Is It Fair to Compare the U.S. Border Separations With the Holocaust?

Editor’s note: This article was published in June of 2018.

What’s been happening at the U.S.-Mexican border right now is horrific. Children are being forcibly separated from their parents and placed in detention centers with terrible conditions.

The current crisis is sparked by an April 2018 policy, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero-tolerance” policy on illegal immigration. What is zero-tolerance? As The Washington Post explains, “When families or individuals are apprehended by the Border Patrol, they’re taken into DHS [Department of Homeland Security] custody. Under the zero-tolerance policy, DHS officials refer any adult ‘believed to have committed any crime, including illegal entry,’ to the Justice Department for prosecution. If they’re convicted, they’re usually sentenced to time served. The next step would be deportation proceedings.”

The images coming out of these children detention centers are awful. And, the policies and actions are sparking many, many comparisons to the Holocaust. But not everybody feels these comparisons are accurate.

We’re here to break down both sides for you, using some very helpful tweets.

Why people think the comparison works

The key 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.

Let’s go through each of these arguments:

1. The concept of “illegal” as a cover for unethical behavior.

This part of the comparison argument focuses on a specific part of what’s actually happening: the idea that crossing the American-Mexican border without documentation is illegal. As many Twitter users argue, just because something is “illegal” (like being Jewish was classified in Nazi Germany), does not make it valid.

2. Focus on the atrocities instead of semantics.

These arguments are essentially saying: If you’re more bothered by the analogy/comparison than what is actually happening, something is wrong.

3. We’re “already several stages along the way.”

Here we have scholars and relatives of Holocaust survivors (and sometimes even survivors themselves) pointing out that the U.S. is “on the way” to another Holocaust. Their argument is that the detainment centers on the border are already past “phase #1” of the Holocaust.

4. The language is so similar.

Many are pointing out how Trump’s dehumanizing use of the word “infest” to describe the refugees and migrants is reminiscent of the language used by Nazi leaders to describe Jews. Jews were called “vermin” and “dirty” long before they were sent away to death camps and concentration camps.

As Aviya Kushner writes in The Forward, “Characterizing people as vermin has historically been a precursor to murder and genocide. The Nazis built on centuries-old hatred of Jews as carriers of disease in a film titled ‘Der Ewige Jude,’ or ‘The Eternal Jew.’ As the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum notes on its website, in a section helpfully titled ‘Defining the Enemy:’ ‘One of the film’s most notorious sequences compares Jews to rats that carry contagion, flood the continent, and devour precious resources.'”

As one writer tweeted in a thread: “I find this tactic to be very obvious.”

5. Visual comparisons

Visual comparisons go a long way on Twitter (and across all social media platforms). While this is maybe the most shaky part of the comparison — the images strike a very powerful chord.

6.  What happened when America last turned children away from its borders.

Just look at history, this comparison says. Look at what happened when the U.S. turned other refugee children who were fleeing atrocities away, and look what happened to them. Let’s not let this happen again.

Why people think the comparison doesn’t work

For all the people tweeting and writing about comparisons between the Holocaust and what is currently happening on the U.S. border with Mexico, there are many vocal people who believe the comparison is invalid and unnecessary. Their arguments focus on the idea that the comparison 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.

1. Minimizes the genocide of the Jewish people and exploits Jewish trauma.

In a powerful Twitter thread, writer Ijeoma Oluo explains her frustration with the comparison:

This point focuses on the idea that, as Oluo wrote, “It is outrageous on its own. It should be enough to force us into action on its own.” We shouldn’t need comparisons to be outraged by what’s happening on the border. We shouldn’t have to bring in the trauma of the Jewish people to discuss the current trauma of refugees and migrants at the border. We shouldn’t minimize what happened to Jews in the Holocaust — the murder of millions — to discuss what’s happening on the Border.

2. Turning to other examples in American history.

This argument contends that we don’t need to turn to Nazi Germany to make the comparison; America has its own awful history.

3. The debate focuses on the analogy, not what’s actually happening.

As JTA Editor-in-Chief Andrew Silow-Carroll writes,”These centers are troubling and cruel on their own terms. Putting them on the same list as Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen only diverts the conversation — and actually gives the purveyors and defenders of a bad policy, a la Ingraham, the opportunity to claim hurt and insult.”

Essentially: this comparison is distracting us from what’s actually going on.

4. The analogies have serious limits.

This “analogies have limits” argument focuses on one main point: Hitler had popular support. Trump does not. Today there is an active resistance, protests, outcry — none of that existed to the same extent in Nazi Germany.

5. This is not genocide.

Many are using one simple fact to deny the comparison: This is not genocide.

In conclusion…

Whether or not what’s currently happening at the border can be compared to the Holocaust, we all know it’s wrong. Now is the time to take action.

Header image via United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Yad Vashem, found on Flickr.

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