The willingness of some Americans to analogize the plight of illegal immigrants seeking to enter the United States with that of Jews who sought to flee the death camps of Europe is hard to defend. Yet instances of political figures and figures making such comparisons continue to proliferate, leaving us to ponder whether it’s so common that it’s no longer possible to push back against such comments, and if anyone even understands the damage being done by rooting the immigration debate in such inflammatory language.
The latest example came from a familiar source of controversy — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who has an unerring instinct for fueling outrage on the part of her political opponents and for publicity. Love her or hate her, AOC is, next to U.S. President Donald Trump, the nation’s most unavoidable political personality, and her willingness to push the buttons not only of Republicans, but of moderates of all political stripes, can only be termed positively Trumpian.
So when Ocasio-Cortez claimed in an Instagram post that the United States is “running concentration camps on the southern border” in reference to federal efforts to cope with the surge of illegal immigration, conservative heads predictably exploded, Jewish leaders huffed and puffed, and her liberal allies either rationalized the comment or doubled down on it.
It’s necessary to acknowledge, as some of AOC’s defenders pointed out, that the term “concentration camp” was not first coined to describe Nazi Germany’s efforts to exterminate the Jewish people during the Holocaust. The first uses date back to efforts by the Spanish colonial overlords to “reconcentrate” a hostile Cuban population during that island’s efforts to gain its independence. The phrase was also used by the British to describe the camps it set up to imprison Afrikaner civilians during the Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa where tens of thousands died of disease.
Yet these examples are hardly fair analogies to what is happening today at America’s southern border. What happened in both Cuba and South Africa were widely described at the time as war crimes carried out by imperial powers. Whether you support or oppose the policies of the Trump administration or think federal authorities have bungled the problem, efforts to secure an international border against those seeking to cross it illegally falls within the purview of any democratically elected government.
In the 20th century, the term became associated almost exclusively with camps like Dachau, which were primarily places of imprisonment, privation and torture for prisoners of the Nazi regime, as opposed to death camps like Treblinka and Auschwitz, whose main purpose was mass murder by gas chamber, shootings, starvation or disease.
To call U.S. federal facilities—where either those caught crossing the border without permission or seeking asylum without going through the normal process at ports of entry are being held—“concentration camps” is at best hyperbole and at worst an effort to consciously distort the truth.
And as such, outrage about such comments is understandable, whether uttered by a political provocateur like AOC or when left-wing Jewish groups who have embraced the cause of illegal immigrants employ it.
Treating government efforts to deal with the problem of illegal immigration as if it were another Holocaust isn’t just factually untrue, it’s also part of a process by which the slaughter of European Jewry is reduced to just another bad thing that nice people should lament. The Holocaust was a unique historical event of genocide.
Some of those Central Americans who are seeking asylum in the United States are coming from dangerous situations with valid claims. Most, however, are merely seeking better lives in the United States like generations of immigrants before them, but without obeying the laws that those who do so legally observe.
Jews who fled Europe seeking entry into Western countries, such as those on board the ship, SS St. Louis, which was turned away from the United States in 1939 (the 80th anniversary of which was observed last month) were, in the final analysis, fleeing certain death. There is simply no comparison between them and the current batch of asylum-seekers; to claim otherwise is to utter a falsehood. The same is true of efforts to analogize illegals hiding from law enforcement to Anne Frank.
Moreover, nothing going on at the border — as insufficiently funded federal personnel seek to cope with a massive influx of people either violating the law or seeking to game it with false asylum claims — is remotely comparable to the way Jews were treated during the years of World War II. That is true even of the much criticized separation of families at the border.
Arguments can be made to favor liberalizing U.S. immigration laws or even, as some figures like 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris recently suggested, welcoming illegal immigrants with open arms, rather than them being arrested or deported. But wherever you think about such ideas, support for enforcing the current laws doesn’t make anyone a racist — let alone a latter-day Nazi. It is only in today’s hyper-partisan era in which politics has become a form of warfare, rather than a debate in which people can agree to disagree, that such statements have become commonplace.
Some Jews may think their community should oppose the Trump administration’s policies because they are inconsistent with their ideas about Jewish values. Even if you agree with that notion, injecting the Holocaust into the debate has only one purpose: the demonization of political opponents and the delegitimization of support for the rule of law.
Even those who agree with AOC about the issue of illegal immigration ought to condemn the way she and other like-minded people talk about it. The more we strip the Holocaust of its singular nature, the more we disarm efforts to speak out against contemporary anti-Semitism and genocide. And the more we use Holocaust terms to conduct a debate about even the most emotional political issues, the more we condemn this nation to rhetorical violence that exacerbates our already dangerously divided society. Anyone who thinks that’s consistent with Jewish values doesn’t know the meaning of the term. pjc
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate