In contemporary usage, the phrase “concentration camp” means one thing: the place the Nazis and their allies sent Jews and others they considered undesirable for forced labor and mass execution. Although there are historical uses of the words that relate to other mass detention situations, the stunning recognition of the enormity of the Nazi atrocities has made virtually any other use of the term, no matter how dire the situation, disrespectful to victims of the Holocaust, and pure hyperbole.
So when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted about an Esquire article that described the much-criticized holding centers the United States uses for migrants on the southern border as “concentration camps,” she was not only guilty of hyperbole, but she also betrayed, once again, a remarkable lack of sensitivity to the Jewish community, including many Holocaust survivors in her own district.
“The U.S. is running concentration camps on our southern border, and that is exactly what they are,” she tweeted last week. When that comment attracted attention, she doubled down on the reference and asserted: “If that doesn’t bother you … I want to talk to the people that are concerned enough with humanity to say that ‘never again’ means something.” This second round invoked another Holocaust reference — this time using the rallying cry of “Never Again!” Back in November, she raised the specter of the Holocaust when she compared Central American refugees to various categories of refugees who came before them, including “Jewish families fleeing Germany.”
We understand Ocasio-Cortez’s passion for the plight of those seeking entry to the United States and share many of her concerns regarding problems with U.S. immigration policy. But crowded detention centers are not concentration camps, and none of those in the detention centers or otherwise seeking entry at our southern border are fleeing the unspeakable horror of Nazi Germany’s programmed and systematic eradication of an entire people, to which the phrase “Never Again” applies.
That said, we don’t think that Ocasio-Cortez’s “concentration camp” comments were intentionally disrespectful to victims of the Holocaust. Rather, these latest gaffes from the closely watched, publicity-seeking, tweet-happy congressional freshman are other examples of Ocasio-Cortez’s lack of empathy for sensitive, hot-button issues that affect the Jewish community, and her lack of appreciation of the scope and horror of the Holocaust and its lasting impact.
We live in an era of shock politics — complete with competition from politicians of all stripes to draw support through attention-grabbing messaging and provocative statements. As the 2020 rhetoric heats up, and public confrontations and debate of the issues increases, we urge an across-the-board ban on invocation of the Holocaust in connection with anything other than the deliberate extermination of a people through mass killings, or reference to the Shoah itself.
Let’s talk about the issues on their merits.