Last year, a debate started, largely on the internet, over whether or not it was fair to compare the current U.S. border separations policy with the Holocaust — a comparison that many people were making, and many others were upset by.
As I wrote then, the arguments for comparing what happened in Nazi Germany to what is happening in modern day United States focus on three key points: the concept of “illegality,” the idea that we’re already on the road to another genocide, and a frustration with the focus on the semantics of the comparison. The comparison also hinges on the “just following orders” parallels between ICE and the Gestapo, as well as the similarities in language and visuals of it all. The arguments against the comparison focus on the idea that it minimizes Jewish trauma, ignores American history, detracts from what is actually happening, and that however awful we feel about what is happening, it is not genocide.
However you felt about that particular comparison, the moral of the story was that most people understood that what was happening on the border was wrong — and horrific.
Well, this same debate has re-emerged in recent days thanks to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s comments that the detention centers holding undocumented immigrants are “concentration camps.” In an Instagram Live, she said, “I want to talk to the people that are concerned enough with humanity to say that ‘never again’ means something.” She also tweeted it. Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney and House Republican Conference Chair, came after AOC for the comparison, saying it demeans the memory of the 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust. And then the internet blew up.
Shall we get into it?
Arguments in favor of the comparison:
1. The historical argument
Let’s just look at history: Before there were ever death camps (where Jews were murdered), there were concentration camps. As Holocaust and genocide studies historian Waitman Wade Beorn told Esquire, “Concentration camps in general have always been designed — at the most basic level — to separate one group of people from another group.” Concentration camps are also part of American history — Japanese Americans were relocated and detained in them during World War II.
My grandpa’s entire family was murdered in the Holocaust. I’m 100% comfortable with @AOC and anyone else referring to the current situation as concentration camps. The Holocaust didn’t come out of nowhere—it was a slow build, like now. People who understand history know this. https://t.co/agIBjPMNLz
— marisa kabas (@MarisaKabas) June 18, 2019
Ok, Internet. Time to learn the difference between concentration camps and death (“extermination”) camps.
Germany started with concentration camps in 1933.
Death camps started in 1941.
Never again is now. https://t.co/W3rbM5asVc
— Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg (@TheRaDR) June 14, 2019
I know what concentration camps are. I was inside two of them, in America. And yes, we are operating such camps again.
— George Takei (@GeorgeTakei) June 19, 2019
You need to understand, Congresswoman @Liz_Cheney, that the Holocaust happened over a long period of time, abated by the persistent excuses of those in power to do something. Out of fear. Out of selfishness. Out of bigotry.
— Charlotte Clymer🏳️🌈 (@cmclymer) June 18, 2019
(I suggest reading Charlotte’s entire thread by clicking on the tweet.)
2. Semantics are B.S.
As many people have pointed out, this argument over semantics has significantly derailed the real conversation we should be happening about these horrific policies.
When you're having a semantic argument about whether they're *technically* concentration camps then you've already crossed the moral rubicon.
— Moira Donegan (@MoiraDonegan) June 18, 2019
they’re concentration camps and instead of arguing about it online we should be in the streets protesting them
— Molly Lambert 🦔 (@mollylambert) June 19, 2019
When it comes to arguing about calling them concentration camps, I’m anti-semantics.
— The Volatile Mermaid (@OhNoSheTwitnt) June 19, 2019
3. Let’s focus on the actual issue.
Speaking of semantics, if you’re more offended by a term used to describe a policy than the policy itself, it may be time to rethink your priorities. A pretty straightforward argument.
If you're more offended by comparisons to the Holocaust than the treatment of migrants at the border, you're the reason we say "Never again."
— Elad Nehorai (@PopChassid) June 18, 2019
Such deep irony: the people who dismiss all kinds of harm as “locker room talk,” “just words,” etc. now see the words “concentration camp” and are suddenly all “Language matters!!”
Yeah it does, that’s why we’re using the term. And it mattered before, too.
— Celeste Ng (@pronounced_ing) June 19, 2019
this whole “don’t call them concentration camps” thing is just an extension of the problem we’ve had since 2016 wherein the comfortable and unaffected have deemed themselves fit to lead the battle against fascism but the only marching order they ever give is “be nicer”
— JuanPa (@jpbrammer) June 19, 2019
I want to live in a country where people get outraged by our system of concentration camps – not by someone identifying them as concentration camps.
— John Iadarola (@johniadarola) June 19, 2019
4. People are dying.
There are an incredible number of lies people are trying to sell today to get people to look away from Trump's concentration camps. Let's dispense with one of the big ones: the idea that they can't be camps because the conditions inside are fine.
That's a lie. People are dying.
— Jonathan M. Katz✍🏻 (@KatzOnEarth) June 19, 2019
5. The Nazis didn’t invent concentration camps.
The English term “concentration camp” was first used to refer to camps set up by the Spanish military in Cuba during the Ten Years War in 1868. While many people now largely associate the term with Nazi concentration camps, this argument holds that you can compare what’s happening to concentration camps without referencing the Holocaust at all.
People, repeat after me: The Nazis did not invent concentration camps. We can call things concentration camps without being accused of making inappropriate Holocaust comparisons. https://t.co/ayEgvPKXpM
— Alex Maws (@AlexMaws) June 18, 2019
6. What’s happening is the literal definition of a concentration camp.
Just check the dictionary.
Clearly I need to explain that seeking asylum is NOT a crime & separating children from parents IS a crime.
— Qasim Rashid, Esq. (@QasimRashid) June 19, 2019
I did my dissertation on #ConcentrationCamps, so I have a few thoughts about @AOC's use of the term to describe the build up of camps on the US southern border. For those in a hurry, here's the take-home message: By any reasonable definition, these are concentration camps
— Lester Andrist (@landrist) June 18, 2019
They’re concentration camps. pic.twitter.com/nH6c8ajGsQ
— A#24601 (@immig_rant) June 19, 2019
7. The Holocaust was evil, but not uniquely evil.
Human history has seen an unfortunate number of mass genocides.
Insisting that the Holocaust was uniquely evil and can't be compared to anything else is a ploy to place it outside of history & politics.
People who do this are trying to distract from the obvious parallels with the campaign of escalating dehumanization happening here and now.
— Leah Greenberg (@Leahgreenb) June 18, 2019
8. “Never Again is now.”
This is something that’s been floating around a lot — it basically means that “Never Again,” the phrase many Jewish communities echo when talking about the Holocaust, needs to be taken into consideration right now. We need to act now to prevent genocide from happening again in the future.
Hi. Jew here. Descendant of the Holocaust. The breaking down of communities, taring families apart, and dehumanization of Jews started well before the Final Solution. Staying silent in the face of atrocities is how we demean the memory of the Holocaust. Never Again is now. https://t.co/eEqsyIlhhE
— Every Overdose Death is a Policy Failure (@abgutman) June 18, 2019
The human rights abuses and most likely atrocities are going to start picking up steam at an accelerated pace.
Never again is now.
— Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg (@TheRaDR) June 18, 2019
the patterns of dehumanization, scapegoating and control are beginning again. if you haven't seen the photos of people fenced by barbed wire and crammed into tiny rooms, go look. that's your wake up call. AOC is right: Never again is right fucking now.
— Mark Blaho (@MaximumOverDerp) June 18, 2019
Arguments neither for nor against the comparison:
1. Look to U.S. history instead.
Many have brought up the fact that we don’t need to look outside of U.S. history for comparisons of genocide and ethnic cleansing. One Native woman’s argument was particularly powerful (read the whole thread):
I can't speak to how the Holocaust is being used, bc its not my history.
But as a Native woman, I know we don't need to leave the US to find examples of genocide & ethnic cleansing. If we don't want history to repeat itself, we need to stop acting like its a foreign problem.
— Rebecca Nagle (@rebeccanagle) June 18, 2019
2. Stop speaking on behalf of Jews.
With so many people from all backgrounds weighing in on the debate, many Jews have argued to stop using the Holocaust as a talking point, and to stop saying Jews were “exterminated,” which feeds right into the dehumanization of Jews and other victims.
Can Christian republicans PLEASE stop speaking for Jews???
I’m mean seriously if I controlled the media you’d never see nonsense like this https://t.co/YwC7LyX9DL
— Mia Brett (@QueenMab87) June 18, 2019
Here's the thing:
You don't get to use the Holocaust as a talking point when you don't do anything to stand up against antisemitism today.
Our synagogues are being shot up and sent on fire. Our people are being attacked in the streets.
If you're silent on this, stay silent.
— Ariel Sobel (@arielsobelle) June 19, 2019
Arguments against using the comparison:
1. By comparing this to the Holocaust, it lets the Trump Administration off the hook.
This argument came from a leading expert on anti-Semitism and author of the book Anti-Semitism: Here and Now, Deborah Lipstadt.
Debating if separation of children is akin to the Holocaust, allows those who are forcibly separating parents & children off the hook. Be horrified by the policy. Don’t be engaged in a useless debate about inaccurate, false, & deceptive comparisons. https://t.co/X6IqvrGtNB
— Deborah E. Lipstadt (@deborahlipstadt) June 19, 2019
A year ago I wrote the following for @TheAtlantic something can be horrible without being akin to the Holocaust. Now we are having a discussion is this like the Holocaust or not rather than it is horrible and should be stopped. @YAppelbaum https://t.co/WozOl73OSZ https://t.co/kcLJGip3BP
— Deborah E. Lipstadt (@deborahlipstadt) June 19, 2019
2. Invoking the Holocaust distracts from the real problem.
This is similar to the above argument — instead of focusing on the current horror, we’re getting caught up in a semantics debate. By not using the Holocaust/concentration camps, this problem is avoided.
Even if you think that the terrible situation right now justifies using "concentration camp", which is a legitimate view. It's backfired. For the last 24 hours the debate has been about whether it's OK to use the term, not about the administration's terrible plan.
— Anshel Pfeffer (@AnshelPfeffer) June 19, 2019
— ADL (@ADL) June 19, 2018
Last comment on this: "concentration camp" is an extremely charged term and I get why many people are, in good faith, uncomfortable with its application for Godwin's Law purposes among others. So let's just call them "detention camps" and focus on what's happening in them.
— Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes) June 18, 2019
3. The Holocaust was unique.
For some, the Holocaust was a singular, unique tragedy, and what’s happening at the border currently is its own terror, and doesn’t need the comparison.
Stop comparing everything to the Shoah there was only one Shoah and this is its own tragedy.
— ((( ✡️ Little Big Mouth ✡️ ))) (@1littleBIGMOUTH) June 18, 2019
4. It’s a stretch, but we should still be outraged.
As this argument goes, what’s happening today is very much worthy of your outrage, but it’s simply not at concentration levels yet.
My dad was in a concentration camp, and while there's some ambiguity to the term I'd say it's a stretch to call the border facilities concentration camps. But the real outrage isn't nomenclature but the reality, especially of family separation. Direct your outrage at that. https://t.co/wz9RvgWMO2
— Nicholas Kristof (@NickKristof) June 19, 2019
5. These kind of centers have existed for a while, including under Democratic presidents.
Some people want to remind others that these types of detention centers were around long before Donald Trump, but nobody did anything about it then. I don’t really see why that means people shouldn’t call them concentration camps, but hey, I’m just here to give you #allsides.
This is from the article AOC tweeted to justify her "concentration camp" claim. I wonder if she would agree that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama presided over a vast network of "concentration camps" and nobody did anything about it for several decades https://t.co/TRpju010Au pic.twitter.com/oQ3mfC7oba
— Michael Tracey (@mtracey) June 19, 2019
6. If you really think they’re concentration camps, do something.
Some people think that tweeting about an issue and doing something about said issue are mutually exclusive. They’re wrong, but that’s what they think.
if you really believed the United States was running concentration camps, you'd be taking up arms, not mean tweeting, unless you're a moral coward.
— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) June 19, 2019
And there you have it, the many arguments for and (a few) against comparing current U.S. immigration policies to the Holocaust. Still don’t know what to think? There are a lot more tweets where these came from.
Header image: the arrival of Hungarian Jews in Auschwitz-Birkenau, in German-occupied Poland, June 1944 (Photo by Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images).