Open letter from a Jewish refugee: Resignation from the ACLU of Northern California Board of Directors

This is what I sent yesterday afternoon.

I have decided that I need to resign from the ACLU NorCal board and my position on the Board Nominating Committee.

There has been so much talk about the ACLU’s history, but I have always tried to focus on its present role (particularly since the branding as “the resistance” since the election) and leading into a more strategically and morally coherent future.

The reason that I chose to be on the Nominating Committee initially rather than policy or legal despite being an attorney with substantive expertise in many ACLU issue areas is because of that belief in the organization’s future.

I have tried to recruit people who are on the front lines of the work and thus will bring most value to stewarding the organization forward. I try to recruit people who are already fighting the rising, organized, empowered fascist movement that is also already present in so many areas of our government.

I do not feel like I can ethically perform that role and bring activists into a space where they will be retraumatized by having to debate whether or not a massively wealthy organization fundraising as “the resistance” is against ethnofascism, genocide, and ethnic cleansing.

I do not feel that I can ethically fundraise as “the resistance” for an organization that refuses to formally denounce and distance itself from clients who are openly organizing and building for death squads, mass killing, and an ethnostate.

When the actual resistance against fascism is being targeted and criminalized even in Berkeley, I cannot fundraise for an organization that insists it cannot clearly recognize the difference between trying to commit genocide and trying to prevent it.

I cannot understand how our affiliate is willing to disagree with ACLU National on campaign finance reform but cannot take a stand against organizing and trying to operationalize ethnofascist mass killing. In 1942, our affiliate was willing to violate direct orders of National and challenge interment of Japanese-Americans as being wholly unconstitutional. I know my ACLU history too.

After almost three years on the Board, I am very sad to leave. My involvement with the ACLU has been very meaningful to me. I was very hopeful I was going to be part of the future.

But I also know my own history. I am a Jewish refugee. I was born in Minsk, Belarus. From 1941–3 (so 45 years before I was born and just 20 years before my father was born), almost every Jew in my city was murdered by the Nazis.

My paternal grandfather was born in 1940 in Pukhovichi, Belarus (though I only remember my family saying it as Pukhovich in the Yiddish way.) From the Soviet reports:

On September 17, [1941], Germans and [local] policemen spent all day transferring the Jewish population of Pukhovichi by foot to an isolation ward in “Popova Gorka,” in the Blon rural council. There, the Jews were undressed [group by group] and driven to pits prepared in advance. The Germans lined the victims up in a row face down in the pit and shot them with machine guns. Afterwards they brought in the second row of people and shot them. Thus the Germans arranged ten rows [of Jews]. There were two pits. In the first pit, 970 people were shot and buried. In the second pit, 67 people were shot and buried …. Altogether, in the two graves, 1,037 people from Maryina Gorka and Pukhovichi were shot.

My existence is as a miracle. My great-grandfather was in leadership at a factory, and the factory’s staff and their direct family members were evacuated to Central Russia along with other people working in key wartime industries after the Nazi invasion. It was just about two months between the invasion and when everyone in the village was killed.

When the Soviet Union was falling apart and our own neofascist group Pamyat (“Memory” in Russian) openly called for and planned pogroms against Jews, my parents took it seriously and sent toddler me away to hide so I wouldn’t be killed if they happened. This is my life. I’m 29. This isn’t ancient history. We then in 1993 came to this country specifically as Jewish refugees.

My career has focused on fighting deportation and imprisonment of immigrants, particularly refugees. I do this because it is so real and personal to me. When LA’s Museum of Tolerance partnered with ICE, I immediately issued a statement through my job denouncing the betrayal of the clear lessons of my people’s suffering. I have total clarity on how my past and trauma inform my work.

And I have clarity now that in this historical and pivotal moment, I need to make my movement homes in organizations that are unflinchingly against the murder of me and my family.

This is what is worshipped by the ACLU VA clients and the people that ACLU National refuse to truly distance themselves from and denounce. This is what they want to emulate. This is not hyperbole or abstraction. This is embodied and visceral and forced to lie face-down on bleeding bodies of your family members while waiting to be shot and praying that you’ll die immediately and not be smothered to death under the bodies of your friends and relatives. This is what they are organizing for and building toward.

So, please do contact me if the affiliate decides to clearly take a position that genocide is not merely a political viewpoint. I will consider rejoining the board then. But in the meantime, I realize the miracle of my existence should not be wasted on arguing over whether “the resistance” includes resistance against those who want to finish the job of the original Nazis and kill me. I am honoring my family’s legacy of survival with my choice of how I spend my energy right now as the movement fights back.

Olga Tomchin

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