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  • State of the Field:New Directions for American Jewish Migration Histories
  • Libby Garland (bio)

Jewish Migration Histories in the Present Moment

On April 13, 2017, several hundred local Jewish activists, together with allies from New York's Muslim community and city government, rallied in lower Manhattan for a "seder in the streets." Organized by the group Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), the event linked the themes of Passover—the intertwined narratives of Jewish wandering and liberation—to the urgent issues of the present. Displaying pieces of blue fabric to evoke the waves of the Red Sea, protesters marched from City Hall to Foley Square and the federal courthouse. They called on the city to make good on its promise to remain a "sanctuary city" in the face of the Trump administration's increasingly harsh immigration law enforcement. Activists also linked the protection of immigrant residents to local police reform, calling for changes such as an end to "broken windows" policing strategies.2 "Broken windows" policing practices, meaning the aggressive policing of minor infractions, sweep many New Yorkers of color into the criminal justice system, and can wind up funneling undocumented New Yorkers from there into the federal immigration machinery of detention and deportation.3 [End Page 423]

"Seder-in-the-streets" protesters explicitly drew not only on the biblical story of Exodus but also on the more recent history of Jewish migration as a frame for their stand on current immigration politics. Dania Rajendra was one of six protesters arrested for blocking the streets in an act of civil disobedience during the "seder in the streets." She told Haaretz, "I'm the proud daughter of an immigrant and see around me how my immigrant friends and neighbors are scared about the collaboration between police and ICE. I need New York to be the kind of city that it was for my Jewish ancestors who fled pogroms and Eastern Europe, and for my own dad. That's the city I want to be a part of, the vision of liberation I see when I do seder with my friends and family."4

The JFREJ "seder in the streets" was one of many protests in the past year at which American Jews mobilized their own migration history in service of a pro-immigrant politics. At rallies against new policies limiting refugee admissions, for example, Jewish protesters have donned buttons and carried signs proclaiming messages such as "my people were refugees too."5 Such connections made in the realm of politics raise important questions for scholars who study the role of migration in American Jewish history. I do not mean questions about the validity of historical claims activists make on their signs or buttons or in statements to the press (if "my people" means "Jews in general," for example, then such statements as "my people were refugees too" are clearly a historical stretch, even if they are powerful statements of solidarity). Rather, I mean that the language of the protesters pushes us toward questions about the relationship between American Jewish migration histories and other histories–legal, political, cultural and social histories of movement and settlement, alienness and citizenship, belonging and exclusion. The protesters' language points us, as well, toward questions about the meanings American Jewish migration histories might hold in the present, supercharged moment.6 [End Page 424]

American Jewish Migration Histories

To the readers of this journal, "American Jewish immigration history" is bound to be the more familiar phrase. But I want to suggest that "American Jewish migration histories" could be a more productive term. The words "American" and "migration" might seem to jostle uncomfortably in that formulation, or to suggest a certain instability about where the borders of inquiry should lie for historians of Jews. "Migration" gestures at international or transnational histories; "American," classically, to nation-based ones. Yet, as recent scholarship makes clear, the study of global migrations and the study of American Jewish history matter for each other, and can continue to matter. I will return to this below.

For many years, historians of American Jews who studied migration were most focused on immigration—the stories of successive waves of Jews arriving from overseas, especially the...


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