This week Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detention centers as concentration camps. Concentration camps are defined as a place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard according to Merriam-Webster. Or as Andrea Pitzer says, the woman who literally wrote the book on concentration camps “We have what I would call a concentration camp system,” Pitzer says, “and the definition of that in my book is, mass detention of civilians without trial.”
Rather than this comparison prompting a closer look at the conditions of the children being held at the border (the same week as the Trump administration argued they didn’t need to provide soap and toothbrushes to children), Christian Republicans jumped to one of their favorite activities: using Jews for faux outrage aimed at Democrats and particularly women of color. When women like AOC make a comparison to concentration camps the conservative right jumps to defending Jews, but when Alabama compares abortion directly to the Holocaust it’s crickets (important to mention here that the vast majority of Jews support abortion rights and Jewish law requires the prioritization of the life of the mother)
Not only should Liz Cheney not be speaking for Jews on principle, she also is incorrect about how the majority of Jews feel on this issue. According to a recent poll 78% of American Jews disapprove of Trump’s handling of family separations. According to Elad Nehorai (Pop Chassid on twitter) “Even more pertinent to the right in today’s day and age: the fact that people care more about dead Jews than living brown people means that they can use dead Jews to their advantage. They can get people to righteously debate the positives and negatives of Holocaust analogies instead of have an honest, unfettered discussion about the suffering our government has now turned into policy.”
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Rather than these comparisons demeaning the memories of those Jews who died in the Holocaust, many Jews and Holocaust remembrance organizations feel the opposite. The importance of “Never Again” should mean that we use the memory of the Holocaust to stop further atrocities. That is how we honor those who died.
As Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg says “Every situation is different. But thinking about the Holocaust now can remind us of the urgency of this situation, fuel us to protest, to donatemoney to organizations on the front lines, to call our members of Congress and demand that they slash the budget for ICE and CBP, to center this as the human rights emergency that it is.”
Perspective | 'Never again' means nothing if Holocaust analogies are always off limits
The Holocaust was suddenly in the center of U.S. political discourse early this week. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez…
Holocaust survivor Claire Bored said “Now you read about the U.S. government separating mothers and children (at the Mexican border). Oh, how that hits home for me. I can’t imagine a child ripped away from their mother.”
When asked to comment on AOC’s comparison, The Holocaust Museum in DC referred people to its statement from 2017 that likened current refugee crises to the treatment of Jews in the 1930s. While that statement was written in response to the Syrian refugee crisis it is clear that it is meant to be applied to all refugees with this quote “American policy should fully address national security concerns while protecting legitimate refugees whatever their national or religious identity.” Additionally the Holocaust Museum partnered with Facing History and Ourselves to create a unit dedicated to using Holocaust history to encourage questions about the current refugee crisis.
While not every Holocaust remembrance organization has specifically discussed the border crisis, using the Holocaust to fight genocide and oppression all over the world is a central part of their work. The Shoah Foundation has been instrumental in collecting visual archival material not only from the Holocaust but also from the Rwandan, Cambodian, Guatemalan, and Armenia genocide as well as the Nanjing Massacre. They also promote education programs to teach students about discrimination including Japanese Internment (another time people of a certain ethnic group were held in camps without trial).
In this conversation it’s also important to note that while the term “concentration camps” is closely associated with the Holocaust, unfortunately the practice existed long before WWII in the United States. Cherokee member Rebecca Nagle showed that the policy of separating children from their parents originated with separating native children by sending them to boarding schools. DHS is even using a fort to hold migrant children that was once used to hold Apache men, women, and children as prisoners (again without trial).
Jews can disagree about comparisons to concentration camps and the usefulness of likening current crises to the Holocaust (we disagree about everything else) but in my opinion it is our duty as Jews to use the memory of the Holocaust to fight contemporary atrocities. That is how we honor those who died.