In June first term Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described the detention centers along the Mexican border where the US government holds undocumented immigrants as “concentration camps.” She was immediately denounced by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, which sees any effort to draw analogies between the Nazi era and any contemporary event as trivializing the Holocaust. However, the museum’s official view was challenged by Becky Erbelding, an educator and historian at the DC museum, who tweeted back in January 2018, “The parallels to the 1930s-1940s refugee crisis are so obvious. Why can’t we learn?”
More significantly, more than five hundred historians who have taught, researched or written on the Holocaust signed a letter to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum that points out that “The Museum’s decision to completely reject drawing any possible analogies to the Holocaust, or to the events leading up to it, is fundamentally ahistorical. It has the potential to inflict severe damage on the Museum’s ability to continue its role as a credible, leading global institution dedicated to Holocaust memory, Holocaust education, and research in the field of Holocaust and genocide studies. The very core of Holocaust education is to alert the public to dangerous developments that facilitate human rights violations and pain and suffering; pointing to similarities across time and space is essential for this task.”
Representative Ocasio-Cortez is historically accurate. Concentration camps are any place where large numbers of people are held in poor conditions because of their nationality, ethnicity, religion or other characteristic rather than as individuals convicted of crimes. For example, the camps where Japanese-Americans were held during World War II were concentration camps, as were the camps where Native Americans were confined repeatedly throughout US history. Ocasio-Cortez is absolutely correct that the border camps are concentration camps.
While concentration camp is associated with the Holocaust it is the wrong term to use for the Nazi camps like Auschwitz. Those were death or extermination camps. Most of the Jews, Gypsies and others taken there were quickly killed. The purpose of those camps was to kill, not to hold prisoners for long periods of time. Ocasio-Cortez is performing a service by clearing up the confusion between concentration and death camps.
There are few parallels to the Holocaust. That is why we need to reserve use of the term Holocaust or genocide to events like those in Rwanda in 1994. We need to describe terrible but less awful events such as mass detentions with other words, like concentration camps as Ocasio-Cortez does. If we use a variety of terms to refer to the Nazi death camps it leads to confusion that opens the way for Holocaust deniers to tell lies like, ‘No one was killed at Auschwitz. It was just a concentration camp.’
Those who denounce Ocasio-Cortez are not acting with good motives, as she pointed out when she was criticized by racist and anti-immigrant Congressman Steve King, who invited her to tour Auschwitz. She tweeted, “The last time you [King] went on this trip it was reported that you also met with fringe Austrian neo-Nazi groups to talk shop.” She continued, “I’m going to have to decline your invite…But thank you for revealing to all how transparently the far-right manipulates these moments for political gain.”
Many rightwing politicians, including those like Steve King with a long record of anti-Semitic comments and alliances, want to use the Holocaust and the memory of the six million (including two of my grandparents) to score political points: to undermine a leftist like Ocasio-Cortez or to reserve the Holocaust as a bludgeon to attack those who disagree with their views on Israel, Iran, or other political issues. They are not trying to educate the public about the Holocaust. It is such actors, and not Ocasio-Cortez, who abuse history and defile the memory of the Nazi’s victims: not just the six million Jews, but all the others, most numerously the twenty-seven million Soviets who died in the German-initiated war.
The US Holocaust Memorial Museum is making a strategic and moral error by allying with rightists who use the Holocaust for political purposes. In the short-run the Museum might win a higher budget from the Trump administration and it might attract new contributors, but if the Holocaust is seen as a bludgeon that is used by one faction on others, then it will lose its moral resonance. Many young American Jews are disgusted with Israel’s behavior toward Palestinians and with the Netanyahu government’s alliance with authoritarian governments like those of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Hungary. The Holocaust now is the most powerful source of American Jewish identity. If it becomes a partisan political tool, especially one wielded by actors whose other views are anathema to most young Jews, then the Holocaust will become a source of conflict rather than unity among Jews.
We need to be careful about drawing parallels between historical events and current day political issues. We need to be precise in our use of words and terms. Ocasio-Cortez is doing that. Her use of the term concentration camps draws a parallel between Trump’s detention of large numbers of undocumented people and the internment of Japanese-Americans or earlier of Native Americans. By educating people to history she and others who evoke aspects of the Nazi regimes or other fascist and authoritarian governments can alert us to the ways in which the Trump presidency goes beyond past Republican administrations to degrade democracy or exclude groups from the rights enjoyed by other Americans.
There are no signs that Trump is trying to emulate the Nazis. Rather, he is reviving aspects of America’s long and disgraceful record of excluding immigrants from nations and races deemed inferior. Trump’s diatribes against African and Latin American immigrants and his obscenity-laced descriptions of them and their countries is a return to the darkest moments of twentieth century American history. We need to highlight the real parallels between Trump and the harsh American racists of past centuries. For that, the term concentration camp is illuminating.