Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) made headlines on June 18 when she tweeted a June 13 Esquire article that referred to the migrant detention centers along the southern border of the United States as “concentration camps.”
The immigrant detainees, Ocasio-Cortez remarked when she shared the article, “are being brutalized with dehumanizing conditions and dying. This is not hyperbole. It is the conclusion of expert analysis.”
This administration has established concentration camps on the southern border of the United States for immigrants, where they are being brutalized with dehumanizing conditions and dying.
This is not hyperbole. It is the conclusion of expert analysis ⬇️https://t.co/2dWHxb7UuL
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) June 18, 2019
The analysis she referred to was explicated in the Esquire piece, which quoted historian Andrea Pitzer, author of the 2017 book One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, who explained the definition of a “concentration camp system” as “mass detention of civilians without trial.”
Later, after an outcry on Twitter, Ocasio-Cortez repeated the comparison in an Instagram Live video, explaining she was trying to reach “people that are concerned enough with humanity to say that ‘never again’ means something.”
The reaction to both the initial comparison and her invocation of the phrase “never again,” strongly associated with the Holocaust, was swift, with broad condemnation coming from Jewish communal organizations, including Yad Vashem, the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and others. Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, Sen. Brian Schatz and some prominent rabbis and historians have defended Ocasio-Cortez in the dustup. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum released a statement opposing comparisons to the Holocaust.
Though Ocasio-Cortez emphasized that her reference was not meant as a comparison to the Nazi death camps — concentration camps “have been used before and after,” she said — the lines of the public debate were drawn, largely obscuring the issue of conditions within the detention camps themselves.
On the subject of language, the Jewish Exponent reached out to museums, a scholar of national conflict, local Jewish groups and descendants of Holocaust survivors to delve more deeply into the use of the phrase “concentration camps.” Nearly all of the interviewees disagreed with characterizing the migrant detention centers as such.
Scott Feigelstein, the regional director of the Republican Jewish Coalition for Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey, said that Ocasio-Cortez’s comments were “totally inaccurate.”
“On behalf of the RJC, I found her comments extremely reprehensible and, quite frankly, very disturbing,” he said.
Jill Zipin, co-founder of Democratic Jewish Outreach PA, said that while she believed Ocasio-Cortez was not “too far off-base,” she did not believe that there was “a black-and-white answer to the question” of whether the comparison was accurate. However, she did add: “I am not offended by her comparison, because we, as a Jewish community, we as Americans, we as human beings, when we see inhumanity to man, we must call it out.”
Maureen Pelta, a professor of art history at the Moore College of Art and Design, as well as the chair of Mordechai Anielewicz Creative Arts Competition, is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. In terms of Ocasio-Cortez’s language, Pelta, like Zipin, said she “[doesn’t] think it’s a black-and-white issue,” and she shared Ocasio-Cortez’s anger.
“I share her outrage at the policies. We should all be outraged,” she said.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s accurate or not accurate,” said Cathryn Miller-Wilson, executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania, regarding the comparison. “I haven’t been to the detention centers. What is accurate is the calling out of the government’s repeated treatment of immigrants like nonhumans. That is frightening and dangerous and what’s happening today.”
Rabbi Batya Glazer, head of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said that even if Ocasio-Cortez had been more clear in her intent to compare the migrant detention camps to other historical concentration camps aside from those constructed by the Nazis, it would have still been a poor choice of words.
“Words are very powerful, and they convey thoughts and ideas and emotions and words don’t always mean what the dictionary says they mean,” Glazer said. To use the term “concentration camp,” and say that it was not meant to refer to the Holocaust, she said, was “disingenuous.”
Brendan O’Leary, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, said that terming the migrant detention centers as concentration camps was apt.
“The practice and use of the term ‘concentration camps,’ first employed by the British in the Boer War and by Americans in Cuba to describe mass internment of civilians without trial, is generally accurate,” he said.
But most communal organizations and pundits who have talked about the subject, including most of the people the Exponent spoke with, agreed that Ocasio-Cortez was not using the term in its broadest sense. Rather, the perception has been that she was undeniably referring to Nazi concentration camps.
Feigelstein called the practice of making comparisons to the Holocaust in modern political rhetoric “reprehensible,” saying that it “demeans” the memory of the Holocaust, echoing the remarks of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), who was among the first to react to Ocasio-Cortez’s initial tweet. “Six million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust,” Cheney tweeted at Ocasio-Cortez. “You demean their memory and disgrace yourself with comments like this.”
Please @AOC do us all a favor and spend just a few minutes learning some actual history. 6 million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust. You demean their memory and disgrace yourself with comments like this. https://t.co/NX5KPPb2Hl
— Liz Cheney (@Liz_Cheney) June 18, 2019
Even people who sympathized with Ocasio-Cortez’s intended point wished she’d been more precise with her language.
“I understand the impulse to make an analogy,” Pelta said, “but I don’t think it serves the purposes of people who went through the Holocaust.”
“The critical point in the Nazi comparison is the road to dehumanization,” said Miller-Wilson, whose grandmother lost her entire family in the Holocaust. “That is real, and every Jew and non-Jew alike should be really concerned about that.”
For Glazer, what mattered most in Ocasio-Cortez’s comparison was that it made the experiences of Holocaust survivors “generic.”
“It takes the Holocaust out of the realm of something that happened to real people, in a real place, at a real time and makes it metaphorical,” she said. “It’s not that you can’t ever reference the Holocaust, but it needs to be done very carefully and respectfully.”
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