Abraham Cooper

Criticize US Immigrant Detention Centres — But stop labelling them “concentration camps”

By Rabbi Abraham Cooper and Harold Brackman*

Last year, when the Trump Administration inaugurated a policy—which it subsequently rescinded under public pressure—of “zero tolerance” family separations on the U.S.-Mexico border, American media were rife with historical comparisons to slavery times when black children were “sold down the river,” to Japanese Americans internment, though mostly as family units, and to European Jews deported to Nazi Camps.

We spoke out then sharing the public’s dismay at the federal government separating parents from children as a solution to “the immigration crisis.” But we were also concerned about dangerous historical analogies between what was being done to immigrant families at the border and the deaths of 1.5 million Jewish children, murdered along with millions of Jewish parents, as a result of “family separations, Nazi-style” during the World War II Holocaust.

But now, journalist Jonathan M. Katz’s opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times is at it again by demanding: “Call Immigration Centers What They Really Are: Concentration Camps.”

Katz’s indictment of terrible conditions deserves to be quoted at length:

“Johana Medina Léon, a 25-year-old transgender asylum seeker; an unnamed 33-year-old Salvadoran man; and a 40-year-old woman from Honduras [died in U.S. custody]. . . . [In El Paso] people herded so tightly into cells that they had to stand on toilets to breathe. . . . Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s failure to provide medical care was responsible for suicides and other deaths of detainees. . . . [T]he Trump administration cut funding for classes, recreation and legal aid at detention centers holding minors . . . 37 children were locked in vans for up to 39 hours in the parking lot of a detention center outside Port Isabel, Texas. In the last year, at least seven migrant children have died in federal custody.”

Relying on Adrea Pitzer’s One Long Night (2017), Katz offers a capsule history of “concentration camps”—from the “relocation camps” Spain established in 1895 to seal off Cuban peasants from the rebels they supported, to racist U.S. “relocation” of Japanese Americans during World War II. His centerpiece is the Nazi system of “concentration camps” and “killing centers” between 1933 and 1945. But he omits British internment of rebellious Afrikaners during the Boer War, U.S. internment of rebellious Filipinos after the Spanish American War, various “civilian relocations” during World War I, Stalin’s totalitarian gulags, and Chairman Mao’s “reeducation” camps during the Cultural Revolution.

Significantly—except for communist and fascist regimes—the instances of mistreatment of civilian populations typically have been in wartime. Only Stalin, Mao (and Pol Pot)—together with Hitler—targeted on a massive scale during peacetime their own nationals as “internal enemies.”

In the case of the Nazis, starting with Dachau in 1933, “concentration camps” were opened where German socialists, communists, labor leaders, other dissidents  and Jews were targeted for persecution, torture, and even death. Future heads of Nazi killing Centers of the 1940s all honed their brutal skills at breaking inmates bodies, spirits, and souls in  Dachau. After the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, some 10,000 Jews were swept up—sans even a pretense of judicial process—and dispatched there. Some perished. Others lucky enough to survive desperately tried to leave Germany before it was too late.

During World War II, Nazi “concentration camps” were an integral part of the Nazi Holocaust Kingdom; some even used small gas chambers. Innocent Jews and others died of disease, or were worked or starved to death.

Ask any Survivor of Dachau or remaining American GIs who liberated that charnel house if there is any comparison between then and now. Can anyone believe that Donald Trump’s rhetoric, condemned as anti-immigrant, even coupled with policies separating families, constitutes America’s first step down Nazi Germany’s path?

The truth is that the burgeoning disaster at our southern border is the result not of a monstrous Trumpian plot to build concentration camps, but of a real humanitarian crisis overwhelming the federal immigration bureaucracy and a deep and toxic national political divide.

The images of incarcerated kids and adults who fled other countries desperately trying to gain entry into the US should generate action not incendiary rhetoric. It behooves a divided Congress to rediscover or reinvent a bipartisan way to fix it. One sure way to guarantee more political gridlock, more innocent people needlessly suffering and perhaps even more children dying in custody at our Southern border is to falsely accuse the Trump Administration of an unspeakable conspiracy to build “concentration camps.”

America is better than that. Americans—Left, Right, and Center—can and must do better than that.

*Dr. Harold Brackman, a historian who is consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center

About the Author
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Associate Dean and Global Director of its Ed Snider Social Action Institute