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About AOC and “concentration camps”

Official Congressional photo of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic representative from New York. Photo by Franmarie Metzler/U.S. House Office of Photography/Creative Commons

(RNS ) — As anyone who has not been in a coma knows, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently compared the camps on the Southern border of the United States to concentration camps.

How shall we interpret her remarks?

I am not a fan of AOC’s political positions, though I admire her spirit.

Nevertheless, she got me thinking.

First: Jews have a particular historical and emotional reaction to the term “concentration camp.”

It is, quite candidly, a trigger term.

As well it should be, for reasons that I hope I need not repeat here.

AOC should have realized that she was about to wade into deep and dark waters.

Second: And yet,  the concept of the “concentration camp” did not originate with the Holocaust, and is not limited to the Holocaust.

Let me quote a darkly fascinating book by Nikolaus Wachsmann: Kl: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps.

The first of these sites appeared during colonial wars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as brutal military responses to guerilla warfare. Colonial powers aimed to defeat local insurgents through the mass internment of civilian noncombatants in villages, towns, or camps, a tactic used by the Spanish in Cuba, the United States in the Philippines, and the British in South Africa (from where the term “concentraion camp” gained wider circulation). The colonial authorities’ indifference and ineptitude caused mass hunger, illness, and death among those inside such internment sites. However, these were not prototypes of the later SS camps, differing greatly in terms of their function, design, and operation [emphasis mine — JKS]. The same is true for camps in German Southwest Africa (now Namibia), run by the colonial authorities between 1904 and 1908 during a ferocious war against the indigenous population…but they did not provide a “rough template” for the SS camps, either, as has been claimed, and any attempts to draw direct lines to Dachau or Auschwitz are unconvincing [emphasis mine — JKS].

In other words: there were concentration camps before the Nazis, and those camps were different from the Nazi camps. Neither were they models for those camps.

To paraphrase the old Levy’s rye bread ad campaign: You don’t have to be Jewish to have been in a concentration camp.

Third: By using the term “concentration camps,” AOC was blowing a shofar.

Let us now assume that AOC knew exactly what she was doing.

Let us assume that she was not referring to, say, the camps that the British established for the Boers in South Africa.

Let us imagine that she was, in fact, talking about Dachau.

It is like the difference between the shofar and a trumpet.

A trumpet sounds “nice.”

The shofar does not sound nice.

It sounds discordant. Its intent is not to entertain, but to awaken.

That is precisely what AOC was trying to do. She was trying to wake everyone up to what is happening in our midst — even if it meant that she was taking a side journey into the land of hyperbole.

In this, she succeeded.

When people refuse to hear, sometimes you must scream.

Unfortunately, we have reason to worry that the debate over her choice of words will drown out the necessary debate over United States policy.

Fourth: There are no precise parallels between the Nazi concentration camps and the camps on the border.

Because, no internment or act of political violence is ever completely like another.

  • Black slavery in the South was not like Israelite slavery in Egypt.
  • The Armenian genocide was not like the Nazi genocide.
  • The experience of gays and gypsies during the Holocaust was not the same as the Jewish experience.
  • The gulag was not like the concentration camps.
  • Prisons are not like concentration camps.

Moreover, let us not forget the huge number of deaths in the Holocaust that did not occur in concentration camps, or in extermination camps.

I am referring to the so-called “holocaust by bullets,” in which the Nazis and their collaborators rounded up Jews and shot them, letting their bodies fall into mass graves.

But, wait.

Since when are we running an oppression Olympics?

Since when does something have to be exactly like the Holocaust, in intent and scope, to “count?”

Because if that is the bar that must be reached, every act of oppression would fail.

Those who zealously hold onto the Holocaust as an exclusive, never-to-be-approached realm of human evil guard the sanctity of that experience in the cause of historical memory.

But, they are failing the generations in not allowing us to draw (even necessary and limited) parallels, and therefore, act to prevent future atrocities.

I believe the words of Julius Lester: Our suffering is a long-stemmed rose that we hand to humanity.

Fifth: let us be more thoughtful and intentional in our use of Holocaust metaphors.

Consider presidential candidate, Marianne Williamson.

She has said that ICE mass deportations would be like Nazi actions against the Jews in the 1930s.

Some recently said to me: “ICE is like the SS!”

No, they’re not.

Yes, the situation on our borders is morally challenging.

But, it isn’t the Holocaust.

Not even close.

The question is: how much worse does it need to get before we call a metaphor moratorium — and do something?

 

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

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