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For These Progressive Jews, Prayer is Part of the Protest

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On the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av, Jews traditionally gather to mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. This year, progressive Jews across the U.S. joined their observance of the holiday to their participation in nationwide protests against Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The protests were organized by a coalition of progressive Jewish organizations that included T’ruah, Bend the Arc, J Street, the National Council of Jewish Women, and HIAS, formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a nonprofit agency that provides aid to refugees. There were more than 50 of these protests around the country, many of which took place at ICE offices and detention centers. In New York City, over 1,000 demonstrators gathered at Amazon Books to protest the company’s contracts with ICE. Demonstrators drew on the Tisha B’Av liturgy, reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning, and reading from the Book of Lamentations. Forty-four people, including 11 rabbis, were arrested.

The Tisha B’Av protests were part of an ongoing national mobilization of progressive American Jews that seeks to abolish ICE, to close the detention centers at the U.S.-Mexico border, and to implement just and humane immigration policies. Throughout the summer, Jews organizing against ICE have participated in direct actions at ICE facilities across the country. In July, 10 protestors were arrested at an action at ICE headquarters in Washington, D.C. The protestors entered the building, recited the Mourner’s Kaddish, and spoke the names of the six children who have died in U.S. custody in the past six months. A few days after Tisha B’Av, four people were hospitalized in Rhode Island when a corrections officer drove his truck into a group of Jewish protestors blocking entrance into a private prison that ICE is using to detain immigrants.

The New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg calls this mobilization a “renaissance on the Jewish left.” Mainstream Jewish organizations’ passivity in the face of President Donald Trump’s racist and xenophobic statements and policies have motivated progressive American Jews to organize, as Jews, against those policies. While Jewish participation in progressive social movements is nothing new, the current mobilization is novel in its extensive embrace of Jewish ritual in, and as, direct action. When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a prominent Jewish theologian and vocal critic of racial segregation, marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders in Selma, Alabama, he famously said that he was “praying with his feet.” Heschel experienced the protest as a kind of prayer. But that prayer was not a formal or liturgical one. When demonstrators at Amazon Books recited Mourner’s Kaddish, theirs was.

The presence of Jewish ritual in the anti-ICE protests is not entirely without precedent. It has its roots in the work of groups such as Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, which for many years has been connecting Jewish ritual to direct political action. In 2011, members of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice joined Occupy Judaism to erect a sukkah at Occupy Wall Street in celebration of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, a harvest festival when Jews eat and dwell in these temporary huts, and in defiance of the New York Police Department’s ban on structures in Zuccotti Park. In a statement, the organizers of Occupy Judaism connected Sukkot, when Jews occupy vulnerable dwellings and share communal bounty, to the egalitarian and communal ethos of Occupy Wall Street: “There is no better place to celebrate the festival of Sukkot this year than right here at Occupy Wall Street.” In December 2015, upon hearing that New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo would not be indicted for the death of Eric Garner, a group of Jewish activists, many affiliated with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, took to the streets and recited the Mourner’s Kaddish for Garner and other black and brown victims of police violence. There are many other examples. Building on these precedents, Jews organizing under the banners of Never Again Action and Jews Against ICE have made Jewish rituals, especially the Mourner’s Kaddish, integral to their political action. To understand the protestors’ politics, one needs to understand something about these rituals.  Read the Whole Article

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