A lively and fast-moving stream of about 1,000 Jewish activists and others shut down traffic in the heart of the city during rush hour Tuesday evening, chanting, singing, and drumming to protest immigrant detention in the city and across the country.
They wound their way from the New England Holocaust Memorial on Congress Street down Tremont Street and through Chinatown, to the Suffolk County House of Correction in the South End, which houses scores of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees. Eighteen protesters were arrested after locking arms near the facility’s entrance.
Many of the demonstrators were young, wearing prayer shawls and head coverings, and drawing on lessons learned in Hebrew school and from relatives who survived the Holocaust to urge the Trump administration to “close the camps.” Lawyers and lawmakers have described the camps detaining migrants at the border as squalid and inhumane in recent weeks.
“When we grew up hearing the words ‘never again,’ it’s referring to a moment like this,” said Michaela Caplan, 23, one of the organizers of the event. She wore a Star of David necklace and, like many other attendees, said she had been moved to protest because of her family’s history. Her grandmother survived Auschwitz, and lost more than 30 family members.
Planned by a loosely connected group of Jewish activists who organized under the phrase “Never Again,” as well as the immigrant-rights group Cosecha, the protest was linked to an action in New Jersey on Sunday, when 36 activists were arrested outside of an ICE detention center. Both are part of a nationwide push by young Jews to protest immigrant detention in part by invoking a collective memory of Jewish suffering.
“I think it’s particularly important for Jews, who face anti-Semitism, and have an ancestral history of trauma, to speak out on behalf of other people,” said Rabbi Becky Silverstein, who wore a prayer shawl and carried a shofar, a ram’s horn used during some Jewish holidays.
Before the arrests, Cata Santiago, a 22-year-old from Chelsea, stood on the steps of the jail and boomed into a megaphone, “Children matter and so do their parents.” The crowd erupted in cheers.
Emilia Feldman, 23, of Chelsea, addressing the crowd, said, “I’m angry, are you angry?”
The crowd responded, “Yes!”
The rally was the second major protest in Boston against the detention of migrants in the past week, following a walkout by hundreds of Wayfair employees. It began at the Holocaust Memorial, whose black granite ramps are inscribed with the word “Remember” in white letters. Attendees there held signs drawing on Jewish history and traditions: “Resisting Tyrants Since Pharoah” and “Anne Frank Was Turned Away.”
The invocation of the Holocaust is somewhat controversial: Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has referred to the border camps as “concentration camps,” provoking ire from some Republicans and stoking a national conversation about whether it is legitimate to use the terminology of the genocide to refer to the present.
In June, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., weighed in, releasing a statement that it “unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary.” That prompted more than 400 scholars of the Holocaust and genocide to rebuke the museum, saying that its position “makes learning from the past almost impossible.”
Some Jewish leaders in Boston expressed support for protesting conditions along the southern border, even while acknowledging the ongoing and complicated debate about specifically comparing the situation to the Holocaust.
“There’s a degree of difference within the Jewish community about how to invoke comparisons from any situation directly to the Holocaust,” said Jeremy Burton, the executive director of Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, which is in charge of programming at the Holocaust memorial, in a phone interview. But, he said, there was widespread support for asylum seekers and collective “revulsion” from the Jewish community to the way the United States is treating migrants at the border.
Burton added that “one important moral lesson” from studying the Holocaust is the “deep moral imperative to protest against human rights violations being done in our name, because when we fail to protest, those who are acting in such a way will see that as permission to do worse.”
Suffolk County is one of four facilities in the state that has contracts with ICE, said Laura Rotolo, an attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts; the jail gets a daily rate of $90 from the federal government for each detainee. Rotolo said more than half of people who are in ICE detention nationwide do not have criminal records; the ones at Suffolk County are either in deportation proceedings or have lost their cases and are waiting to be deported.
Stosh Cotler, the CEO of Bend the Arc , a national group of progressive Jews, said Jewish activists draw on a long history of migration, asylum-seeking, and detention when they fight for migrants’ rights today.
“For Jewish activists who are using the phrase ‘Never Again,’ it’s because we know what happens when we stand by and allow atrocities to unfold without speaking out,” she said, adding that the semantic debates — “whether we call them concentration camps or mass detention centers or cages for children” — are a distraction from the “moral abomination” unfolding at the southern border.
“I don’t think we are at risk of overusing serious language,” she said, “but at risk of not acting fast enough.”