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Are We Ever Allowed to Make Holocaust Comparisons?

Wherever you stand on today’s hysteria about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the phrases “concentration camps” and “Never Again” in regard to the mass detentions of immigrant children on the U.S. border probably has been predetermined by your politics.

That is to say, liberals will come to her defense, saying that we face a horrible moral situation and we need language that sparks people to action. Conservatives will decry her, saying her rhetoric cheapens the legacy of the Holocaust. Everyone will retreat to their previously drawn lines.

I don’t want to be guilty of that, so before making one or two points, I want to come clean: I am generally on the political left, but I think it is possible and necessary to be critical of leaders with whom you are sympathetic. The antisemitic blindspot of the left is an outrage, and people who care about the climate change, racism, LGBTQ issues, economic justice, and reining in unfettered corporations had better wake up quickly before the Democratic party slides into full-blown Corbynism. Which would be a disaster for everyone.

So let’s try to back off of how we feel about the messenger, and soberly ask: Was AOC wrong to use those terms? I would make a few points:

First: Being specific in our language is very important, especially when it comes to the Shoah. “Concentration camps” are not the same as “death camps”—and during the Shoah there were both. To quote Deborah Dwork, a preeminent contemporary scholar of the Shoah:

Initially, the Nazis established concentration camps to incarcerated Communists, Socialists, asocials, or other who did not fit into the national community. Their primary purpose was to “teach” these Germans what they needed to know to return to society. Jews, by definition, could never belong to the national community… The many Jews among these political prisoners were therefore treated worse and assigned to the most difficult and dangerous labor details.[1]

These concentration camps were limitless in their brutality, and of course enormous numbers of Jews died there. But they are not identical with the death camps—Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek, Belzec, Chelmno; each name seared into our consciousness—where the singular goal was to use all the technology available to annihilate enormous numbers of Jews as efficiently, and as brutally, as possible.

There have been concentration camps before and since the Shoah. Totalitarian regimes have “concentrated” groups of people into “camps” many times in our awful history. Auschwitz, however, is something different. (See the map below.)

Second:  Is the Shoah a singular event? I believe it is. That’s why I prefer the Hebrew shoah, “cataclysm”, to the English holocaust. This language preserves the Jewish ownership of our history, and it reminds us that while others were persecuted by the Nazis, the Jews were uniquely targeted. Furthermore, there’s something unsettling about the origins of the word holocaust, with its connections to biblical burnt-offerings. As if to say: there was something “sacrificial” about the murders, which of course there wasn’t.

Likewise for genocide, a word that needed to be coined because no linguistic precedent existed for the crimes that the Nazis committed against the Jews. “Genocide” is not a synonym for “murder,” even “mass murder,” and it should not be used as such. But still: There have been other genocides, some attempted and some fulfilled, in the past three-quarters of a century, and we need to identify them as such.

Third:  So, are we ever allowed to make comparisons to the Shoah? We’ve become so accustomed to calling our enemies “Nazis.” (I’ve done it.) Perhaps there is solace in knowing that the nastiest word we can come up with for the scummiest people is “Nazi”—isn’t it an acknowledgment of the evil of the Shoah if that’s the most extreme word we can think of?

But we should usually avoid using that language. Thoughtful people with diametrically different points of view from our own are not “worse than Hitler.”  But still…

Do we really believe that we should never make Shoah analogies? If so, what was the point of all that education, all those Holocaust Museums, all those Yom HaShoah commemorations? I thought the point was: Learn from history. Recognize the signs of creeping fascism in order to cut it off. Don’t let another human being be dehumanized to the point where they are treated like vermin.

I thought that’s what “Never again” meant: “Never again” to us—that’s why we needed Zionism; “Never again” to anyone—that’s why we needed a human rights movement.

Through our Shoah education, Jewish strength has become a Mitzvah (here in the sense of “commandment”). So, too, has Jewish empathy for others’ victimization.

We’ve properly used the Einsatzgruppen analogy when considering the annihilation of the Darfuris. We’ve correctly called the Rwandan devastation a “genocide.” When Arabic textbooks in Palestine and elsewhere show caricatures of hook-nosed Jews grubbing money and drinking blood, we say, We know where we’ve seen this before, and we call it out.

And I, for one, make the connection between those faces on the U.S. border—concentrated as they are into camps—and the faces of Jewish children in Germany during World War II.

So my take on AOC’s comments?    

The humanitarian disaster taking place on the U.S. border is a stain on our country. The Trump administration’s family separation policies diminish our moral authority everywhere. The failure of the other parts of the government to react is a disgrace, although we should appreciate the moral voices on both the right and the left that have spoken out.

If AOC had called it “Auschwitz,” she should be condemned. If she had called it “genocide,” it would be an abhorrent abuse of language. But she didn’t. She called it a “concentration camp” and she said “Never again.” I agree with her on both counts.

[1] Deborah Dwork & Robert Jan van Pelt, Holocaust: A History, 2002, p.356.

From the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,  https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org

From the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org