(August 12, 2019 / JNS) In the wake of last week’s mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, the debate about the Trump administration’s immigration policies has become more divisive than ever. The fact that the shooter in that atrocity was a racist hater of Hispanics—and opposed both legal and illegal immigration to the United States—has been used by the administration’s critics to blame the president for what happened and to even label supporters of his policies as also being racist.
That kind of invective makes debate about the core issues difficult, if not impossible. Neither side in the discussion about immigration has entirely clean hands. But there is a special responsibility for those who claim to speak for faith to do so in a manner that is not aimed at creating more polarization. And on that ground, the left-wing Jewish activists who spent Tisha B’Av protesting President Donald Trump’s policies failed miserably.
The idea of using Holocaust metaphors as part of arguments about what is going on at America’s southern border is indefensible.
Even if conditions at overcrowded detention facilities for those caught crossing the border illegally are bad, they are not “concentration camps”—a term that is generally used to describe places that were both far worse and also criminal efforts to detain, torture and even kill innocent people. Comparing such places to federal facilities housing people who did break laws passed by Congress is a willful effort to misrepresent the facts and to undermine the unique nature of the Holocaust.
The same goes for the Anne Frank analogies. Migrants who came here illegally, been through the legal process, been ordered out by U.S. courts and now hiding from the authorities have nothing to do with a Jewish girl in the 1940s cowering in an attic with her family for fear of death. It’s possible to sympathize with the desire for a better life in America. But when you recognize that large groups of people are trying to benefit from having broken the law that other immigrants waiting their turn patiently to get into America are following, suddenly they’re not quite so sympathetic.
Equally offensive is the “Never again means never again” slogan of these protesters, who seem to think that enforcing U.S. immigration laws is no different from killing 6 million Jews in cold blood.
The use of these analogies ran amuck in New York over the weekend when some Jewish activists sought to block traffic on the West Side Highway over the issue. Others conducted a sit-in at an Amazon store in order to protest the company’s ties to the Department of Homeland Security while reading from Eicha, the book of Lamentations. That text is traditionally read on Tisha B’Av since it describes the first of the great historical disasters on the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av—the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem and the slaughter of the Jews of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians.
Reportedly, Brad Lander, a New York City councilman who joined some of the demonstrations, compared the Jews protesting efforts of federal authorities to police the border to the White Rose movement, in which a handful of Germans protested the Nazis during World War II. Leaving aside the insufferable arrogance of that pose, it speaks volumes about the delusional nature of his stand that he actually thinks the U.S. government is no different from the murderous regime of Adolf Hitler.
Such absurd charges are bad enough when they come from a politician. For some of the protesters who were with him to be using the rituals and liturgy of Judaism in order to make the same point was actually far worse.
Judaism has both universalist and parochial elements. But Tisha B’Av is not an empty metaphor into which one can pour arguments about any issue of concern. It is a date on which some of the worst catastrophes in Jewish history have occurred, including the genocidal slaughters of Jews in the wars in which both the First and Second Temples were destroyed. To use it as a prop in order to protest a situation that—however you feel about what should be done at the border—is nowhere near the seriousness of those events is profoundly offensive.
By injecting the language of Tisha B’Av not merely about mourning, but to describe the not entirely reasonable and lawful actions of both ICE and DHS to enforce the law as indistinguishable from the horrifying atrocities described in Lamentations, these demonstrators are only inflaming communal strife.
In depicting the debate about immigration as one in which those who seek to uphold the rule of law and to defend U.S. sovereignty are no better than Babylonians, Romans, Nazis or contemporary mass killers, Trump’s critics are effectively foreclosing a necessary debate about the issue.
Doing so ignores the primary lesson of Tisha B’Av, which calls for avoiding sinat chinam—the “baseless hatred” tradition tells us led to the fall of Jerusalem.
What they are doing is using rhetoric that demonizes opponents and that consciously distorts the issues in such a way as to erase all distinctions between actual hate crimes and a mere defense of the law or idea of border security. Sadly, the self-righteous Jewish Tisha B’Av protesters were exhibiting the sort of discourse that they deplore when used by Trump. Yet by draping their anger at Trump and his supporters in the trappings of Judaism and its saddest day, they are recreating the exact sort of behavior Jewish scholars have warned against for two millennia.
Their offenses do not excuse Trump’s own rhetorical excesses or mean that we shouldn’t have a debate about an issue on which Jews have traditionally advocated more liberal laws. However, debate is not possible when conducted on such terms.
It is disturbing when Judaism is reduced to a political prop. But it is a disgrace to use the symbols, liturgy and history of the Jews in order to delegitimize fellow Americans who merely disagree about immigration, sending the country spiraling further into the abyss of division and hate.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.