YARMOUTH — In last Sunday’s Insight cover op-ed, ” ‘Never again’ means nothing if Holocaust analogies are always off limits” (Page D1), Washington Post contributor Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg responds to the controversy raised by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez‘s and Japanese-American actor George Takei’s comparison of the southern U.S. border detention camps to concentration camps. Rabbi Ruttenberg asks, “Is it really reasonable to compare what’s happening with immigrants under (President) Trump to the Third Reich?” She then answers, “If done with caution, those analogies can be useful.”

By “useful,” she suggests that the shock value of Holocaust imagery is justifiable if it raises public awareness of the plight of immigrants, despite the comparison’s historical inaccuracy and the inherent disregard for the pain this comparison re-inflicts upon Holocaust survivors and their families.

As United States Holocaust Memorial Museum historian Edna Friedberg has said: “It is all too easy to forget that there are many people still alive for whom the Holocaust is not ‘history,’ but their life story and that of their families. These are not abstract tragedies on call to win an argument or an election.” Judaism teaches caution regarding the belief that the ends justify the means.

The plight of the refugees at our border cannot be dismissed if we are to be worthy of the principles our great nation was founded on and that we ourselves cherish. How can we not share these immigrants’ hope for lives free from fear, their desire to live in peace? The conditions these asylum seekers are suffering are a plight that must be addressed.

The outrage of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Mr. Takei is justified. However, their choice in labeling the detention camps as “concentration camps” strips these words of their historical import in favor of a merely literal one: “We were all concentrated, densely concentrated,” said Mr. Takei of his experience in the Japanese-American detainment camps.

Some words and symbols (e.g., the swastika) have been indelibly twisted by the worst events in our history. Would one call the 2018 California wildfires that burned 1,893,913 acres and claimed 103 lives a “Hiroshima event”? No. That would be disrespectful to the 166,000 Japanese, nearly all civilians, who perished in a nuclear holocaust.

Similarly, the term “concentration camp” has been so steeped with suffering and death that the mere words call up unforgettable images of Nazi atrocities: slave labor; human medical experimentation; mass extermination by gunfire, gas chambers, starvation and disease; trench graves dug by the victims themselves; bodies stacked like cordwood, and crematoriums burning the dead day and night.

To our nation’s shame, in the American World War II internment camps where Japanese-Americans like Mr. Takei were unjustly relocated, 1,862 people died from medical problems. In the concentration camps, 15 million to 20 million people perished, Holocaust Memorial Museum researchers have determined, including 6 million Jews specifically targeted for utter extermination from Europe and, if the Nazis had triumphed, from the world.

We cannot and should not belittle anyone’s pain or their recognition of others’ suffering (bless all who care), but shouting “concentration camp” strips the words of their historical context.

The term “concentration camp,” like “Nazi” and “genocide,” is too often used – misused – for its shock value, to slap the public into action, but each misappropriation for comparison to the incomparable atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps diminishes the words’ historical import and risks inuring the public to them. However just the social cause, in misrepresenting history, we risk undermining it. By conflating the terrible conditions in immigrant detention centers with the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps, we homogenize suffering regardless of its scale. The lessons of the Holocaust are weakened if every injustice is compared to them.

Finally, habitual Holocaust comparison as a tool for social justice disregards the pain of many Nazi Holocaust survivors and our families for whom the shared memories of the concentration camps and loved ones lost are not abstract but are present daily. Worse, it disrespects the millions of dead whose bones lie in unmarked graves, their ashes lost and scattered by the winds.

The documented travails and injustices suffered by the detainees at our southern border are singularly sufficient to justify moral action without resorting to an inaccurate historical and literally “de-meaning” comparison to the concentration camps of the Holocaust.





Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.