Youth attend the annual March of the Living at the former Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz on May 2, 2019
(photo credit: KASPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)
US media has now joined the debate about concentration camps.
New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has stood her ground on claims that the US is running “concentration camps” for immigrants. She said on Thursday that “we are calling these camps what they are because they fit squarely in an academic consensus and definition. History will be kind to those who stood up to this injustice.”Through this self-righteous self-congratulatory rhetoric, the congresswoman wants to take up the mantle of social justice crusader. She is doing so at the expense of Jewish history, and increasingly seeking to appropriate a term for a controversy in the US that is associated with the Holocaust.US media has now joined the debate about concentration camps. Overshadowed by a desire to critique the policy of US President Donald Trump’s administration, there is a tendency to be sympathetic to Ocasio-Cortez’s shocking rhetoric. GQ magazine claims that the “US border camps fit into the history of concentration camps.” AOC says that the camps are similar to those that the US ran in the Second World War for Japanese Americans. These are usually called internment camps, but they have now been re-packaged as “concentration camps” to fit this new history of the term.The agenda in the US is clear: in order to critique the current administration’s policy, a term often associated with Auschwitz and the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust has been appropriated to score a few political points. In a few months there will be a new controversy, and Jewish history will be hijacked again in a US debate to fit the narrative of whatever group needs to conjure up the Nazi era for their own benefit.Increasingly in the US every day, the Holocaust is watered down and universalized in order to become an American event. Last year the former National Security Agency and CIA head Michael Hayden compared the US separating families at the border to Auschwitz. He tweeted a haunting photo of the camp noting “other governments have separated mothers and children.”In December 2016 the Anti-Defamation League even claimed that antisemitism in the US was as bad as it was in the 1930s. The Washington Post compared US immigration policy to the voyage of the Saint Louis in 1939, in which Jews fleeing the Nazis were denied entry to in the West.It is understandable that the Holocaust is a point of reference in discussions. From Seinfeld’s “soup Nazi” to references to “just following orders” in A Few Good Men, American culture is deeply influenced by the Holocaust. There is a Holocaust museum in Washington, and to the credit of the US, the Holocaust is widely studied and understood. But calling US detention facilities a lead-up to a new Auschwitz has struck many as hurtful and wrong. NBC’s Chuck Todd objected as did Chris Hayes of MSNBC, who noted that “concentration camp” is a charged term. Yad Vashem spoke up as well, noting that historic concentration camps “assured a slave labor supply to help in the Nazi war effort.”The debate in the US shows again that Jews are the one group constantly singled out, whether it is in antisemitic cartoons or comments by actors and professors. Now even the horrors of the Holocaust have been appropriated as an easy and shocking label. American politicians can do better, and people deserve more sensitivity. One can robustly oppose US immigration policy and not always claim it is 1939.If everything is compared to the Holocaust, then the realities of the Shoah lose meaning and seriousness. In the end the point of using the shocking term will be lost, as both the Holocaust is whitewashed and the actual detention centers are obscured beneath a toxic political controversy.Many of the young generation of American politicians such as Ocasio-Cortez seek to care about the suffering of other minority groups, such as the importance of slavery for African Americans. She doesn’t appropriate that era to highlight suffering on the border. Only when it comes to Jews is the Holocaust universalized in a way that both diminishes it and the issue at hand. There is no evidence that constant references to the Nazis in US discourse have made people care more or changed US policy.It’s only affect has been to get people across the aisle to tune out the rhetoric as if their political adversaries are crying wolf once again. All this just to score a few talking points and push aside the memory of the six million.