Sophie Ellman-Golan

Never Again in America

Air Date: November 4, 2019

Jews Against White Nationalism leader Sophie Ellman-Golan discusses protesting a wave of anti-Semitic politics, the mistreatment of immigrants, and prison monetization.

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. A founding organizer for the Women’s March, my guest today is Sophie Ellman-Golan. Now she helps lead Never Again Action, a mass mobilization of Jews who are organizing to shut down ICE and hold the political establishment accountable for enabling both the deportation machine that has separated immigrant families across the U.S. for decades and the current crisis at the border. “Conservatives purport to defend Jews even as they embrace policies that most Jews deplore, and infuriating and intolerable,” is how Ellman-Golan describes this climate and the resurgence of white nationalism and anti-Semitism, in part fueled by President Trump’s own politics. “It’s imperative that we loudly speak for ourselves,” Ellman-Golan told the New York Times, “because if we don’t, the loudest voices that claim to speak on behalf of Jews will be right-wing Evangelical Christians.” Welcome, Sophie, a pleasure to have you here.

ELLMAN-GOLAN: Thank you so much.

HEFFNER: Is it not that false equivalency in the dynamic between how we think of attacks on Jews from the right and left that is really troubling today?

ELLMAN-GOLAN: Absolutely. I would say the first troubling thing is this rise of white nationalism and anti-Semitism and the ways that both have been completely embraced by the Republican Party, overall. But I agree that the discourse we see around anti-Semitism is particularly troubling because of a false equivalence between violent acts of anti-Semitism, violence that comes from manifestos that are written about Jews trying to replace a white population versus a, an anti-Semitic cartoon or a comment that has to do with the criticism of the state of Israel or tweeting Tupac lyrics. And we just have to be able to say that these things are not the same. We have to be able to say that inciting murder is not the same as tweeting Tupac lyrics.

HEFFNER: How do you differentiate between the comments of someone like Congressman King of Iowa and Congresswoman Omar?

ELLMAN-GOLAN: I would say that probably the, the primary difference is that Steve King is pretty adjacent to Nazis and that representative Ilhan Omar is not. I mean, Steve King has gone on trips to meet with people who helped found or are inheritors of publications that were founded by Nazis. He has come pretty close to saying the 14 words, which are of course the 14 words of white supremacists that talk about securing a future for white children, et cetera. I mean this is a man who is not in a state that was ever part of the confederacy, has a confederate flag on his desk. It’s pretty clear what he stands for. So I think one of the primary distinction is that for Steve King white nationalism, above all is what he stands for and what he promotes. Anti-Semitism is a facet of that. I think that for representative Omar, who is undeniably a progressive champion right now, she has criticism of Israel.

I think that she said things that she probably could have raised differently. I think that we can argue, you know, we can argue until the cows come home about whether something was or was not anti-Semitic. It’s important to note that while a large percentage of the Jewish community felt troubled by it, that’s worth mentioning, which is why she apologized. Steve King has never ever done that and refuses to take accountability and instead continues to to spout off absurd offensive things, even the most recent being that we wouldn’t have a population today or Western civilization were it not for rape. So I mean there’s no end to, to kind of the limits of his, of his patriarchy and white nationalism and anti-Semitism. I think with representative Omar, we’re also witnessing that attacks on her come not just from people who are genuinely concerned about anti-Semitism, but by and large from people who are deeply concerned about the fact that a black Muslim woman who wears a hijab is in Congress and dares to be any of those things at once.

HEFFNER: I think qualitatively you answered it in the way that our audience can understand. There has been this disconnect and it’s growing between the community that’s very small in this country of Jews who put Israel’s security first and the larger majority of American Jews who put American Jews security first. And why in the aftermath of Trump’s election those Republicans were not outraged about the desecrations, the increase in hate crime against the Jewish community. I don’t think Jews, the majority of Jews are responsive to President Trump’s attempt in what I thought was his most anti-Semitic day yet, to call Jews who don’t support him. Disloyal.

ELLMAN-GOLAN: Yeah. I mean polling shows pretty clearly that Israel is not even close to the top issue that American Jews vote on. J Street did a poll, did some of the great polling about 2018 Jewish voters, and I think it was something like 4 percent said that Israel was a priority for them. Predominantly it’s been healthcare and the economy and lately gun violence is up there pretty high too. So these are the issues that Jews, shockingly like Americans because we are care about and are voting about and are taking action on. And of course also on immigrant justice, which we’ve been seeing recently with the rise of Jews Against ICE. So I’d say all of that to say just that I think it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the Jewish community to even think that that is a priority that Israel is a priority for us. It’s also anti-Semitic to constantly assume that Jews care the most about Israel. That stems from, of course, deep anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish loyalty, about this idea of a global Jewish cabal that cares more about another country than the country they reside in.

HEFFNER: You are really drawing the public’s attention to a crisis in these detention centers. And because again, we have to be intellectually honest I want to start by asking you about the conditions. Some including representative Ocasio Cortez have compared the detention centers to concentration camps.

 

ELLMAN-GOLAN: I would say myself, and the many amazing folks who are leading Never Again Action from folks like Serena Adlerstein and Alyssa Rubin and Ben Doernberg and many others who are really at the helm of that work as well. We’ve been taking action because we simply see that the conditions are concentration camps. Representative Ocasio Cortez was not the first person to say that. Many people said it beforehand. I think we saw her political opponents jump on that: use Jews as an excuse to take her down and express more outrage about the word she used to describe a blatant human rights abuse than they’ve ever expressed for the actual human rights abuse. So when we’re talking about what’s happening on the ground, and you know, I want to also say that immigrant rights groups have been doing this organizing for a long time. Movimiento Cosecha has been doing this organizing since the Obama Administration, where they, you know, stepped up and spoke out against the 3 million deportations we saw during that era as well.

But what’s happening right now is pretty blatantly: people deprived of food, deprived of water, deprived of healthcare, deprived of sanitary products. I mean, just the blatant abuse from sexual violence to emotional and physical abuse is beyond belief. And the fact that we would, the fact that there are people who would rather argue about what words we use instead of argue about how we can abolish these atrocities is shocking to me. And it’s a clear; it’s a clear attempt I think to deflect away from talking about the conditions. But the other thing that I say is that we should be using the strongest possible words to describe what’s happening right now. I do know concentration camps is a strong term to use and we use it intentionally because we should be using strong language to describe the horrors that are happening on our southern border and at ICE detention centers around the country. Yeah.

HEFFNER: I think that morally, emotionally and physically, there is the precipice of, you know, exterminating people’s souls more than human bodies at this point. But internment camp is an analogy that I think maybe more approachable to people who remember how we treated the Japanese or Japanese Americans. So you have a politics in a public policy that is completely at odds with your hope to free or enfranchise ultimately a population of the people who’ve lived here, worked here with their families and communities and have been detained and deported. I mean, we’re talking about I think two subsets: the current crisis on the border escaping violence or economic hardship from central Latin American countries; and then we’re talking about the historically problematic immigration law where there are people who’ve been here for 20 years, 10 years, five years, who’ve demonstrated their contributions to this country and we want to disown them.

ELLMAN-GOLAN: The perfect answer to that is actually the policy that Cosecha is pushing for, which is they called the dignity plan or Dignity 2020. And what that calls for is an immediate end to detention and end to deportation. And papers for the 11 million undocumented people living in this country. And it’s a push and it might seem to a lot of people like a big one, but I mean, we have been watching the immigrant rights movement try so hard and work tirelessly to fight for dignity and instead we’ve seen from our elected officials, tiny, tiny scraps of gains. I mean important legislation has passed for sure, but legislation that has separated out families or felons this idea of good immigrants and bad immigrants. So we need to be asking and demanding that people and our legislators in particular, but also all of this country recognize the humanity of all people regardless of whether or not they are good or bad or fit into good or bad stereotypes.

HEFFNER: You even acknowledged that your, that plan is radical in some sense, but it’s departing from what has been common law in this country for some time.

ELLMAN-GOLAN: Yeah, I mean, I think, well first of all, I like radical so I’ll say that. Look, I think that when we have particularly the climate crisis that is just completely changing the way that people can even live on this earth, forcing migration. When we have mass violence that is caused in large part by American foreign policy or certainly exacerbated by it. I think that just simply the conditions are changing. We are not living in the same world that we were 20 years ago, 40 years ago, you know, 100 years ago. Not only is there more communication between other countries, but also just in terms of what is livable land. So I don’t know if it’s feasible to act as if we can have the same policies when the land that people can physically live on is literally shrinking.

HEFFNER: Isn’t there a way to have laws defining citizenship and still treat people who are entering here by non-legal means a with dignity.

ELLMAN-GOLAN: I largely feel that it’s my role in this, in this broader movement to really follow the lead of and support the work of undocumented activists who are at the forefront of this kind of organizing. And you know, activists from directly affected communities. So I really listen to the folks at Cosecha, at Mijente and other organizations like that because they’re frankly the experts in this issue, not me. And I don’t want to present myself as one because I’m not my area is much more on anti-Semitism and white nationalism, which certainly intersects with what we’re seeing right now. What I would say is that yes, we need to know how many people are in this country for the same reason we need a census because you need to know how to provide resources to certain areas. And you know, how many people are there so we know how many, how many dollars we need to allocate for those people: just basic social services requirements. But I would say that I think that what we’re watching happening right now is a shrinking of this idea of who is American, a narrowing of who counts as American. I mean, we’re watching it even with this latest ruling to suggest that Americans who are foreign service agents and have children abroad have to actually apply for citizenship for their children. There is this narrowing and it’s a desire that frankly, we’ve seen since Trump first articulated Make America Great Again, a desire to reduce who is American to white Christian, sis hetero, predominantly men on women will be allowed if you know those white CIS hetero women are, you know, can do, do what the nice men tell us to do. Right?

So I think that that’s really the thing that happened that we have to come back and as we’ve watched over the past few years, the right pull the center further and further, right, we have to pull back we have to, we have to pull back because otherwise we’re watching the center and we, and we spoke about this earlier, we’re watching the center move further and further, right and we’re losing ground in that way. So it’s actually necessary that we not just say what is wrong and horrible but that we counter balanced with a vision of what this country truly could be and what community and humanity could really be.

HEFFNER: Does support for ICE intersect with white nationalism?

ELLMAN-GOLAN: Yes. In, a word? Yes. I would say that ICE is in; ICE right now is out a white nationalist project. I mean, you mentioned the question of, oh well, you know, should people be given citizenship or not? The basic threat that overall immediately needs to be removed is ICE. ICE needs to be abolished because the constant terror that the 11 million undocumented people in this country are living under with this constant fear of ICE raids of ICE detention of ICE separating their families and abusing people and tearing them apart. So I would say that ICE is absolutely carrying out a white nationalist project. And we’ve seen this in part also because we’ve seen Latinx citizens of this country who’ve actually been detained by ICE. People who have Latinx last names are being denied passports right now or forced to jump through extra hoops to prove their citizenship. It’s clearly race-based. But let’s also go back to the founding of ICE. I mean, ICE was established in I believe 2003. It was a follow-up to 9/11 and that was when the immigration conversation really shifted from one about basic migration into one about security. And that’s what, and to the viewing of immigrants as constant security threats. Not that that’s the first time that happened in American history, we’ve seen that over and over and over again, but in this recent iteration, that’s what ICE is designed to do.

HEFFNER: When you have such pernicious rhetoric emanating from the office that oversees ICE and you see examples of ICE officers who are justifying their behavior by virtue of Trumpian rhetoric, then the description you offer of a white nationalist project, I mean it’s a slippery slope and, I see you find the current conditions intolerable and you see them as potentially leading to extremism.

ELLMAN-GOLAN: The end goal of white nationalism or perhaps the end result of white nationalism is inevitably mass slaughter and mass violence or mass expulsion, right? Because the idea of a white ethno state requires that people who don’t fit within those parameters are not there. And how are we going to be gone? We’re either going to be forcibly expelled or we’re going to be slaughtered. And I truly don’t mean to fear monger because I think that that’s not productive either. But I’m just talking about the logical conclusion of what we’re seeing from both a policy standpoint and from the rise of far right movements that are cozying up closer and closer to elected officials.

HEFFNER: There is this disconnect that the Republicans are vouching for Israel and they’re claiming the mantle of something in service of gas lighting or something else to really deflect from the fact that under Trump, there is concern about that path to authoritarianism and genocide that you’re describing, because of the rhetoric and how incremental or rapid the rhetoric turns into behavior, I know you’re so troubled about ICE because that is analogous to the beginnings or maybe not even beginnings of violence, race-based violence in this country.

ELLMAN-GOLAN: Yeah, I mean, I think, look, the RJC is a minority of the Jewish community in this country. I wouldn’t say that they’re not Jewish because I think that one thing we’re actually witnessing right now as an effort from right-wing Jewish community members to try to de-legitimize the Jewishness of left-wing Jews. And I don’t want to participate in that either way. So don’t get me wrong, Matt Brooks, head of the RJC is Jewish. His understanding of what it means to be Jewish is radically different than mine and radically different than about 80 percent of American Jews in this country. I think that we’ve seen from the RJC’s constant embrace of this president, a deep decision to align with white nationalism and frankly to align with anti Semitism as well. I mean, we saw back in, I’m trying to remember the month when it was, but Trump spoke to the RJC in Nevada a few months back and referred to Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel as your prime minister to a room of American Jews.

Right? They didn’t speak out against the, against this at all. It doesn’t actually trouble them at all because perhaps it either rings true or to them, it speaks to this, you know, his support for Israel and they accept that as support for Jews. The majority of Jews do not. But the other thing that I would say is that not only is this sort of, this conflation of, of support for Jews with support, for support, for American Jews, with support for Israel, anti-Semitic because that that leads and opens up space to act also as if somehow American Jews are then responsible for every act of the State of Israel regardless of how much we actively agitate against what that State is doing. But the other thing that I would say is that right-wing support for the current Israeli government is in line with right-wing support for this current government and for this current president, because we’re witnessing a rise of global authoritarianism and ethno-nationalism from the Nation-State law that passed in Israel; from the white nationalism we’re seeing in this country, from the violence we’re seeing in India, from laws that are being passed around, how animals can be slaughtered in Hungary. It’s, this is a consistent trend that we’re seeing across the globe and it’s not surprising that the supporters of some of these leaders support the other leaders.

HEFFNER: In fact, populism is what you do. You know, it’s mobilize on the ground and talk about your fellow human beings and their plight and their concerns. So as a final question here: how has your mobilization, the protest that you’ve led and driven outside of ICE facilities how is that, how can that lead to bettering the conditions there? How, you know, have there been results that you’re pleased with and you know, the long, the longer-term vision here is only a new president can disband ICE or can radically change ICE. How do you hope that your mobilization now, in the event that there is a Democratic president in 2021, how can your mobilization lead to a further action? But what’s it doing right now and what can it do in the future?

ELLMAN-GOLAN: So what Never Again Action is doing right now is what we wish we as Jews wish that non-Jews in Germany had done in 1938, 1939 and onward, which is essentially to do everything we can to stop this deportation and deportation and detention machine. So that does mean holding these direct actions, nonviolent direct actions outside of ice immigrant prisons. That means disrupting the ability of DHS officers and agents to go to work and continue engaging in basic human rights abuses every day. And I would say that it definitely is working because we’ve seen a response. Not only did we see that we shut down the DHS headquarters in DC for about half a day, they went into a total lockdown because of an action we held there about a month or so ago. And recently a letter from the CEO of the Geo Group, which is a private prison company, one of the largest that runs a lot of immigrant prisons, a leaked letter was revealed that showed that they were also responding to, and clearly alarmed by the actions of Never Again Action and alarmed by Jews Against ICE, who are taking action. Very interestingly in that, in that letter that came out that I believe that Ken Klippenstein from the Young Turks revealed and, and leaked is that they reference, they don’t reference, I believe Jews Against ICE as Jewish. They just talk about us as protesters. And instead they note that mainstream Jewish organizations disagreed with the term concentration camps. So again attempting to actually delegitimize our Jewishness because that somehow clearly poses a threat to them. The idea of Jews Against ICE is not the look that they want. And so they’re trying to downplay it. And I’d say that’s also effective.

HEFFNER: I would say at a minimum your hope would be that a new president would distance himself or herself from the ongoing reality here of the monetization of these facilities. I mean, the fact that folks are making money on inhumane conditions of detention facilities,

ELLMAN-GOLAN: I would say, yeah, I would say a short term plan is abolishing ICE and a longer and a longer term plan involves again, I think papers for people who are living in this country. But I think an end to these detention centers and an end to deportations is absolutely necessary.

HEFFNER: If you first deal with this deplorable idea of wretchedly monetizing prison camps for people who, you know, if you want to believe in legal and illegal immigration, they may not belong here, but they don’t deserve inhumane conditions in the first place. But people are probably going to leave this asking what do you replace ICE with? So what would be your vision for what to replace ICE with?

ELLMAN-GOLAN: Well, ICE only serves to roundup immigrants who are living not on the border, ICE does not function on the border, so ICE truly only exist to round people up in, not in states that are not necessarily border states or states, I believe, or locations that are not within 100 miles of the border. I think.

HEFFNER: So basically current criminal justice can adequately deal with people who may be here illegally or who are here illegally and who’ve committed crimes. I mean, because that’s the, that’s that’s the central concern of people who don’t want to admit people and want to reserve the right to deport people who have committed crimes.

ELLMAN-GOLAN: I mean, I would say first of all, I would say that the current criminal justice system does not work either. And we’ve seen that. It’s fundamentally unjust. But I would also say that this entire idea of sort of the, the criminal dangerous immigrant is completely inflated, just even if you look at the numbers of who engages in violent crime in this country. And again, I say this over and over again, when we look at who poses a violent mortal threat to communities in this country, it’s growing white nationalist groups that actually are getting less and less attention.

HEFFNER: If those Jews who were escaping Nazi Germany or occupied territories were to say I am crossing this border and they were fleeing genocide, I don’t think today the people who accuse Mexican or Venezuelan American people of illegal immigration; I don’t think they would have characterized them as criminals by virtue of illegal immigration because in order to escape Nazi Germany, people had to cross borders.

ELLMAN-GOLAN: I mean, I think the way that Jews are seen today, the way that white Jews are seen today white Jews fleeing Nazi Germany where that today would not, would not be given the same reception. Because I think that white people are not automatically criminalized in the same way that people of color are. That being said, I mean the Saint Louis is a ship that was bringing Jews who were fleeing occupied territories and it was turned away.

HEFFNER: Right.

ELLMAN-GOLAN: So, you know, I think that we have always; I think that what we’ve seen from history is that there will always be people who will find reasons to justify not doing the basic humane things that we know we must do. And that begins with dehumanizing the people who we know we have to help or at least extend a basic sense of dignity to. So I think that we saw that, frankly, we saw that back in, in the 30s and forties, and we’re seeing it now.

HEFFNER: Thank you so much for your time today. Sophie.

ELLMAN-GOLAN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you and the audience. I hope you join us again next time for thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.