It’s nothing new to argue about the use of Holocaust language and imagery to add weight to contemporary political or moral arguments. There is a great deal of very accessible public writing on this topic — most recently an incredibly poignant piece by Dara Horn about the Holocaust museum industry and the lessons it imparts — and also, of course, a vast library of academic scholarship on these issues. Every year, I watch students grapple with a passage in David Shipler’s 1986 book “Arab and Jew” in which a Palestinian prisoner at the Ansar prison camp, built by Israelis in Southern Lebanon, tells a Holocaust survivor that “Ansar is Auschwitz.”
While everyone believes that the political and moral stakes are never higher than in their own historical moment, it is important to note that today’s various controversies about using Holocaust language are taking place against amid a rising tide of antisemitism and growing trend toward illiberal politics in the United States and around the world. In the past few years, antisemitic rhetoric and imagery has become alarmingly mainstreamed. Jewish worshippers have been murdered by white nationalists in synagogues in Pennsylvania and California. This move toward bigotry and xenophobia has happened in some cases with the tacit support and in other cases with the explicit support of those wielding political power.
So when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) recently used the term “concentration camps” to refer to the detention facilities in which the Trump administration is holding undocumented migrants in horrific conditions, an entire nation of Extremely Online people were ready to fight. Some people — including her political supporters but also professional historians and social scientists who study concentration camps, genocide, and the Holocaust — were quick to agree, noting that Ocasio-Cortez explicitly didn’t call the migrant detention facilities extermination camps or compare them directly to Auschwitz.
Others — mostly her political opponents, but also some Jewish people from across the political spectrum like Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York — reacted with strong denunciations. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Museum, tweeted that AOC should educate herself and that “Concentration camps assured a slave labor supply to help in the Nazi war effort, even as the brutality of life inside the camps helped assure the ultimate goal of ‘extermination through labor.’”
There are some important points to consider when it comes to determining whether people like AOC or Jewish cartoonist Eli Valley are misappropriating Holocaust language and imagery to bolster their critiques of the Trump administration and its policies.
First, it’s crucial to note that the Trump administration isn’t genocidal, that other governments are, and that we should be careful about the way we toss around loaded terms to describe terrible actions. The Chinese government is currently holding hundreds of thousands of Uighurs in concentration camps, for example, and their situation is worse by orders of magnitude from the one happening on America’s southern border. The situation of the Uighurs in China bears a far closer to resemblance to the Jews in Buchenwald or Flossenbürg and we must be clear not to diminish either of those situations in our anger at America’s treatment of undocumented migrants. Every terrible thing can be terrible in its own way and not everything must be Auschwitz in order to summon sufficient moral outrage.
Second, a government doesn’t have to reach the extremity of genocide before people insist that it has already gone too far down a terrible path. In the case of the administration’s migrant detention policy, it might be sufficient to argue that it’s driven not only by considerations of law and order but also by racial biases that have resulted in locking people up in inhumane conditions in tent cities and facilities formerly used for the infamous Japanese internment. Given all of that, I don’t think we have to restrict ourselves from using the words “concentration camps” to describe the situation just because their purpose and the terrible things that happen in them don’t compare to either the slave labor or extermination camps of the Nazis. They are, factually, concentration camps — even though when people hear that term their first thought tends to be the extermination camps in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Finally, some of the criticism is undoubtedly being made in bad faith. The most prominent of these included Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), who tweeted to AOC, “You demean their memory and disgrace yourself with comments like this” and the National Republican Congressional Committee, which claimed that anyone who said detention facilities were concentration camps was employing “disgusting rhetoric” that “minimizes the horrors of the Holocaust and has no place in our public discourse.”
The purpose of this sort of overwrought denunciation is not to make common cause with Jews who are offended by the comparison but instead to use the imperfect nature of the comparison to shift focus from the horrible problem of the detention facilities onto the comparison itself and, by extension, onto their political opponent. The GOP has met each migrant death in American custody and each report about the abuses against migrants perpetrated by the government with deafening silence. And so, when the Democrats repeatedly bring up the shocking truth of these awful places, the goal of the Republican criticism of the Democrats is to downplay or continue to ignore the problem. Since these detention facilities aren’t as bad as Auschwitz, they say, there’s no reason to do anything about them or even to think there’s anything problematic about them. And, in fact, comparing them to Nazi camps is the real offense, not the ghastly abuses committed against migrants or the detention facilities themselves.
This bad faith criticism isn’t based on a great deal of care for the feelings of Jews or a deep understanding of the Holocaust. They’re based entirely on scoring political points and avoiding a serious debate about terrible policies — which have led to gross abuses of human rights — that the Republicans making those arguments actually continue to support. While we may continue to debate the ultimate lessons to draw from the Holocaust, I want to put forward two that we ignore at our peril. First, the Holocaust wasn’t the Holocaust until it was. America in 2019 isn’t Nazi Germany but neither was the Weimar Republic, and there’s a straight line to draw between the Nazi’s racist policies of the early 1930s and the extermination camps of the 1940s. Second, “Never Again” is too lightly tossed around, but it also cannot possibly be understood to mean only “Never Again to the Jews” or “Never Again a place exactly like Auschwitz.” What I and a great many other descendants of Holocaust survivors learned from our family members — and what AOC and Eli Valley are attempting to bring home to others — is that when bigotry, xenophobia, and nationalism are allowed to flourish, detention camps and human rights abuses are never far behind.
Ari Kohen is Associate Professor of Political Science and Schlesinger Professor of Social Justice at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln. He is the author of a book on human rights and another on heroism, as well as co-editor of a new book series on Holocaust education.