Concentrate on Today’s Evil

There are pluses and minuses for opinionated people like me who write a regular column and broadcast those opinions to all (all, of course, being a relative term).

Plus: I enjoy putting my opinions out there and discussing them. Minus: Those opinions now are etched in stone (all right, printed on paper) and enshrined digitally, to be recovered with a quick Google search.

Without a column, I can be secure in the knowledge that whatever opinions I air to others probably will disappear quickly from the minds of both speaker and listener. But once they appear in print, whether the type invented in the 15th century or the 20th, they’re more difficult to forget, and even if they are forgotten, they are easily retrievable.

And retrievability obviously has a downside.

While I like to think that the opinions I carefully think about, and then rethink, and carefully write about, and then rewrite and rewrite and rewrite (just ask my editor) are all correct, that’s simply what I like to think. I also like to think that I don’t look a day older than 50 and don’t need to lose any weight. So much for what I like to think.

Easily available wrong opinions came to mind as I followed the fallout from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent “concentration camp” comments. I thought back to a column I wrote a few months ago (“Learning and not learning from history,” 3/28/19, where I decried the use of Holocaust references and analogies for anything other than, well, the Holocaust.

I wrote then that one of the reasons I don’t like such analogies and actively try to cut them off is that when they’re used, “the discussion veers to and concentrates on the analogy. Thus, instead of continuing with the topic under discussion, everyone starts arguing about” the appropriateness of the analogy, “until the earlier topic fades into the mists of memory, never to resurface again.”

I don’t quite agree with myself anymore. Or, to put it another way, I may have been so right that I was wrong; that while my analysis may have been on point, my solution — to cut off such references — doesn’t work. Indeed, it may sometimes leave the wrong message instead of emphasizing the correct one.

And futileness and delivering the wrong message lay at the core of the responses to AOC’s foolish and inaccurate statement. I read more tedious and pedantic explanations of the etymology, history, and connotation of concentration, internment, and death camps, and how each is, and is not, different from the others than I would want to read in a lifetime.

And unfortunately that was, in large part, the focus of the discussion. But not only did the responses not stop such analogies, they shouldn’t have been primarily about us or the Holocaust. Rather, what should have been important to us as American Jews with, hopefully, deeply ingrained American and Jewish values, and what we should have been concentrating on, was that our government is holding adults and children in camps — whatever their adjective — that violate these values.

There are camps with standing-room-only cells, without hot meals, and with only wet wipes instead of showers; camps with no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food; camps in which young children are the only caregivers to even younger children. Our country runs camps with such horrifying conditions that Justice Department lawyers were forced to argue before an incredulous federal appellate panel that depriving children of soap and toothpaste and requiring them to sleep on frigid concrete floors, with lights on, covered only by an aluminum foil blanket, somehow is “safe and sanitary.”

(I was a litigator for many years, and as required by my profession’s code of ethics, sometimes I made legal arguments that I didn’t believe in. But I’m grateful that I never was in a situation where I had to make an argument as repulsive as this one. I don’t know what I would have done. I’m not smug enough to say I would have resigned. But I thank God I wasn’t put to the test.)

And don’t think, as some on the right falsely claim (unfortunately in these pages at times), that misuse of the Holocaust is a sin committed only by those on the left. For examples of its misuse by the right, see, e.g., Steven Schwartzman’s claim that eliminating the carried interest tax deduction is “war, like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939”; Rush Limbaugh saying “Adolph Hitler, like Barack Obama, also ruled by dictate”; Paul LePage and Newt Gingrich comparing certain federal agents to Gestapo/Nazi agents; linking current issues like gun control (Ben Carson) and banning shechita (in a column in this paper) to similar actions by Nazis; Prime Minister Netanyahu likening Iran’s flouting of the nuclear deal (flouted first by the United States) to the Nazi’s 1936 occupation of the Rhineland, and Israeli Education Minister Peretz calling American Jewish assimilation “a second Holocaust.”

So how do we deal with issues that make us feel ashamed as Americans while also trying to ensure that the memory of the Holocaust is not abused? Focusing mainly on the misuse of Holocaust language (as wrong as that misuse is) simply doesn’t work.

Let me suggest another possible approach using the AOC situation as an example. Many of the articles attacking her language also mentioned the horrors of the immigration camps, though usually only in passing. Why not adjust the emphasis? Instead of 90 percent of an article attacking Holocaust misuse and 10 percent attacking the camps, switch those percentages. A sentence or two should be enough to make the point without making it seem that everything is about us — for example, “AOC’s use of ‘concentration camps’ was inapt at best and egregiously false at worst, and tarnishes the memory of the Holocaust. Nonetheless….”

It’s important that we devote the majority of our comments to what’s being done in 2019 to strangers and children who the Bible enjoins us to feed, clothe, and befriend (Deuteronomy, 10:18-19). Such articles will benefit Holocaust remembrance while reflecting our values and demonstrating that we understand that immoral policies still exist today, almost 75 years after the actual concentration camps were liberated.

Language is important. Historical truth is important. Memory is important. But dealing humanely with others created in the image of God must always be of paramount importance.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is the author of “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In my Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’” (available at Teaneck's Judaica House and its website). A retired lawyer and long-time resident of Teaneck with his wife Sharon, they’ve been blessed with four wonderful daughters and five delicious grandchildren.
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