AOC Said There Are Concentration Camps in the U.S. Is She Right?

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.

(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.

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.

4. People are dying.

Just read any coverage of migrant children dying in Border Patrol custody. At this point, anyone trying to defend the policy is deeply misguided.

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.

6. What’s happening is the literal definition of a concentration camp.

Just check the dictionary.

7. The Holocaust was evil, but not uniquely evil.

Human history has seen an unfortunate number of mass genocides.

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.

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):

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.

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 NowDeborah Lipstadt.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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