Staying Engaged & Finding Focus

There is so much news it’s hard to focus. And, it’s hard to maintain focus. But, let’s be honest, this is just part of the strategy: distraction and disinformation. Part of my #30daysofaction is a resistance to the chaos of the current administration. By focusing on one issue – family separation and the plight of asylum seekers at the US/Mexico border – I’m trying to cut down on the distortion. Maintaining that focus is difficult. I wrote last week about the emotional struggle to stay deeply engaged in the human rights abuses of this government and recognize that they are being done in my name, with my tax dollars, and with the silent consent of so many Americans. But, it’s also hard to dig in deeply because other issues should also demand my attention.

Even if I overlook the minute to minute coverage of the Mueller investigation and recent set of indictments and the Congressional battle with the FBI, I am still compelled to consider the impact of Holocaust memory around the world, the failure of postwar norms, from the standards of Human Rights to the possible collapse of Western political alliances. For these issues alone, the last two weeks have been rough: Claude Lanzmann died; Trump threatened to pull out of NATO and decried immigration as the end of culture; the Israeli Prime Minister supported Holocaust revisionism in a statement that had to be rebuked by Yad Vashem; and a Holocaust denier is on the ballot in the Bay Area.

So, by way of processing the chaos of the moment and to reflect on my own engagement in the past 2 weeks, here’s what I’ve been reading and listening to. And, because it remains essential, below are a few points of inspiration and optimism.

Reminder: The Migrant Family Separation Crisis IS NOT OVER. Stay loud, stay angry.

To catch up and keep track of the numbers, read this article from Elle Magazine. It’s a reminder that the deadline for reuniting young children with their parents has passed and that only half of the children were reunited. If the government did such a bad job with a small number of children, how will they manage to reunite thousands more?!

Sady Doyle, “The Trump Administration Wants You to Think the Migrant Family Separation Crisis Is Over. It Isn’t.Elle Magazine

“Anna Tarkov, Media and Communications Director of Families Belong Together, says that immigration advocates expect the second deadline to be blown just like the first. She attributes the mess of reunification to the Trump administration’s sheer disregard for the human cost of its policies.

‘The administration, by its own admission, never intended to reunify these families,” Tarkov says. “[There] was no system in place whatsoever to reunify these families and a number of parents have already been deported while their children remain in the US. I haven’t seen this stated as plainly as it should be anywhere in the media coverage of this crisis: the Trump Administration ripped children from their families and had no intention of returning them.’”


MUST READ: A bold, honest, and biting editorial from the Salt Lake City Tribune  

Tribune editorial: “Our treatment of refugee children is a national disgrace

Among other incredibly straight forward statements, the editorial states: “It can be hard for normal people to grasp that their own government — and its individual agents, officers and attorneys — is involved in a heartless and brainless effort to visit so much deliberate cruelty upon asylum-seeking families. We are separating the children from the parents, depositing them in different places, apparently in sometimes squalid, frightening and sealed-off facilities, expecting children as young as 1 year old to explain themselves and their situation in court and not allowing members of Congress or other independent overseers to check up on what is happening…If you want to make people believe a lie, the experts taught us, make it big.”

Not enough? Hang on for this: “This is the kind of behavior that, when carried out by non-superpowers, gets people hauled before the International Criminal Court or some special war crimes tribunal.” Most damning is their recognition that all we can hope for is action from congress who has chosen not to act.


Contemporary events need not be Auschwitz to find meaning in Holocaust History. History matters. But, let’s resist the urge to simplify.

Despite the ongoing debate about whether we should be using the Holocaust as a meaningful reference for our current political and human rights atrocities, the history of Nazi Germany remains valuable. Current events need not be directly analogous to the past to make this historical period relevant. In a recent interview, Richard J. Evans, the author of The Third Reich in History and Memory (among other books about Nazi Germany), notes that “it’s very dangerous simply to think in historical parallels.” Nonetheless, a nuanced and thoughtful engagement with history can reveal “echoes” that help us better understand the potential consequences of our contemporary world.

Isaac Chotiner, “Democracy Dies in a Variety of Ways,” Slate

The entire interview is worth a read, but I’m struck, in particular, by two things he says – one, that in many ways the Right wing political leaders of today are in many ways more legitimate than Hitler because they were elected “by majorities of the electorate who approve of their policies.” Evans states: “We have to deal with the situation as it is now, and we have to recognize that democracy dies in a variety of different ways, and it’s not going to die in a coup d’état or through the use of mass violence on the streets. One of the problems, perhaps the fundamental problem of democracy today, is that the mass of the electorate, millions of people in the electorate, are disillusioned. Hitler only ever achieved 37.4 percent of the vote in a free election, but Erdogan, Orbán, and the Polish government, for example, have been elected by majorities of the electorate who approve of their policies. I know Trump lost the popular vote, but he was elected when it was clear that he was no friend of democracy. So that’s the situation we have to deal with. And that is: In some ways, democracy is dying bit by bit. It’s not going to be overwhelmed in some kind of violent seizure of power that happens in a few months.”

And, two, the global nature of his analysis that traces echoes of fascism in today’s right wing political leaders. We must continue to view Trump and Trumpism alongside political movements in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere: “The warning signs now will be different from the warning signs then…If you want to look for warning signs in a leading politician, then that’s easy. You can say contempt for the judiciary and an assault on the independence of the judiciary, and the belief that government can control it, and government is above the law. You can see the warning sign when a leader wants to close down a free press, and that’s already happened to a large extent in Hungary. Opposition newspapers have been closed. The same thing happens in Putin’s Russia. And Mr. Trump has declared his hostility toward the press, but he doesn’t have the means to do it. He’s not able to close down the Washington Post or the New York Times as the Nazis closed down newspapers. You can see it in irresponsible and aggressive nationalist belligerence in foreign policy. Again, Hitler did not believe in international institutions. He got Germany out of the League of Nations. He regarded international treaties as pieces of paper that would be torn up when he wanted to. And again, you can see in Mr. Trump a certain amount of contempt for international institutions and the belief that America should leave them.”


When did Lawyers become the front line of the resistance? 

Gabe Cahn, “Being an Immigration Attorney in the Age of Trump
A story about one immigration lawyer racing to protect one client. In the face of so many asylum cases, this one story reveals the difficulty of navigating the system and the power of lawyers to act creatively. “For anyone who practices immigration law, and in particular Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, this case shows the power of creative, rebellious lawyering,” said Megan Jordi Brody, HIAS’ managing attorney. “In this new world of immigration law,” she continued, “attorneys are having to make some really creative arguments on behalf of their minor clients.”


And, some inspiration:

Julie Orringer, “What Alec Baldwin Taught My Son about Political Activism,” NYT
In Brooklyn, one mom finds a way to talk to her kid about our world and why our voices matter. It’s a reminder that what we say matters, so are we saying what we want other people to hear?

The Emotional Challenge of Engagement

On day 15 of my #30daysofaction, I’m taking stock, reflecting on the work I’ve done and recommitting to the next 15 days. I am deeply relieved that I have made this commitment because it’s difficult and I see how easy it would be to turn away. My mind and body are looking for escape, to turn away from the news. I wish I could not read the letters mothers write from detention or the legal statements made by attorneys, immigrants, and non-profit leaders about the trauma of family separation or the lasting trauma separated children face because of our government’s policies. But, I can’t. Yes, because I’ve committed to engaging for 30 days. But, more, because we should all remain attentive. We must continue to pay attention to the cruel immigration policies that inflict terror on people seeking refuge in our country and on the daily policy changes and directives that are seeking to reorient the norms of our country.

So, in thinking back on the last 2 weeks, it’s important for me to note that just being engaged – reading deeply and with empathy – feels like taking action; it is hard and requires commitment. In general, taking action every day feels harder than I thought it would. Have I been so apathetic that any form of engagement is difficult? Or, is it because I have made this commitment and decided to make public my actions that I feel I must do something new and meaningful each day?

Perhaps most difficult of all is finding and maintaining a sense of optimism or hope. Last week’s action of marching in one of thousands of #FamilliesBelongTogether events was a comfort. It was a reminder that many of us are moved to action over this issue. It was a reminder that communities can come together to amplify our voices and say no, we are better than this. And while the strength and scale of these marches serves as a marker for American opposition to the inhumane policies of this administration, it does not reunite families separated across state – or national – borders. It does not give these children back the security of their parents. It does not shift the needle on so many other policy changes, reversals, and assertions that denigrate immigrants, deny people their rights, and assert chaos in the world.

And yet, what kind of action could do that? I admire all of the people running for office – who maintain faith and optimism that we can still move in the right direction. But, I am not feeling so optimistic.

Today, on July 4, I am looking for comfort in the ideals of this country and in the long history of actions that “bends toward justice.”[1]  I recommit to the next 15 days of action and will continue to struggle with the difficulty of being an engaged citizen; of fighting for progress and supporting those who do so on the ground in so many different ways. I am open to new modes of action and will continue to seek ways to do so with greater impact.

Thus far, my actions have consisted of: (1) Reading and listening to new voices. Going well beyond the headline and tracing ideas and policies to scholarly or primary documents; (2) Marching in the Santa Cruz #FamiliesBelongTogether protest with my family to teach my daughter that democracy looks like collective action; (3) Sending material goods to Texas through the Religious Action Committee (connected to the Reform Judaism movement). This includes engaging my local community to collect more materials to send; (4) Donating small amounts of money to a range of organizations. I have given both to those I have long supported and a number of new organizations. I’m listing the organizations I’ve supported thus far below.

On reflection, I can see how this giving history mirrors my political and personal priorities: I have long felt committed to working through Jewish organizations and to giving related to refugees. In the wake of the 2016 election and the legal challenges to the Muslim Ban, I began supporting ACLU and continue to do so now. In the last 2 weeks, I have contributed to a number of new organizations as well – those on the ground along the US/Mexico border who are working with asylum seekers to get a fair hearing, understand and navigate the immigration system, find their children, or settle into new lives. And, I have been contributing to media organizations that hold the government as well as the media industry accountable.

In the weeks ahead, will I continue to support these organizations and likely find others to support. I will also seek ways to find inspiration more regularly – there are so many people doing good, active, bold, and meaningful work. And, it’s essential to find light in this darkness.

Donations made since starting #30daysofaction




[1] Martin Luther King, “Where Do We Go From Here” speech, delivered August 16, 1967, Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta.


Sacrifice, Action & the Importance of Giving

Adele Levy in Battle for Survival, 1945 (JDC)

Let me start with some historical context: At the December 1945 United Jewish Appeal conference, Jewish leaders from across the country and across political differences joined together to set the fundraising agenda for 1946. This would be the first full year of fundraising after the end of the war and money was urgently needed. Surviving Jews in Europe were scattered in Displaced Persons camps. They needed aid that could only come from America to find lost relatives, clothe and feed themselves, find temporary housing, and, ultimately, immigration options.

The import of the 1945 session was not lost on those in attendance. They set forth a $100,000,000 campaign – an unheard of, unprecedented, “ridiculous” amount – that UJA managed to exceed in 1946.[1] The leaders also filmed parts of the conference, using the recordings in fundraising materials to support the “Year of Survival” campaign. The resulting film, “Battle for Survival,” was narrated by Orson Welles and made the case for extraordinary giving by juxtaposing images of Jews in Europe with speeches from the conference. The images are striking and moving, but it’s the lone female voice in the film that echoes for me today.

In her speech at the central event of the conference, Adele Levy, Chairman of the UJA National Women’s Council, underscored the urgency of UJA’s work. But, what resonates for me now is her plea for sacrifice. She declares: “Not one of us, including myself has ever made one real sacrifice for this cause. Some of us have felt very good.  Some of us have felt that we have given generously…Has one of us sacrificed something that we really wanted in a material sense? For these are suffering, bleeding, starving persecuted people. And I think the answer is no.[2]

The images from detention centers around the U.S. are not that different than the images of DP camps where Holocaust survivors awaited immigration. They are images of children wearing ragged clothes, of men and women carrying loose bundles seeking refuge. When I see those images, I hear Levy asking: have we sacrificed enough? Have I, in fact, sacrificed anything? What have I lacked because I chose instead to aid those in need?

Levy stands in front of her community – the only woman to do so at that conference – and calls for greater action. She calls on the leaders of the UJA and on each individual American Jew to dig deeper. She asks that they convert their anger, frustration, and sadness into funds. She asks that they support the work of the JDC and the UPA and the National Refugee Service because they had the infrastructure and experience to do the work that needed to be done.[3]

Today, it is not Jews knocking at the gates of America demanding freedom and opportunity, but I am still responsible. I must still ask if I have sacrificed enough for those seeking refuge from violence and persecution.

And, so, Levy’s voice echoes across 70 years. As she knew then, of course the answer is no. I have not sacrificed enough; I have barely sacrificed at all. But, these are still “suffering, bleeding…persecuted people” and there is more to be done. I have started by activating my community to get involved, to march and give. And, I have listened to Levy’s call: I have given financially to organizations I believe in as a way to amplify the resources I have to give.

I am grateful to individuals and organizations that continue to act in big, public, impactful ways. To the celebrities who use their platforms to inspire others. To the leaders and lawyers who are working to get children released from detention centers and reunited with their families.

But, those public acts do not make seemingly small financial donations meaningless. Even small donations are essential. Just as Levy recognized in the wake of the Holocaust – the only analogue we have for the scale of the refugee crisis today – financial donations from Americans across the country enable experts to do their work. They provide salaries for staff, travel costs for individual refugees, funds for material goods like blankets, clothes, shoes, operating costs, and more. The organizations we all support are built to do this work. They have forged relationships, expertise, understanding, and workflows. The leaders who run these institutions likely hoped the scale would never reach today’s reality – but they are built for these moments. And, our work is to support them. To give them funds to keep going.

Small donations also function as a barometer of public outcry. Accumulated gifts of only a few dollars demonstrate the reach of an organization. It is not only the financial total that matters as battles are waged on the ground and in the media. The number of donors, just like the number of calls and letters that fill the offices of elected officials, embolden any effort. They strengthen arguments by demonstrating communal support. Small donations are your votes in the politics of civil society.

I had a conversation recently with a young women who felt – as many of us do – discouraged and disheartened by recent immigration policies. She said that she was doing the very least she could by donating small amounts to a few organizations. She is in her first job out of college, working as a contractor – without job security. So, she was using what resources she had to say no more; to say, I will not stand for this. This is not the “very least” she could do. Giving money as a way to voice our values is not nothing; it is not “least.” It is often exactly what organizations need – because who will train armies of volunteers or sort mountains of donated goods? I tried to reassure this young woman that making financial donations – even if they feel easy because they have been rendered seamless online – is a meaningful form of activism.

Of course, I’m trying to reassure myself as well. In light of Levy’s call to sacrifice, I am struggling. I’m struggling to act publicly in a way that comports to my values and employs my historical training. I’m struggling to be present for my family while still enraged by the separation of migrant families and so many others. I’m struggling to do more and still show up for my job and my life. So, am I sacrificing? Maybe not. But, I’m acting. And I’m choosing to take another thread of Levy’s call to heart: I am acting within the institutions that I trust. I’m donating to a handful of organizations – local, national, and international – that have proven they will do this work. They have been doing it for years and will continue to do so when our collective attention has moved on. Perhaps we – as a country – are losing faith in the institutions of government, but I have not lost faith in the institutions of civil society. They were crafted in the spaces between government reach and they will continue to do the work to fill in the gaps of our government and the moral failures of our political leaders.




[1] Henry Montor, executive vice chairman of UJA, recalled the idea of a $100,000,000 goal sounding “ridiculous.” Quoted in Marc Lee Raphael, A history of the United Jewish Appeal, 1939-1982, (Chico, Calif: Scholars Press, 1982), 21.

[2] Battle for Survival, RKO Pathe Inc, 1946, Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, RG-60.2521, Film ID, 2293. Copyright. American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

[3] The United Jewish Appeal was, and remains, an umbrella organization. Funds raised through UJA support a range of Jewish organizations and efforts. In 1946, the three main recipients of UJA funds were The Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the United Palestine Appeal (UPA), and the National Refugee Service (NRS). In 1946 – after this meeting – the NRS merged with the Service to the Foreign Born Department of the National Council of Jewish Women to create the United Service for New Americans. In 1954, the organization merged with HIAS.


Listening, Learning & Honoring the Press

Today I was planning on sharing what I have been reading to learn and engage over the past 2 weeks. And, I believe strongly that a commitment to reading, listening and learning is a form of action. But, after yesterday’s shooting at the Capital Gazette, if feels even more important to publicly support the press. To stand up for a free, vibrant, and active press and recognize the bravery and consistent dedication of journalists. So, I’m donating to On the Media today and, through them, supporting WNYC. I am in awe of the journalists at the Capital Gazette that got their paper out in the wake of trauma and tragedy. Thank you to the journalists who continue to do their best and seek truth at an unprecedented pace.


But, today, I am also reflecting on the way that my commitment to action has also been a commitment to re-engaging with the news and the issues at stake after a period of shying away from twitter. In an effort to safeguard my day to day mental energy for work and family and writing, I had minimized my news time. I was reading headlines, ignoring twitter completely, and opting to read the magazine instead of the A section when the NYT comes to our door (yes, we still subscribe to a newspaper!). But, no more. It is my responsibility to be aware and knowledgeable. It is on me to read beyond the headline, to better understand the context and consequences of policy decisions, supreme court rulings, political campaigns, and more.

Now, the more I read, the more I realize that what I was turning away not from the day to day anxieties of the news cycle, but was a sustained outrage; a consistent frustration, anger, and sadness. So, this post is to account for what was behind and a part of my actions over the past two weeks. Here is what I have been reading and listening to. How I have been learning more about the issues I feel most palpably at the moment. And, because I find it essential – also where I have found inspiration.


Child Separation, Detention, + Immigration Policy

MUST SEE! Torn Apart / Separados

“A rapidly deployed critical data & visualization intervention in the USA’s 2018 “Zero Tolerance Policy” for asylum seekers at the US Ports of Entry and the humanitarian crisis that has followed.” This project is the best example of what Digital Humanities can and should be. Using digital skills and methods, a collaborative team of scholars, librarians, and PhD students, visualized the scope of immigration enforcement across the US. The top level takeaway: ICE is everywhere. Also, the border is everywhere. The act of exploring this map is one of revelation: how has the system of US immigration  been so pervasive without acknowledgement or attention? This was built in a week. I can’t even imagine the kinds of impact it will have as it grows.

Emily Dreyfus from Wired covered the project on June 25: “‘ICE is Everywhere’: Using Library Science to Map the Separation Crisis.” As Dreyfus notes, “The result of their week of frantic research is Torn Apart / Separados, an interactive web site that visualizes the vast apparatus of immigration enforcement in the US, and broadly maps the shelters where children can be housed. The name is meant to evoke not only the families who have been separated, but the way in which this sundering rips the social fabric of our country.” The article is also the best justification (not that it needs one) for Digital and Experimental Humanities.


MUST LISTEN! On the Media Podcast: Chaos Agents

I listened to this podcast episode to learn more about the “repatriation” of an estimated 1 million people of Mexican descent in the 1930s. I wasn’t familiar with this episode in history and was appalled (but not entirely surprised) to learn that 60 percent of the people deported were American Citizens – many of them children of immigrant parents. In the episode, Francisco Balderrama, a history and Chicano studies professor at California State University Los Angeles and the co-author of Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s, describes the rhetoric used to justify the unconstitutional deportations in the 1930s. The language used in the 1930s echoes calls for mass deportations in the US today.

But, I was moved by another part of the episode: a short interview with Dahlia Lithwick, writer for Slate and host of Amicus – a podcast about the Supreme Court. Two things she’s said have stuck in my head since. First, she criticized social media for being a place for where people feel the illusion of action – we click like and feel the illusion of action. Here, I disagree. I think sharing our thoughts and our actions with our own networks is important. It is how we assert our priorities publicly. It is how we can rally our communities and find people who share our concerns. Certainly, we must act beyond social media. We must find ways to enact our values and our social commitments in the real – not the virtual – world. But, we should not write off social media as “arm chair activism.” We should, instead, remember the work of previous generations to host salon style fundraisers and to engage their networks, neighbors, families in the work of organizations. We have moved this work online and we have created virtual space for these connections. But it is no less real and valid. Can we do more to look outside our own echo chambers? Yes. Should we aim to engage in dialogue instead of diatribe? Yes. Can we approach social media platforms as spaces for this hard work? Yes. We should and we must. 

Second, she said, “I look at my kids and I think, they just cannot, cannot grow up in the world where people are hearing a president say that we are infested  with immigrants. So yes, I am so poorly constructed for this, but I think I gotta do it anyway.” This is exactly how I feel and exactly what is motivating this small little #30daysofaction project. I have to do something. And, if I’m not constructed for it, I have to try anyway.


Must Read: One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps
Not ready to commit to a whole book about Concentration camps? Listen to the Trumpcast Podcast: “Detained Without Trial: a History of Concentration Camps,” Slate

Jamelle Bouie talks to Andrea Pitzer,  author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps. Pitzer offers necessary context for the debate about whether and how we can compare detention centers on the US/Mexican border to concentration camps. Recognizing that concentration camps have a global history offers a more comprehensive approach to comparison. In other words, Pitzer offers the essential intervention: Auschwitz, and in fact the entire Nazi system of concentration and extermination camps, are no the only model for state detention. 

Bouie and Pitzer also discuss the rhetoric around detention centers and the justification to hold people without trial. This interview is a model for understanding the importance of history and how we approach historical analogues to our contemporary moment.



Charlie Savage, “Korematsu, Notorious Supreme Court Ruling on Japanese Internment, Is Finally Tossed Out” New York Times, June 26

“The Korematsu ruling, an exceedingly rare modern example in which the court explicitly upheld government discrimination against an entire category of people based upon a trait like race or ethnicity, traced back to the early days after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II…Years later, as World War II receded and the civil rights movement unfolded, that policy — and the Supreme Court ruling upholding it — became widely seen as wrong. In 1982, a congressional commission called the policy a “grave injustice” that stemmed from “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” In a concurrence, the government said “the decision in Korematsu lies overruled in the court of history.””


Mark Philip Bradley, “Human Rights in the Era of Trump,” AHA Today

More historians weighing in on the Trump moment: “Perhaps even more surprisingly, the reluctance of the American state to fully embrace global human rights is mirrored in contemporary civil society. Most of the major American social movements of the last decade—among them the Occupy protests, the Fair Immigration Movement, the Fight for $15, the Marriage Equality Movement, and Black Lives Matter—took primary inspiration from alternative political and moral lexicons. In their challenges to the mounting chasm in wealth and income between the top one percent of Americans and the rest, the mass incarceration of African Americans, escalating detentions and deportations of immigrants, and growing racial disparities in policing, education, and income, these movements could have turned to the language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its promises of universal guarantees to economic and social rights, to free movement, and to live without racial and gender discrimination. Even though at times they have made rhetorical gestures to the lexicon of human rights, their energies and tactics on the ground have operated largely around a domestic space in which structural arguments about economics and race at home are more believable than oppositional political discourses that draw on global human rights norms and practices.”



Aryeh Cohen, On Humanity and the Rule of Law

“But this is not a story about one demonstration and the civil disobedience that followed it…this is not a story about a multifaith action in protest of the separation of families…This is a story about a Salvadoran diplomat who had no reason to care about the fate of the Jews of Europe except for the fact that they were fellow human beings. That connection led to the rescue of over 10,000 Jewish souls. This is also a story about the connections that are made between humans in this amazingly diverse city, and the caring that can come from paying attention to those connections.”


And, the words and commitment of those who have been fighting this battle for so long. There is no time for despair.
John Lewis #goodtrouble

Weekend Activism

This weekend, my commitment to action continued. But, I am also committed to my family and being together. Could I turn away from Twitter, from the news? Could I put my toddler to bed without hearing the cries of other children going to bed without the comfort of their mothers and fathers? Here’s what I came up with.


DAY 4:

I collected goods from our house today – toys and blankets and toiletries (both new and gently used) – and sent them to a Reform Synagogue in McAllen, TX. It was a way to contribute tangible goods to detainees and separated families and also to demonstrate to my daughter how we can act in the service of others. She helped me fold blankets and pack them in a box. (To be fair, she did more unpacking of boxes than packing.) And, we got to talk – in whatever way she could understand – about sharing with others.

Thank you to Temple Emanuel and their Social Action Committee for organizing this effort and to the Religious Action Committee for spreading the word.

But still: donating goods can be a problematic action. Often, it causes more difficulty for the organization collecting and distributing – large in-kind gifts or donations could be more helpful for everyone. One historical example from my research stays with me: in the wake of World War II as Jewish (and other) organization collected used good, collection depots became overwhelmed with materials and European depots became frustrated by goods that were inappropriate for Displaced Persons camps or so beat up that they could only be used as rags. Some additional context: The Joint Distribution Committee ran a collection project called Supplies for Overseas Survivors (SOS) for 3 years. Communities across the United States collected nearly 26,000,000 pounds of relief goods between January 1946 and December 1949 – all of which was sent to Displaced Persons camps and other postwar sites across Europe. The scale of aid was immense – and yet, memos from the European distribution sites repeatedly note that high-heeled shoes, gowns, and fur coats were unsuitable for the conditions of postwar Europe. In 1948, SOS stopped collecting used goods all together and worked to provide new goods – donated directly from suppliers – to the DP camps of Europe.

As I think about donating goods, I think about these logistical intricacies. And, I also think about this details: Adele Levy, chairman of the UJA National Women’s Division, reported that, upon visiting one JDC sponsored children’s home in Paris, there were “long rows of tiny fur coats. They were coats which the furriers guild of Paris had contributed…it was somewhat incongruous to see these tiny tots running around in fur coats and shoes that were full of holes.”[1] FUR COATS! Fur coats for children who had lost everything.

And, yet, I think of this too: when nine-year old Irene Guttman was living in a children’s home in France after World War II, she received a pair of red sandals from a JDC delivery – perhaps a direct result of SOS activity in the U.S.. 50 years later, in an interview by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Irene vividly remembers those red shoes. In the interview, she recalls how badly she wanted those shoes and even though they were too small, she wore them. Irene said:

“I had to have the red shoes.  I remembered sandals. I remember these were with little holes in them, like a shoe sandal.  I had to have them. So, when the children tried on the shoes I said, “I want those shoes.” They were too small for me but I said, “They fit great.  I like them, I love them, they’re my shoes.” And because of this, very shortly after that, we took a long walk into Paris, or went for a really long walk, and of course, you can imagine what happened to my feet.  I had blisters. My feet were bleeding. I was in so much pain that the head mistress had to actually take me in Paris to buy me a pair of bigger shoes. I got white. I got white. They weren’t red, but okay, but they weren’t brown.  I hated brown, and that’s all that I had had before.”[2]

Gold baby shoesIt is with Irene’s memory in mind that I packed a pair of gold sandals into one of the boxes I sent out this weekend. I know they are “unsuitable” for almost any conditions. I know they are not what children separated from their parents or even children still with their parents, but trapped in the labyrinth of US immigration law need. And yet, perhaps they can provide some joy to a child who is seeking happiness in a world of brown. It is also in the spirit of Irene’s memory that I packed those boxes at all. Because seeing those red shoes was not only a jolt of color, it was a sign that people somewhere were thinking of her and working to help.


Day 5:

I was looking for inspiration today, so I donated to Al Otro Lado to support their work assisting asylum seekers at the Tijuana Port of Entry. After reading this exploration into their work, I’m amazed and in awe of the sacrifices individuals are making to fight against the inhumane immigration policies of our country. [3] What stood out to me most was the repeated action of immigration officers to deny asylum seekers entry. The sustained attention and commitment of immigration lawyers and advocates to aid people seeking protection and opportunity in the US is yet another reminder that the work of supporting refugees, immigrants, and asylum seekers has been and will continue to be urgent even after our current attention fades.


[1] Adele Levy, Our Child Survivors, (New York: United Jewish Appeal, 1946), YIVO library.

[2] Interview with Irene Hizme and René Slotkin, April 24, 1995, USHMM RG-50.030*0320. Watch the interview online at the USHMM website.

[3] Daniel Duane, “City of Exiles,” The California Sunday Magazine, May 30, 2018.


Listening as an Act of Resistance

This is an academic place to start, I admit it. But, I’ve been thinking a lot about Giorgio Agamben’s Remnants of Auschwitz lately. In particular, this sentence: “We will not understand what Auschwitz is if we do not first understand who or what the Muselmann is – if we do not learn to gaze with him upon the Gorgon.”[1] It is not because Auschwitz serves as a direct historical reference for the detention centers and tent cities currently detaining children and migrants across the U.S. (although I do think the longer history of the Holocaust offers important historical analogues). Rather, Agamben’s urging to gaze upon the Gorgon serves as a reminder that we must look at what only the victim can see. We must look with intention; we must not turn away from the horror and cruelty. In the midst of the immigration crisis, I am ashamed and angry that this Gorgon is here, in my country. But, I cannot turn away.

Let me explain: in The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi writes at length about the Muselmann – the concentration camp inmate who had given up or lost his life force – who was no longer a “living being.” Levi says that those who were left to bear witness after the war could only bear partial witness, because “we are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom.”[2] The Gorgon was what the victims saw, what those who were not as lucky faced. We can use David Boder’s 1949 title to see this more bluntly: “I did not interview the dead.”[3]

I’ve been thinking about this lately because there are many Gorgons and it is hard to look. And, of course, it is easy to turn away.  I am afraid to look at just how badly our government is treating people seeking shelter in our country. I read about the policy of separating children from their family, of babies ripped from their parents arms, of mothers and fathers being told that their children are just going to take a bath and never brought back. And, yet, I am still hesitant in the face of the real horror. I have been afraid to look too closely at the pictures coming out of Casa Padre; I have been afraid to see the eyes of children who do not know where their parents are or why they have been taken away.

Most of all, I have been afraid to listen to the cries of these children as they are separated from their parents. For the past week, I scrolled past the headline that ProPublica published an audio recording of children – including a 6 year old girl pleading to call her aunt and other children screaming mommy, mommy, mommy – but I didn’t listen. I couldn’t. Because I am a human being, with a heart, and what’s left of my emotional stability would be wrecked by knowing that this trauma was being done in my name, with my tax money, in my country.

But, of course, to be a person of conscious in this country today requires that we stare into the Gorgon; that we contend with the reality of this inhumane immigration policy. I must listen to those voices and those cries, because without doing so, how can I understand what is happening? And without understanding the cruelty and horror of this policy, how can I actively work against it? So, I listened and I wept. I also read the follow up with hope and horror: the 6 year old girl in the audio clip – Alison Jimena Valencia – has been connected (though not reunited) with her aunt and, through her, her mother. But, why should a 6 year old be responsible for her own salvation? And, what of the other children? What of those who don’t know their relatives names or numbers? What of those who cannot yet speak and advocate for themselves?

It is with these questions in mind that I will keep voicing opposition to the treatment of asylum seekers, migrants, and refugees in this country. To do so, I must listen and watch even though I am afraid and even though I am already angry, because to bear witness is the very least I can do.

So, today, on Day 3 of #30daysofaction, I’m donating to ProPublica, because a free and independent press is essential – now and always. Because we cannot fight what’s happening in our names unless we know what’s happening.


[1] Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (New York: Zone Books, 2000) 52.

[2] Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, First Vintage International edition (New York: Vintage International, 1989) 70.

[3] David P. Boder, I Did Not Interview the Dead (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1949).


This is not the time to let up

Day 2, #30daysofaction

This is not the time to let up. The executive order signed yesterday does not alleviate the inhumane policy of detaining young children or of recognizing the legal right of migrants to claim asylum in our country. The evolving government policy of no longer prosecuting families seeking asylum is murky and unclear. And neither effort does anything at all to reunite the thousands of children separated from their parents. In fact – it became clear yesterday – that some children might never be reunited with their families.

Nonetheless, the executive order that ends the inhumane policy of separating children from their parents at the border reflects the power of collective action. It was the images of children behind cages and the heart-wrenching cries of babies stripped from their parents arms that created the viral urgency to end this policy. It was the voices of outraged Americans that led to a rare Trump administration reversal and it must be those same voices that continue to pressure this administration to seek humane approaches to immigration. It must be the collective action of us all that pressures congress to respond to this immigration crisis by living up to Americas best ideals.

I am reminded of Hitler’s April 1933 Boycott of Jewish businesses. Only 3 months after coming to power, Hitler directed Storm Troopers to stand in front of Jewish businesses around Germany actively discouraging Germans to shop there. Yellow stars of David were painted on the doors and windows of Jewish businesses and signs like “Don’t Buy from Jews” were posted in front. This early instance of public and dangerous Jewish othering is not a direct analog to the cruel policies of separating children from their parents. Rather, we can recognize an historical echo in the perceived failure of the boycott. Most Germans continued to shop at their local Jewish stores; some even made a point of shopping on that day to show support for their Jewish neighbors. Historians generally agree that Germans were not yet ready for this kind of action and Hitler learned from this.[1] A week after the boycott, the government passed a law restricting Jewish employment in the civil service. In practice, this meant that Jewish public school teachers, university professors, and government employees were fired. The action took many Jews out of direct contact with their neighbors, which distanced them from the policies that followed.   

The history of that Boycott resonates for me now. Our voices, our calls, our donations have pushed the administration to change course. But, we have not won. This is still a time for action.

So, today, I called my representatives. I called my Congressman and asked him to vote against Speaker Ryan’s proposed bill proposed that would continue the inhumane process of keeping asylum seekers detained indefinitely. I called my Senators and thanked them or being leading voices in opposition to this policy to far and asking them to keep up the pressure. I called the Office of Refugee Resettlement and asked them to work responsibly to reunite the children in their care with their families.

Let us all keep calling. Let us continue to make our voices heard.

[1] See Saul Friedlander, Nazi Germany and the Jews: Volume 1: The Years of Persecution 1933-1939 (Harper Perennial, 1998), chapter 1.

On World Refugee Day, I Pledge 30 Days of Activism

Today is World Refugee Day. And, Facebook just reminded me that last year on June 20, I posted this: “Today is World Refugee Day. A day to call attention to more than 65 million displaced people around the world: men, women, and children forced to leave their homes; men, women, and children looking for safe havens where they can raise their families, go to school, work, and live.”

I was in the middle of writing another similar post, but cannot bring myself to do it this year. Not when the fight feels so urgent and so close to home. Not when US policy is cruelly and unjustly separating small children from their parents, placing them in detention centers, and denying them the basic human need of comfort. Not when this policy is being enforced in my name and with my tax dollars.

Words matter and language matters. So, we must recognize that the more than 68 million refugees around the world are going through a different process than those seeking asylum in the US. The international laws and protocols responding to refugees and asylum are distinct – though both important. I hope we have enough compassion for all the people around the world seeking a better life for themselves and their children; for the people of all ages forced from their homes in search of peace and opportunity.

This year, instead of calling attention to the displaced people around the world, I am committing to 30 days of activism. I am committing myself to daily acts – large and small – that respond to the crisis of immigration around the world. So, I will begin documenting the actions I take, including donating to organization working at the US/Mexico Border as well as those responding to the Refugee crisis around the world; calling my representatives to support the Keep Families Together Act; calling government agencies to voice my opposition to the zero tolerance policy that is leading to family separations; and joining marches to End Family Separation. I will also be writing throughout – trying to bring my past decade of study on philanthropic responses to the Holocaust to bear on this current moral crisis. 

After all these years of research, I can recognize that some of this action is meant to make me feel better – to assuage the helplessness I feel when I read about toddlers and babies ripped from their mothers arms and put into cages. But, my goal is to do work that is meaningful to the communities experiencing this trauma and to push the needle (even the slightest bit) forward with whatever resources I have to give. 

Join me in this #30daysofaction. Your actions can be big or small, but if we all commit to paying attention, bearing witness, and doing what we can, we will – at the very least – refrain from being silent in the face of despair and cruelty. Even as the details change, our voices remain essential.

So, today, in honor of World Refugee Day, I am donating to the International Rescue Committee as part of a pledge to stand #withrefugees.

Special Issue of Holocaust and Genocide Studies: Focus on Refugees

Refugees at the Fort Ontario Refugee Camp, Oswego, New York, August 1944

Looking for more historical precedents to contextualize the current refugee crisis? Check out the special issue of Holocaust and Genocide Studies on refugees – made available free from Oxford University Press.

These essays help “narrow the gap between historical facts and rhetoric” and in a year of so much fear mongering, a little history can go a long way.

“People frequently ask whether the study of history can help in managing humanitarian crises. This question is particularly timely given the massive outflow of refugees from Syria and the problems of admitting large numbers of refugees to other countries, including the United States…. Those who speak confidently of a single lesson of the past often mislead their audiences.” – Historian Richard Breitman, in his introduction to this collection of articles

Originally posted on

A History of Jewish Displacement & American Refuge

HIAS has organized a campaign asking people to Stand up for Refugee Resettlement. You can (and should) TAKE ACTION NOW >

In the wake of the Holocaust, when thousands of Jewish survivors and other refugees remained in camps, the United States and other countries around the world delayed action on immigration. Between 1945 and 1948, US policy denied access to most Displaced Persons based on the country of their birth. The 1948 Displaced Persons Act and the 1950 corrective of that act finally allowed Jewish DPs access to legal immigration to the United States, where they settled and found new lives. The U.S. Refugee Resettlement program that grew as a result of this initial legislation has allowed hundreds of thousands of refugees the same opportunity.

Around the world, there are now more refugees and displaced persons in the world than at any time since World War II. We should all be aware of this crisis and ask our government to take a lead in providing refuge for those fleeing from violence and oppression. As President Truman said in 1952 about the ongoing Refugee Crisis in Europe:

This problem is of great practical importance to us because it affects the peace and security of the free world. It is also of great concern to us, because of our long-established humanitarian traditions.

Today, congress seeks to end the U.S. Refugee Resettlement program, it is even more important than ever to remember this history and demand that our leaders act according to our best past.

Stand with HIAS in support of refugees.


Image via HIAS

Originally posted on >