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.
The Mourner’s Kaddish is a central component of traditional Jewish mourning rites. Observant Jews recite the prayer three times a day for a year after the death of a loved one. It is considered to be a mitzvah, an obligation, to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish after the death of one’s parents. In some congregations, only those in the year of mourning or honoring the anniversary of the death of a loved one stand during the recitation of the prayer, making their status as mourners recognizable to the rest of the congregation. In other congregations, everyone stands, but only the mourners speak. When Jews recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, they express their grief in ways that are public and recognizable.
For Jews, the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish is part of the practice of mourning, and embedded in that practice are assumptions about who is to be grieved, by whom, in what way, and with what effects. These assumptions have ethical and political implications, as questions about who is grieved and whose grief is recognized always do, in the Jewish tradition as everywhere else. When the AIDS organization ACT UP held its first political funeral in Washington, D.C., in 1992, demonstrators literally brought the victims of the AIDS epidemic into public view, carrying the ashes of dead friends and family members through the streets of the capital to the White House. A leaflet announcing the action read: “Bring your grief and rage about AIDS to a political funeral in Washington, D.C.” These political funerals were ritualized acts; they were funeral processions and mourning rites in which people grieved – and called for others to recognize their grief and anger.
The Tisha B’Av protests echo secular political funerals and die-ins, but also stand firmly within the Jewish tradition. Jewish protestors who recite the Mourner’s Kaddish in protest enact and express their grief. This is simply how Jews grieve, they imply. They are also making an ethical claim about who is to be grieved. Their act challenges the Jewish tradition of treating the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish as an obligation that applies mainly to the death of kin or, on Tisha B’Av, to historical persecution and exile. It also challenges U.S. policies that treat the victims of state violence as dispensable. Reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish in public is a religious act, one that makes a claim about what Judaism requires of Jews. It is also a political one, one that makes a claim about the injustice of state policies. The demonstrators who recited the Mourner’s Kaddish at ICE offices around the country on Tisha B’Av connected Jews’ grief at the destruction of the Temple and the historical and ongoing persecution of Jews to their grief and anger about the U.S.’ persecution of immigrants and refugees.
Rituals are typically scripted and norm-governed, repeated and habitual. It is no wonder that they are often believed to support the status quo. And, of course, they often do. But there’s no reason why scripts and norms, repetition and habit, cannot also be moved in other directions, to critique social arrangements and to mobilize change. Tali Ginsburg, arrested at the July action in Washington, reflected on the Tisha B’Av protests, writing that “as we observed the yearly ritual of mourning for Tisha B’Av on Sunday, I was struck by this need for repetition. Jewish ritual asks that we remember again and again without ever dulling any of the pain. Our collective ability to reckon with the violence of this moment is contingent on this practice, which builds our capacity to mourn and fuels our call to abolish ICE.” The idea that reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish again and again builds the capacity to mourn is a powerful one – especially when combined with attention to who is mourned, and what will come after the mourning is done.
Molly Farneth is an assistant professor of religion at Haverford College.