Recently, Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez called the immigrant detention camps on our southern border "concentration camps." Her use of the term evoked a great deal of pushback, not only from Republican opponents, but also from others who felt it to be a desecration of the memory of the victims of the Holocaust.
This dispute is but part of an ongoing debate over the use of Holocaust analogies in addressing contemporary issues. The attitudes on making such analogies range from an absolute rejection of all analogies as a desecration of the memories of the victims of the Holocaust to a belief that the making of such analogies is a consecration of those memories in that by warning us of the danger in allowing evil to go unchecked, they imbue a higher purpose to the death of these martyrs.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum discourages the making of Holocaust analogies, yet it too, on rare occasions makes them, such as when it declared the slaughter in Darfur the first genocide of the 21th century.
I am not shy about making Holocaust analogies with some of the evil deeds we witness today, but such analogies must be made within a proper historical context and be factually valid, as opposed to an exercise in hyperbole. In this year’s Yom HaShoah service, our liturgy committee, looking at the Holocaust as an evolving process of persecution, made such analogies, comparing today’s Muslim travel ban, the exclusion of transgender men and women from serving in the military, and the family separation policy to some of the ways Jews were persecuted in the early days of Nazi Germany. So yes, there are frightening parallels that can legitimately be made but only if we keep them accurate and in their historical context. Regarding the Holocaust we Jews say: "Never Again!" Not just "Never Again" to the Jews but "Never Again" to any people. Danya Ruttenberg put it very well in a recent piece in the Washington Post when she said, "Never again means never again. And never again also means now."
This brings us back to whether Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s comparing today’s immigrant detention camps to concentration camps is an appropriate Holocaust analogy. In this case, I disagree. While it is true that both types of camps were set up to intern massive groups of people against their will, a state sponsored bigotry played a role in their creation and their internees have been forced to live under substandard conditions, still it is inappropriate to compare today's camps with the Nazi camps.
The Nazi camps were designed to be persecution and death camps. They were the product of an evolutionary process which made them ultimately "efficient" in taking the most advantage of their inmates at the lowest investment, without any concern whatsoever as to the life or death of their prisoners. Even the earliest of the Nazi concentration camps — camps like Dachau, which would be the closest parallels to today’s camps — were set up to be lethal environments which centered on starvation, crushingly heavy labor, practically non-existent medical care, brutally strict discipline, inhuman exposure to the elements, liberal use of torture and death to those too weak to work.
While I do not argue against the fact that the conditions in the immigrant detention camps are an appalling disgrace for the United States, still they cannot legitimately be compared to the conditions in the Nazi concentration camps. To do so is an exercise in hyperbole.
This in no way detracts from the fact that today’s detention camps are a horror in and of themselves. While they are not concentration camps, neither are they summer camps. They are inhumane and immoral. Nor should we rule out the possibility that if the U.S. continues down its current path that today’s detention camps may become tomorrow’s concentration camps. It is up to us to keep that from happening.