action joined several other Jewish activist groups, including the ADL and the National Council of Jewish Woman, in lobbying for Moreno’s release. The push was successful: ICE released Moreno less than a week before her scheduled deportation.
“We can spend our days arguing about what to call these detention centers, or we can say what’s happening now is enough to shut
— Serena Adlerstein,
Never Again Action co-founder
Coming to the Cause
Born in Portland, Maine, Adlerstein was always in touch with her Reform Jewish community but found her activist community while in college at NYU. After leaving New York, she moved to Omaha, where she taught English at a refugee resettlement center. There, she learned about the resettlement process and immigration system. When she heard about a six-month fellowship with Movimiento Cosecha, she knew she had to apply.
While participating in this fellowship, Adlerstein learned about the long history of immigrant rights organizing and was welcomed into what she describes as a family of organizers, both undocumented and not.
“The power the undocumented community has is the fact that our entire economy depends on immigrant workers, and we don’t have to ask politicians nicely because they’re not going to do anything,” Adlerstein said.
After she completed the fellowship, Adlerstein moved to Grand Rapids in April 2018 to help organize the local Cosecha branch’s second May Day strike. Adlerstein and Cosecha organizer Gema Lowe met during the weeks leading up to the strike.
“In Cosecha, we have 14 principles and one of them is that it’s not a job; it’s a passion,” said Lowe, who’s lived in Grand Rapids since 1991 after immigrating from Mexico to join her family.
Adlerstein and Lowe worked together on a number of projects during her years in Grand Rapids, including their push to end ICE’s contracts with the Kent County Sheriff’s Office. If an individual was arrested on a non-immigration charge, ICE could previously issue a detainer and ask the jail to hold the accused for up to three days past their release date until ICE officers could begin their case.
After protests at the Kent County Board of Commissioners’ meetings and sites of detainment, the Sheriff’s Office changed their policy and now requires a warrant for ICE to hold those arrested past their release date.
“This politicization of the Holocaust
— Rabbi Eli Mayerfield, CEO,
Holocaust Memorial Center
A Controversial Comparison
While Adlerstein was working with Lowe to make these changes in Grand Rapids, the words “Never Again” and her conversations with her mother came to the front of her mind when Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York first used the words “concentration camps” on June 18, 2019, to describe ICE detention centers on Twitter. In so doing, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez sparked a fiery nationwide debate — and galvanized leftist Jewish activists like Adlerstein, who saw the comparison as powerful and apt.
“The fact that people can be put in detention centers indefinitely with no due process at all is incredibly terrifying, and the slowly creeping level of dehumanization and cruelty is becoming so normal … When is 100 deaths going to turn into 1,000 going to turn into 10,000?” Adlerstein asked.
However, many scholars and Jewish organizations found and continue to see Ocasio-Cortez’s words as not only inaccurate but insensitive and diminishing to the experiences of the victims and survivors of the Holocaust.
In a press release from June 2019, also signed by the heads of five other Holocaust Memorial organizations, the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills wrote that the term should not be used in a partisan discussion.
“The Nazi regime targeted Europe’s Jews for murder. It created a vast forced labor and camp system to exploit Jewish labor before murdering them. Ocasio-Cortez’s inaccurate reference diminishes the inexpressible horror suffered at the hands of Adolf Hitler, the Nazi regime and collaborators, and wrongly equates current U.S. immigration policy with the systematic murder of 6 million Jews and the persecution of millions of others,” the center’s release read.
The center declined the JN’s requests for an interview for this story, but Rabbi Eli Mayerfield, its CEO, sent an updated statement on the movement. “The Holocaust Memorial Center firmly believes all people should be treated humanely with inherent dignity and provided the protection of fundamental human rights. At the same time, it is completely inappropriate and offensive for Never Again Action to use the term ‘concentration camp’ as they are,” Mayerfield said in the statement.
“The disgraceful phenomenon of Holocaust analogies is dangerous and should never be used for political gain or leverage. This politicization of the Holocaust must stop.”
Even Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the Jewish Democratic Socialist and former presidential candidate who has been a huge rallying force for the Jewish left, told CNN in 2019 he doesn’t use “that terminology.”
Judaic Studies scholars such as Hannah Pollin-Galay and David Caron from the University of Michigan see the debate as a matter of cultural memory and how words change over time.
While Pollin-Galay said she is against ICE detention centers and commends Ocasio-Cortez for bringing light to the issue on a national scale, she expressed caution when using terms like “concentration camps,” which are tied to a specific injustice. In her Holocaust Memory class, she starts the semester by asking the students for Holocaust comparisons.
“The two that always come up are abortions and eating meat, and I ask other people in the class, ‘Are those legitimate and can you tell me why not?’ For those that disagree, it’s really hard to describe why it’s wrong,” Pollin-Galay said.
According to Pollin-Galay, Ocasio-Cortez’s comparison falters when it refuses to acknowledge the memory of Holocaust survivors.
“With people’s memories, not just of the Holocaust, but of Holocaust denialism and Holocaust trivialization, I think that the survivor community and their families feel fatigued by constant comparisons,” Pollin-Galay said.
Caron felt similarly to Pollin-Galay about how memory and political rhetoric can distort a word’s original broader meeting. As an AIDS scholar, Caron researches Holocaust comparisons in AIDS activism in the 1980s and ’90s. As in instances where French writer and AIDS victim Hervé Guibert compared his body to an Auschwitz prisoner, Caron said activists, including organizations like Never Again Action, use these metaphors to provoke discussion.
“When activists themselves take on [a war or Holocaust] metaphor, then the meaning changes, and these metaphors were often used by AIDS activists in order to convince people of the magnitude and the injustice of the AIDS epidemic and … also to unite the community,” Caron said. “The meaning changes according to who uses the metaphor.”
The Main Focus?
Seeing this debate overwhelm the mainstream media cycle, Adlerstein said she thought the main focus of the debate — the detention centers themselves — was being obscured.
“What’s happening now is incredibly cruel and wrong. We can spend our days arguing what to call these detention centers or we can say what’s happening now is enough to shut them down,” Adlerstein said.
In response, Adlerstein did what most modern activists do to connect with other activists — she took to Facebook. Recalling her experiences as a young Jew whose grandfather fled Nazi persecution, she made a post on June 24, 2019 calling on Jews to join the immigrant rights movement as allies and shut down detention centers.
Adlerstein said she saw four or five organizers say they were in. That night, Adlerstein and the other organizers were on a group call, and the following night, 30 more activists joined. With those conversations, Never Again Action was formed.
Becca Lubow, an organizer with leftist Jewish group IfNotNow, was part of the first Never Again Action protests during the summer of 2019. On June 30, hundreds of Jewish protesters blocked the entrances to the ICE detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Lubow, one of the 36 Jewish protesters who were arrested at the demonstration, said it was an event she will never forget. She described activists from all over the country traveling to New Jersey to take part in the action.
At the gates of the detention center, Lubow remembers singing a song that her friend put to music based on a poem his grandfather wrote during the Holocaust. The poem reads “Oh my friends, freedom as I see it, is the most beautiful delicate rose.”
“I watched one of the immigrant leaders cry and she said, ‘I’ve always felt really alone doing this work and I don’t feel alone right now,’” Lubow said.
A moment that stood out to Lubow was when the protesters said the Mourner’s Kaddish for those who had died while in ICE custody.
“I had grown up saying it in synagogue and it never felt so raw and powerful to me,” Lubow said.
Thirty to 40 additional actions were staged that summer across the country by Never Again Action and Cosecha. Originally, Adlerstein expected the movement to dissolve after the summer was over. But after conversations with undocumented organizers, she said their work as allies for the immigrant rights movement is far from over, especially given the predictions from organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union that detained migrants are “sitting ducks” for the coronavirus.
Over the past few months, Never Again Action and Cosecha have been organizing car rallies, where demonstrators surround detention centers in their cars to maintain social distancing guidelines and protest the centers.
Lubow said these rallies are necessary to keep up past campaigns while making sure they aren’t putting protestors at risk.
“Releasing people has always been urgent, but now with coronavirus, there’s potential for these camps to become death camps. There’s no way for people inside to protect themselves from coronavirus. There’s no way for them to social distance,” Lubow said.
As Never Again Action and Cosecha continue to work together to support undocumented communities that are disproportionally affected by coronavirus, organizers like Adlerstein and Lubow stress Never Again Action would not have been possible without undocumented activists fighting for decades to protect immigrants’ rights. As Adlerstein works from her home in Maine for Never Again Action as one of its 10 full-time staffers, she said Jews need to be constantly standing up for undocumented rights.
“We really need to be in this fight for the long haul,” Adlerstein said. “We need millions of people to understand the problem.”