In September 2019, 36 protesters were arrested for blocking access to a road near a New Jersey immigrant detention facility. They held signs with Hebrew writing on them, and marched together, protesting the holding of detainees within the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility.
The protesters were from Never Again Action, a Jewish political action organization. The organization name is a twist on the phrase usually said in reference to the Holocaust: “Never Again.”
There has been a long and varied history of Jewish protest in America. For as long as there have been American Jews, there have been American Jews who have spoken out against perceived injustices and demanded change. In the great boom of factory work in the early 1900s, Jewish employees protested in support of workers in the garment industry.
The spirit of Jewish protest was captured in April 2017, when more than 30 protesters arrested in downtown Los Angeles, including several rabbis. Leaders of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths marched towards Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Detention Cente . They stopped at the Federal Building, demanding an end to the deportation of illegal immigrants. Joined together on the third day of Passover, they celebrated the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and demanded a similar freedom for the immigrants in the detention center. Said Rabbi Danny Mehlan, the spiritual leader of Ner Tamid of Downey, Calif., and a native of Argentina and Israel: “One of the points of the seder is to increase awareness. Indifference is the enemy of awareness, of action, and that’s what’s needed.”
One of the largest Jewish protests movements responded to the oppression of Soviet Jewry, who were unable to live freely or openly practice their Judaism. This movement began in the 1960s when organizations like the Union of Councils on Soviet Jewry began making contact with Jewish activists in the USSR and leading protests. The 1970s saw Soviet Jews emigrating in larger numbers, and huge protests in America, often in New York City where the crowds numbered 100,000 people. The issue of Soviet Jewry became personal to many American Jews, and the sheer force of these determinations fueled the protest held at the White House in December of 1987, where over 250,000 protesters gathered to demand that the Soviet Jews be released. Within three years, hundreds of thousands of Jews flowed out of Russia and into America and Israel.
Jews continued participating in protests throughout the mid and late-20th century against issues such as the Vietnam War or in favor of issues like women’s rights. Indeed, it could be said that Jews have been a part of all of the significant protests and cultural waves in America’s history. The necessity of protest was articulated beautifully by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. In response to Jewish leaders who were concerned that anti-Nazi protests might negatively affect American Jewry, he said, “The time for prudence and caution is past…How can we ask our Christian friends to lift their voices in protest against the wrongs suffered by Jews if we keep silent? … What is happening in Germany today may happen tomorrow in any other land on earth unless it is challenged and rebuked. It is not the German Jews who are being attacked. It is the Jews.”
These past few years have been ones of tremendous social and political upheaval. Aside from the various political factors that contributed to the past years’ polarization and turmoil, there has also been incredible empowerment and action. Every individual seems to have a cause, an issue, or an injustice to right. An extremely prevalent issue is climate change. Young people across the country have risen to tackle climate change and urge national leaders to cut down on carbon emissions and transition away from fossil fuels. Unique about the fight for climate justice, is that some of its most visible leaders are teenagers. They lead huge marches and tote signs like “Mother Nature is Crying” and “Speak Now! Or Drown Later!”
Amidst the coronavirus pandemic in May, George Floyd’s murder prompted nation-wide protests demanding racial justice. Many of these protests have persisted even months after the incident itself. Additionally, there are protests in America demanding an end to Covid-19 mask requirements and the re-opening of the US economy. This increase in Americans marching and demanding change has changed this seven month-long quarantine from one of quiet restriction to one of movement, action, and activism.
Orthodox Jews in New York have gained national attention for a variety of protests in recent weeks and months. In June, chasidic Jews in Crown Heights protested George Floyd’s murder; a sea of black hats and long skirts accompanying signs reading, “The opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference,” which is a quote from Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. The protesters called the death of George Floyd not a human rights issue but a halachic issue, an issue of Jewish law. They joined with openly gay members of the Chasidic community to voice their solidarity with their Carribean and African-American neighbors in Crown Heights. This show of solidarity and unity surprised many.
More recently, Orthodox Jews in New York have protested the new mask and social distancing guidelines. They burned masks in a show of anger against the new restrictions, and claims of violence and assault accompanied the protest. The demonstrations drew national attention; a culmination of growing national hostility towards masks and restrictive coronavirus guidelines.
The culture of civic engagement and disobedience that is so intertwined with modern life and politics has been a part of the Jewish narrative since the very beginning. Shifrah and Puah were Egyptian midwives who refused to kill baby boys, despite the command of Pharoah. Korach was swallowed by the earth for leading a protest against Moses. Daniel was cast into the lion’s den for civil disobedience. Esther stood up against Achashverosh and spoke for her people.
Protesting is a right and a responsibility that Gen Z and Millenials have taken on whole-heartedly. It has mobilized and inspired young Americans in the past few years in an exceptional way. Protesting is fundamentally Jewish. It is the idea of using one’s voice in the pursuit of justice in a way that builds people up and doesn’t tear them down. Protesting has become widespread because of the need to make marginalized voices heard, and it has done just that. It is an integral part not only of our democracy but of our American and Jewish history. For the sake of our country, I hope it stays that way.