Two opposing groups in the immigration debate faced off Tuesday evening in front of the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, where protesters and counter-protesters made their voices heard.
Despite the late summer heat, about 100 people showed up to the rally carrying signs that read, ”Stop separating families” and “Children are dying.” While counter-protestors waved Trump signs, and signs that said “Why do migrants keep coming to our Nazi camps?” and “Detention centers are not concentration camps.”
The Close the Camps demonstration was organized to speak out against the treatment of migrants, asylum seekers and immigrants being held at detention centers on the southern U.S. border.
“This is a very, very important issue for us,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Falick of the Birmingham Temple for Humanistic Judaism, who was among the speakers at the event. “As Jews, we see the history of the dehumanization of other people, and we understand what the possible pathways to greater suffering can be. We want that stopped. This unjust treatment of these folks.”
Although he said he didn’t choose the location, Falick said he can see why the sidewalk outside the Holocaust Memorial Center was picked as the site of the protest.
“I certainly understand why survivors (of the Holocaust) and others who believe we can learn lessons from our own history would want to make that statement,” Falick said.
But that choice has sparked outrage among some conservative Jews, who also say the Close the Camps protesters are falsely equivocating immigration detention centers to concentration camps.
“They are using the Holocaust Center as a prop,” said Eugene Greenstein, 73, of Farmington Hills. “They are trying to make an analogy between the immigrant detention centers and the concentration camps, the death camps of Nazi Germany.”
Greenstein said he planned to protest outside the Holocaust Memorial Center, too, making his views known. “We are planning to be on the same side of the street, down the road,” he said.
“These illegal immigrants are coming up here willingly,” Greenstein said. “They know they are going to be put into detention centers. It’s a temporary placement by law and they will be let go.
“When you go to a concentration camp, you either go to the right or the left. In one case, you go to a crematorium and get killed, murdered. In the other case, you go to a work camp and get worked to death. In other situations, you get murdered by firing squad or asphyxiated in moving trucks, which wasn’t too efficient so they made gas chambers.”
At the event, Sue Burstein, a member of the Michigan Jewish Action Council, said while she has “compassion” for the immigrants locked inside the detention centers, she does not believe the conditions are comparable to the concentration camps.
“They’re trying to exploit the Holocaust,” she said. “There’s nothing that equates to the Holocaust. Nobody forced them in detention camps. They’re welcome to their own opinion, but do not trivialize what happened to 5 million people.”
Burstein said her daughter in-law received a green card about a week ago, and that other immigrants should follow the same process.
“There is a process,” she said. “Immigrants should come here legally.”
But Falick said the counter-protesters are parsing words, and that no one in his group is calling the immigration detention centers death camps.
“Nobody is saying we’re gassing anyone,” Falick said. “But we are absolutely responsible for the deaths of the people in our custody. We are absolutely responsible for the misery of children and pregnant women sleeping on 1-inch pieces of foam under Mylar blankets under fluorescent lights that are on 24 hours a day. That is not the value of human rights that the United States has endeavored to support for the world over the course of modern history.”
Since 2017, 27 adults have died in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which tracks detention center deaths.
And at least seven children have died, NBC News reported, in immigration custody since 2018. Human Rights Watch has monitored conditions at the immigration detention centers and U.S. Border Patrol holding cells with alarm, reporting crowded conditions; children separated from their parents, left to care for other children; lack of access to medical care; people sleeping on cold concrete floors without sleeping pads or blankets, as well as a lack of nutritious food or basic hygiene items like soap and toothbrushes.
Rabbi Aryah Spero, director of the New Jersey-based National Conference of Jewish Affairs, flew to Michigan on Tuesday to speak among the counter-protesters opposing the Close the Camps group.
“What we have on the southern border is holding centers where we are trying our best to accommodate people until they get processed by immigration courts,” said Spero, who described himself as politically conservative. “We are doing whatever we can. Nothing is perfect. There are so many people coming in, it’s more than we can handle.
“The Nazi concentration camps, they starved people to death. They burned people alive. They had the destruction of the entire Jewish race as their goal. It’s an obscene comparison.
“These protests are being done by people for their own political agenda, which is open borders. There are certain people who want open borders. They want no vetting of immigrants and they’re exploiting the martyrs of the Holocaust and it’s a terrible thing to do to their memory. It confuses people, and it is a distortion of history.”
Rabbi Brent Gutmann, who leads Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield, said the Close the Camps protest was initially organized by Holocaust survivors and their children. He said he’s politically centrist, and has studied the immigration issue carefully.
“Our congregation has been working on trying to understand the Jewish perspective on the current climate of anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, anti-asylum seeker, anti-migrant dynamics that have emerged in our country,” he said.
He met with leaders of many metro Detroit conservative, reconstructionist, humanist and orthodox Jewish congregations in recent weeks to study the issue of immigration in America.
“From a Jewish perspective, our conclusions are that Jewish traditions, Jewish texts are fairly unequivocal when it comes to strangers and refugees. … The statement, ‘You shall love the stranger as yourself,’ is actually the most-often repeated commandment of the Bible.
“The message was unanimous, that this is a Jewish moral issue and not a political issue and for those reasons we have been able to raise our voice more clearly,” said Gutmann, who described himself as politically centrist.
“It’s a very deep concern for me that so many issues that are Jewish issues are becoming partisan,” he said. “Support of Israel is becoming partisan, support of individuals who are seeking refuge in our country who should be protected by international law in certain ways are not receiving protection.
“My personal views are that our country has the absolute right to police its borders, to set immigration policy, decide who is given citizenship, decide who is permitted into our country. And there is a duty while doing that to treat every individual with dignity.”
Dr. Marcy Epstein was one of the protesters at the rally Tuesday. The University of Michigan lecturer visited a detention center outside of El Paso, Texas, with an interfaith group last November. She said at least 1,500 children were in the center, separated from their parents. There was not enough food or any soap for the children to clean the themselves.
“So many ways we could’ve been gentler as a nation, more kinder, more compassionate to new Americans,” Epstein said. “We failed. We failed them.”
Falick said the dehumanization of immigrants, migrants and asylum-seekers at the southern border is a slippery slope.
“We desperately want our history taught to all the children of the United States and the world … because we never want it to happen to anyone else again,” Falick said of the Holocaust. “And yet now we’re facing a situation where to even invoke that horror is to somehow betray Jewish history. The fact is, that isn’t how history works.”
He explained that the Holocaust began not with gas chambers and mass executions, but with propaganda and campaigns that made the German people believe that Jews were less than human.
“Leading up to the Holocaust were thousands of human rights violations — one after the other, after the other that combined to dehumanize Jews so that when the order came through to finally exterminate the population of Jews of Europe, the people had become so desensitized or so filled with hatred or fear or suspicion, that this became something that they were willing to follow.
“Jews weren’t living amongst gentiles one day, happily going about their business, and then two days later thrown into the showers at Auschwitz. That’s not how it happens.”
Gutmann said it’s important to talk about what happened during the Holocaust so it never happens again.
“When we say never again, we mean never again for anyone,” he said.
“I want to be in the record in history for my children and for the future that not every American agreed with the way that this administration is choosing to corral people who are coming across the border, trying to escape dire situations in their countries, denying them access to water, toiletries, food, denying them areas to lie down and sleep at the end of the night, how we are separating families from their children,” he said. “The efforts to process them are, I believe, being purposely stalled to exacerbate the issue so the crisis can look even bigger so our president can be given even more power to say, ‘look there’s a crisis and we can take extreme measures.’ “
Still, Spero said, it’s wrong to compare the two, and reiterated that what’s happening at the detention centers is temporary, that the United States is doing the best it can, and that detainees chose to come. He said the Holocaust Memorial Center is being used as a political tool.
“They are using it as a background, a prop … to try to make a picture in the minds of people that there’s no difference between the detention centers on our border and Nazi concentration camps. That is an obscene equation, an obscene comparison.
“When you have a situation you are being overrun by people, way beyond your capacity to do anything, you’re going to have some shortfalls,” he said. “But nobody wants these shortfalls. Nobody wants anyone to suffer. Nobody wants these poor conditions. Everybody is doing what they can to improve it as fast as they can do it with the resources that they have.
“This is not equivalent at all to what the Jews went through.”
Falick said the counter-protesters are upset about the wrong things.
“Folks who are upset about the nomenclature or what have you, this is a petty discussion,” he said. “The thing to be upset about is the suffering of men, women and children who wanted nothing more than what our great grandparents wanted, which is a better life for their children, a place that stood by the words engraved on one of its chief emblems, the Statue of Liberty to bring me your poor, your tired.”
The Holocaust Memorial Center issued this statement Tuesday: “The Holocaust Memorial Center is not affiliated with the rally activity taking place in front of the building. The Holocaust Memorial Center is proud to be a museum of history and an educational institution. We are dedicated to our mission to engage, educate and empower by remembering the Holocaust. We encourage everyone to draw thoughtful conclusions from the lessons we teach.”
While the protest and counter-protest were passionate and peaceful, there was a tense moment between protesters and members of the Proud Boys, an all male far-right extremist group that showed up during the rally. The groups were separated without incident.
Contact Kristen Jordan Shamus: 313-222-5997 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus.
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