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)
"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)
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 mass migration of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as the communities these newcomers established within the United States. From the 1960s onwards, historians chronicling Jewish immigration to the goldene medine (golden country) were asking the same questions as other immigration historians. These questions centered on debates over "Americanization," acculturation, and adjustment, and they reflected the deepening connections between the growing fields of social history and immigration history. (7) How did people build communities--families, neighborhoods, institutions--in a new land? To what extent were they able to maintain cultural and religious practices in this new setting, and how were they changed by the political, social and economic forces reshaping the nation in which they settled? How and when did Jewish immigrants and their children "become American," and on whose terms? To what extent did they forge new identities that blended Old World and New? During the last several decades of the twentieth century, historians mined both the doings of communal leaders and the everyday experiences of ordinary people for meaning, generating an enormous body of work that painted a rich, complicated portrait of American Jewish immigrant experiences and communities. (8)
Like much of the scholarship coming out of the fields of immigrant and ethnic history, a good deal of this work on American Jewish communities was, initially at least, inwardly focused. Taken as a whole--disagreements, biases and perspectival shifts over time notwithstanding--this literature forged a sort of communal autobiography. But some of it also put American Jewish immigrant experiences in dialogue with the experiences of other groups, a tendency that has grown stronger over time, as historians steeped in social and cultural historical approaches have continued to enter the field. (9) Since the 1990s, the "racial turn" in US immigration and ethnic history, in particular, has helped push the study of American Jews--immigrants and their children--in new directions. Scholars such as Matthew Frye Jacobson and Eric Goldstein, for example, published path-breaking books examining Jews' place in the complex landscape of American ethnic and racial formations. This work illuminated the roles that forces as varied as law, economics, politics, culture and Jewish communities themselves played in cementing Jewish "whiteness" over time. (10) Such studies argued persuasively that the critical history of race in America cannot be fully understood without accounting for the often contradictory and complicated history of Jews, and, in turn, that understanding the trajectory of Jewish immigrant communities on arrival in America requires grappling with the complex and shifting realities of race.
Scholars of American Jewish immigrant communities thus increasingly reached for new paradigms that put their work in critical conversation with scholars of American history more broadly. For the most part, however, like most scholarship in the field of American history (and indeed in the field of history more generally), scholarship on American Jewish immigrants took as its frame of reference the political boundaries of the nation. Immigrants arrived from abroad, to be sure, but homelands served as the backdrop to stories largely told in relation to immigrants' new, American setting. In other words, "American Jewish migration history" remained, for the most part, "immigration history." There are, of course, good reasons to focus research within national frameworks' not least of all the need to set boundaries for projects. The imperative to operate within existing academic institutions and conversations, in order to conform to the demands of publishers, grant- and fellowship-providers, and hiring committees, has also constrained the kinds of histories scholars, particularly those early in their careers, have been able to tell. Furthermore, as Moshe Rosman points out, locating the histories of Jewish communities firmly within nation-based historiographies also served an important political and intellectual purpose. Telling the histories of Jews as intertwined with the histories of particular nations, he observes, helped make the case that "Jews who live in a place are properly part of the history of that place," thus "negating] age-old prejudice positing the 'Jew as alien'" and "asserting that Jews were in fact of their countries and not just in them." (11)
In recent years, however, scholarly attention to concepts of globalization, diaspora, and transnationalism has produced new kinds of narratives about migration. Scholars deploying these concepts are less inclined to imagine migration or immigrant communities in terms of people leaving one place and arriving in another and instead more interested in mapping ongoing networks of connection across the geopolitical boundaries of nation-states and empires. (12) In keeping with these theoretical and institutional currents reshaping the historiography of migration, scholars of American Jewish history and Jewish migration history more generally have increasingly pushed their research frameworks beyond the boundaries of individual nation-states. (13) Studies such as Matthew Frye Jacobson's Special Sorrows (1995) and Rebecca Kobrin's Jewish Bialystok and its Diaspora (2010), for example, traced the intricately transnational ways that Jews forged identities, institutions and politics, thus reframing the history of US-based Jewish communities as a global one. (14) Approaching histories of Jewish migration through the concepts of diaspora and transnationalism helps scholars of American Jews to rethink our geographic and geopolitical frames...