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 memoriesmotifs.tumblr.com

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 memoriesmotifs.tumblr.com >

A Jewish mandate to act: 60 million refugees around the world

World Refugee Day is tomorrow (June 20). In recognition, HIAS has released this video that calls on Jews to remember their history as refugees and to help those still displaced. The video is powerful and compelling.

In particular, I am struck by two connected through lines that position HIAS within a history of Jewish displacement and the contemporary refugee crisis:

(1) The connection between Jewish values and the work of rescuing and resettling refugees around the world today. Their mission is no longer to save Jews, but they are still informed by their roots as a Jewish organization. As they define their goals:

Guided by Jewish values and experience, HIAS is working to address the global refugee crisis.

(2) That the organization chose to tell the history of Jewish displacement as part of a long history of displacement is inspiring. They empower Jews to act today not because Jews are in danger, but because we were once refugees and HIAS was there. In telling this connected history, the video jumps from Nazi concentration camps to the Jewish exile in North Africa to Darfur and Refugee Camps across the world. In each case, HIAS was there:

We were the ones at the docks…and we are still at the docks, in the deserts, and in the cities and camps and lands where people no longer have a home in their homeland.

The argument that Jews should care because it is a Jewish mandate is powerful and speaks beyond World Refugee Day – it speaks to how Jewish values can be part of political concerns that are not just about Israel or just about antisemitism.

This history is at the heart of the Memories/Motifs project and I am proud to be a supporter of HIAS today.


Reposted from Memories/Motifs in honor of World Refugee Day

On Immigration, Executive Action, & Holocaust Survivors in the postwar period: What would our forefather’s think?

Yesterday, President Obama used executive action to open the promise of America to 5 million more people. In doing so, he said:

“Whether our forebearers were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like or what our last names are, or how we worship. What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal, that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will.” via Washington Post

In the postwar period, it was Jews and not Latinos that the fight against immigration tried to bar from entering. And Truman’s executive action, known then as the Truman Directive, opened the doors for 25,000 Displaced Persons, about 2/3 of whom were Jewish survivors, who had not yet been granted permission to legally enter the United States. [For more about the Truman Directive and Jewish immigration in the postwar period, see here (USHMM)]

Reading Obama’s directive, I am reminded not only of the fight Jewish organizations waged to change public perception about who Jewish survivors were and why they needed to come to America, but also about the kind of rhetoric used to make those arguments – and I hear the echoes of that language today. Recalling American history as a site of haven and refuge calls upon the memory of our own family histories and roots an argument for immigration reform in emotion. This kind of personal and national appeal is a powerful way to connect past and present that evokes a moral imperative to act.

Read the rest on the Memories/Motifs blog >