Immigrants apprehended by Border Patrol seen at the Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, June 17, 2018. (Photo/U.S. Customs and Border Protection)
Immigrants apprehended by Border Patrol seen at the Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, June 17, 2018. (Photo/U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

A historian’s perspective: Concentration camps in America?

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When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made an accusation recently that the U.S. government is running concentration camps in the United State, she also challenged “the people that are concerned enough with humanity to say that ‘never again’ means something.”
As if on cue, those who proclaim “never again” promptly responded by castigating the freshman Democratic congresswoman from New York for ignorant abuse of the Holocaust. We heard from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Jewish leaders and journalists, not to speak of a full-page ad in the New York Times taken out by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.

I get it. I teach a course on the Holocaust every year at UC Davis, and one of the things I think hard about and discuss with my students is the question of when we can draw analogies from the Holocaust.
If the Holocaust is so unique, then what is the point of studying it at all? But if we inflate every injustice in the world into a “Holocaust,” then we lose sight of what that event actually meant. And if we use Holocaust analogies as provocations, then we risk — as did Ocasio-Cortez, perhaps deliberately — deflecting the discussion away from what outrages us and into sterile historical debates.

I can put on my historian’s hat and dissect the veracity of Ocasio-Cortez’s statement. The term “concentration camp” was not invented by the Nazis but by the British during the Boer War at the beginning of the 20th century. The British rounded up Boer (or Afrikaner) elderly men, women and children in two southern African republics and penned them up in camps.
 The Nazis adopted the term in 1933 when they created extra-judicial prisons for political opponents. Jews qua Jews were not incarcerated in these camps until Kristallnacht in 1938. The death camps in Poland were technically concentration camps, but it is possible to speak of the extra-judicial camps apart from the Holocaust.

The detention centers on the southern border only resemble the concentration camps of Nazi Germany in that they are extra-judicial. Guantanamo Bay is much closer to a concentration camp than the facilities in which children separated from their parents are being held. If we are looking for a precise analogy to our present moment, it is to the late 1930s, with its massive refugee and illegal migrant crisis, and not to the genocide that started during World War II. But are these historical distinctions really to the point? There is an outrage occurring on our southern border that is unlike anything we have seen in this country since slavery and the subjugation of Native Americans. In both of those cases, children were ripped out of the arms of their parents. Now our government is treating children, some no older than infants, with a cruelty that harkens back to those 19th-century outrages.

Is this like the Holocaust? The government, of course, is not murdering these children and, in that sense, the Holocaust analogy is flat-out wrong.
 But the underlying cruelty, the inhumanity of our policy, derives from the same xenophobic mentality that the Nazis took to a genocidal extreme. To reach for the Holocaust as a way of voicing our outrage is understandable, if inaccurate and exaggerated.

I also have to question the motivation of Shmuley Boteach, who spent tens of thousands of dollars for an ad in the Times that barely mentions the outrage on the border. Wouldn’t all that money have been better spent in caring for the victims of our government’s policy? But his silence amounts to acquiescence.
 Like Ocasio-Cortez, Boteach is exploiting the memory of the Holocaust by harnessing it for a political purpose: to deflect attention from our government’s practices. Is the Holocaust so sacred for him that it leaves no room to be outraged by anything else?

David Biale
David Biale

David Biale is emeritus Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of History at UC Davis.