Jewish Groups Stepping Up Fight Against Zero Tolerance


As President Trump escalates his rhetoric on undocumented immigrants, saying that those crossing the country’s southern border should be deported immediately without due process or a judicial hearing, Jewish organizations opposed to his zero-tolerance policy are intensifying their activities, up to and including the possibility of civil disobedience.

The civil disobedience may take place in San Diego, where a group of 10 or 15 rabbis led by the pluralistic advocacy group T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights is planning to join a “full-day, multifaceted mobilization” near the border, as it was described in one email. A spokeswoman for Mijente, the immigrant-led movement organizing the July 2 mobilization, said the day will involve some form of civil disobedience.

Other Jewish organizations have also stepped up their efforts, despite the president’s executive order to end the separation of children and parents, a directive they feel is far less significant than many Americans believe.

“It’s mainly a shift from the separation of families to the wholesale detention of families,” said Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block, Washington director of Bend the Arc: Jewish Action. “What we’re talking about is the criminalization of all undocumented immigrants,” including many asylum-seekers.

Since the June 20 executive order, T’ruah organized what some of its leaders called a “moral minyan” in Lower Manhattan to protest Trump’s treatment of undocumented immigrants. Held last week outside the New York office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, the gathering drew hundreds of Jews from across the religious spectrum and featured several rabbis and one elected official among its speakers.

The elected official, City Councilman Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn), told protesters that the Torah’s commandments require Jews to “show up” at such moments as this, when children and families are placed in cages inside detention centers. Employing a phrase used by Jewish activists in reference to the Holocaust, Lander said Jews have to “make sure that ‘never again’ means ‘never again.’”

Meanwhile, on the same day as the rally, about 10 rabbis organized by T’ruah, the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association joined 40 other interfaith leaders in the border town of McAllen, Texas.

The clerics planned to visit a family detention center in McAllen, but they weren’t allowed to enter once they arrived, said participant Rabbi Jill Jacobs, T’ruah’s executive director. But they did visit a respite center operated by Catholic Charities for migrant families who have been released from detention and are headed to the homes of relatives elsewhere in the country.

“Those are the lucky ones,” Rabbi Jacobs said, adding that the families are primarily asylum-seekers. Other religious leaders who met those families in McAllen included the Rev. Al Sharpton and Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center. Despite their differences, Rabbi Jacobs said, they all went there with the same purpose in mind: “to witness what was happening at the border, to report back to our communities” and to show the migrants that they haven’t been forgotten.

All those organizations are also urging members and supporters to attend major rallies this Saturday in Washington and in more than 130 other cities across the country. Part of a “Families Belong Together” national day of action, the events are being sponsored by such advocacy groups as MoveOn, the Human Rights Campaign and the American Civil Liberties Union. The New York gathering will meet at Foley Square in Lower Manhattan and march across the Brooklyn Bridge to Cadman Plaza.

Most of the Jewish organizations opposed to the president’s immigration policies are calling for the same things: the reunification of families that have been separated; the end of family detention; and a fair chance for refugees to seek asylum, as required by international law. But Bend the Arc is also calling for the abolition of ICE, which “has acted as a rogue agency,” said Rabbi Kimelman-Block.

Some of those demands are what lead conservatives to wonder if progressives favor open borders, said Jonathan Tobin, editor-in-chief of the Jewish News Syndicate and a contributing writer for the National Review (he also has a monthly column in The Jewish Week).

“In the last few weeks, we’ve discovered the rather unremarkable fact that the vast majority of Americans — left, right, Democrat, Republican — find gratuitous cruelty intolerable,” said Tobin referring to the president’s family-separation policy. “Beyond that, though, the question for me is what to do with illegal immigration.”

Tobin sees the need for a “broad fix of the immigration system,” one that would make the process of legal immigration less onerous and fairer. But treating undocumented immigrants as if they have the right to enter the country legally, as he believes many progressives want, or equating them with Jews who fled the Holocaust worsens the prospects of any kind of compromise.

Addressing the issue of asylum, which most Central Americans at the border are now claiming, Tobin said that “not everyone” living in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador “is on a death list for gangs. … I don’t believe it’s reasonable to assert that everyone wanting to come here from Latin America is coming here because of gang violence.” He’d also favor amnesty for undocumented immigrants already in the country, but only if it’s accompanied by measures ensuring that it won’t be followed by the arrival of another 11 million unauthorized migrants.

Those arguments don’t sit well with those in the Jewish community who are supporting the migrants.

“Most people in the world don’t want to leave their family, their community and their country to move somewhere else,” Rabbi Jacobs said. Those who have left their countries and have traveled 2,000 miles with their children to get here are desperate, just as the ancestors of many Jews were, and the United States has an “obligation” to hear their claims, both morally and under international law.

“What you hear from the right is, ‘Oh, they should just get in line,’” said Kimelman-Block. But “that’s a myth,” he said. “There’s no line. … Many Americans who don’t have direct experience with today’s immigration system have no idea how restrictive and draconian it is.” The rabbi said that waiting lists are chronically long, with some people waiting for as long as 20 or more years to hear back from U.S. officials.

As for detaining undocumented immigrants, Kimelman-Block said alternatives to detention have been tried by ICE in the past and have proven enormously effective. In fact, he said, the program had compliance rates of up to 99 percent in regard to court appearances, ICE appointments and even deportation orders.

Whatever the arguments for and against detention, opposition to Trump’s immigration policies seems to have catapulted the fortunes of T’ruah, which is now seen by many as a major player on the left and a moral voice of the community.

Its emergence as a key group among Jews who care about human rights came across in a conversation with Joseph Michael Varon, 68, a resident of West Hempstead, L.I., who calls himself committed to both “Hashem” (God) and social justice. Despite his involvement in both the Jewish community and in liberal causes, Varon told The Jewish Week after last week’s rally that he only recently heard of the group. But he’s planning to pay attention to them now and he’s grateful to the organization for organizing the gathering.

Some people may believe that T’ruah has been on the fringes until now. But Rabbi Jacobs sees things differently.

Since T’ruah’s creation in 2002, she said, “we’ve built up an infrastructure of 2,000 rabbis,” allowing the organization to hit the ground running after the 2016 election of Trump. “We have the right partners; we have the right people in place; and we have the moral authorities of rabbis and our tradition.”

She also said that Americans “are now responding particularly to the moral voice of religious leaders. We’re in a battle for the soul of the United States, of Israel and of the Jewish community, and T’ruah has been able to respond to the moment.”

One member of T’ruah who has benefited from her association with the group is Rabbi Yael Ridberg of Congregation Dor Hadash, a Reconstructionist congregation in the San Diego area.

Formerly the spiritual leader of West End Synagogue on the Upper West Side, Rabbi Ridberg said rabbis in New York often take for granted the number of socially involved Jewish organizations. “Everyone can find their niche in where you sit within the political spectrum,” she said. But outside of New York, being connected to a group like T’ruah “has helped me be a more engaged rabbi, a more engaged Jew, a more engaged human being.”

“Pick one,” she said, “they’re all important.”