Two weeks ago, in response to reports of increasingly dire conditions and ongoing family separations at migrant detention centers along America’s southern border, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sparked a round of semantic pedantry by calling the desert detention camps precisely what they are — that is, concentration camps — and, going even a bit further in the same Instagram Live video, by using the phrase, “never again,” which fairly explicitly evokes the specter of the Holocaust.
Rep. Ocasio-Cortez subsequently ever-so-slightly walked this back, noting the history of concentration camps dating back to the Boer War and drawing comparisons to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and the intended plan to move more than a 1,000 imprisoned children to Oklahoma’s notorious Fort Sill, which was a site of Japanese-American internment and, before that, for Native Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
But “never again” is a phrase that young, leftist, and progressive Jews interpret and use broadly, while older, politically conservative Jews, and many of the legacy institutions of public Jewish life in America guard it zealously as a unique property — a trademark of sorts — of the Jewish people.
Both the people who call detainment areas for immigrants concentration camps and the people who insist that they are not so are arguing from a perversely similar position.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York pronounced itself “deeply disturbed” by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s statement. “As concerned as we are about the conditions experienced by migrants seeking asylum in the United States,” they said in a letter to the Congresswoman, “including family separation, unusable facilities, and lack of food, water, and medical resources, the regrettable use of Holocaust terminology to describe these contemporary concerns diminishes the evil intent of the Nazis to eradicate the Jewish people.”
The Holocaust Museum went a step further in a bizarrely categorical statement: “The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary.” (Some have speculated that this statement came at the direction of Howard Lorber, a Trump friend and business partner, whom the president appointed to chair the museum’s board, but the museum made a similar and more lengthy statement last year that castigated both the right and the left for any comparisons of events to the Holocaust, which suggests a more general organizational sentiment. Neither statement is out of keeping with the standard rhetoric of major Jewish organizations in America.)
Never mind that the “conditions” cited by the JCRC — separating families; removing children from their parents; providing inadequate food and shelter — were precisely the conditions for camp detainees during the Nazi regime, including in the early years of World War II. (The first Nazi concentration camps, technically defined as contained areas in which refugees, persecuted minorities, and/or political prisoners are held and forced to work or wait to be executed, were established in 1933. The Wansee Conference at which the Final Solution was decided and after which the mechanized slaughter of the Holocaust officially began did not take place until 1942, three years into the war.) Never mind that the Nazis — more specifically, their allies in the fascist Croation puppet state — even created a concentration camp for children in Sisak, Croatia that was officially called the “Shelter for Children Refugees.” Visitors described conditions shockingly near to those in America’s own child detention centers: children sleeping on concrete or bloody straw, smeared with feces, covered in flies.
There are concentration camps at America’s southern border and, increasingly, in its interior as well. Everyone knows this, including the people who say they are not concentration camps. This is one of the most surreal aspects of the ersatz debate. “Like many arguments, the fight over the term ‘concentration camp’ is mostly an argument about something entirely different,” Masha Gessen wrote in the New Yorker. “The Holocaust, or the Gulag,” she continued, “are such monstrous events that the very idea of rendering them in any sort of gray scale seems monstrous, too. This has the effect of making them, essentially, unimaginable.”
Both the people who call them concentration camps and the people who insist that they are not so are arguing from a perversely similar position, that there cannot be concentration camps in America. It is just that they are using a different valence of the word cannot: one side meaning that this must not happen, or at least must not continue; the other side meaning that it is simply categorically impossible for the U.S. to build a concentration camp. Even if we precisely replicate the design, conditions, and use of a concentration camp, it cannot be one simply by dint of being American.
But, as Gessen notes, the objections to using “never again” are not really objections to the term, nor do they represent arguments about history. Gessen calls them arguments about imagination, but I would go even further and say they are arguments about ontology, about the most fundamental nature of things, about what things and categories can exist. That is why the Holocaust Museum’s statement is so deeply revealing. It does not say that the comparison is inapt or incorrect; it doesn’t say “out of proportion,” “inappropriate,” “inaccurate,” or “premature.” It unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies. It says not simply that the Holocaust is incommensurate and incommensurable with any other historical event, but that it is in its quintessence utterly and wholly incomparable with all the rest of human history, even Jewish history. It stands entirely outside all other human experience, in a sense outside of time, absolutely unapproachable and in some fundamental way totally unknowable.
Heresy is really a Christian term, but I can think of no other for this argument, this belief. Maimonides told us that God cannot be compared to anything. To say that anything else utterly transcends comparison is to set it up as a kind of alternate God. That is, to use a technical term, a big no-no for Jews.
How do we forget that the Third Reich had a very specific term for sending populations to its camps, and later, for sending them to the gas? That term was deportation.
Of course the Holocaust can be analogized. Jewish understanding of the Holocaust itself is as history and analogy, a continuation of an ancient series of expulsions, captivities, migrations, and pogroms that reached their cruel apotheosis under the Third Reich. And in our post-Holocaust world, the very specific lessons of both how and why it occurred are necessary and essential.
The Nazi consolidation of political power within a democratic system; the routine and incremental use of the law to make disfavored people quite literally illegal; the construction of detention facilities for undesirable people, often with the stated purpose of eventual expulsion; and finally, the war-hardened ideological decision to eradicate the swollen ranks of prisoners who were never truly going to be expelled; all of these come down to us as dire warnings of what may yet happen again, even if it hasn’t happened yet. How do we forget that the Third Reich had a very specific term for sending populations to its camps, and later, for sending them to the gas? That term was deportation.
And here is the crux of it. People do not fundamentally object to using Nazi analogies because they are hyperbolic (although they can be hyperbolic) or because they are inaccurate (although they can be inaccurate), but because they are effective. They are rhetorically useful. There is no better way to identify the really bad, evil shit in this world in an immediate and visceral way. There is no more piercing way to say these are the bad guys.
The idea that a Nazi analogy is at once so powerful and so brittle that we must hold it in reserve until the utmost end of need — until, what, they are literally shoveling corpses into crematoria? — is absurd. The most basic fact about the Nazis is that they were real, and the most critical truth about the Holocaust is that it actually happened. To real people. In history. And if we cannot call a camp a camp, then it will happen again. “Bleak scenes of tearful, malnourished children reeking of filth and jammed into frigid, overcrowded quarters,” according to immigration lawyers who have recently visited camps in Texas. First to a them. Then to us.