America’s (least trusty) Rabbi? AOC v. Boteach

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The raging debate over the past two weeks about concentration camps, and the outrage vented at Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez by forces in the Jewish establishment, illustrates how the self-appointed keepers of the Holocaust are failing, miserably, at the task of making sure that such crimes against humanity will happen “Never again.”

Case in point is Shmuley Boteach, who denounced Ocasio-Cortez in the LA Jewish Journal and the Jerusalem Post, saying she “demeaned and debased the Holocaust by comparing the annihilation of millions of Jews in Hitler’s concentration camps to detention centers run by ICE.”

Rabbi Boteach is the founder of an organization that claims to “defend and promote Holocaust memory.” Apparently, “memory” for Rabbi Boteach does not mean history. Anyone with historical knowledge about the Shoah would know that the Nazi camp system developed over many years, beginning in 1933 with Konzentrationslager—concentration camps, at first for political prisoners—followed later by labor camps and hard labor camps, and then finally in late 1941, by death camps, or Venichtungslager, literally “extermination camps.” (See this detailed analysis from Yad Vashem.)

Common wisdom lumps all the Nazi camps together as concentration camps, but no historian would agree to that, for good reason. The Nazis did not emerge from the 1932 elections with a plurality or seize power in 1933 with a “final solution” already planned out. With each step that degraded human rights, that further destroyed the standing and livelihood and families and lives of Jews—and Romani and Communists and gay people and others—the Nazis conditioned their subjects to see Jews and others they imprisoned as vermin, as sub-human, step by step by step.

Because of AOC’s instagram post about concentration camps, everyone, not just journalists and Holocaust scholars and news geeks like myself, has had an opportunity to learn these details about the evolution of the Nazi camp system.

The Nazis started with concentration camps for a reason. By isolating their populations from society and treating them as pariahs, and by later forcing them to live in squalid and disease-ridden conditions, the condemned became equated with a threat to “healthy” society. One effect of this constantly increasing brutalization was to immunize the populace against compassion.

The whole immigration policy of the Trump administration aims to foster a similar attitude toward Latin American immigrants. If things get worse, we will trace the beginning of this potentially genocidal moment in history from Trump’s descent down that golden escalator in 2015 to tell us that Mexicans are gang members, murderers and rapists.

We would be able to trace every step of the process, from the Trump campaign’s rhetoric of hatred, to the deportation of immigrant mothers and fathers of American kids, to the deaths of people by exposure in the desert as they tried to return to their families or to reach safety, to the separation of the youngest children from their parents and guardians, which is legally and morally understood as a crime against humanity, to the sickness and death visited upon adult and children detainees under an administration for whom cruelty is the goal, to the drowning death of a father and daughter who waited for two months to request asylum via a port of entry before undertaking a river crossing, to whatever comes next, God help us.

Rabbi Boteach would rather preserve some imagined purity of memory about the Shoah than intervene in this process, but his idea of purity is based on ignorance. The whole meaning of how the Shoah came to be is verboten if we cannot plum the depths of how it compares to what is unfolding in the present.

Since Ocasio-Cortez was not the first to compare the detention centers to concentration camps, it’s remarkable that Rabbi Boteach wrote no columns against Jonathan Katz or Anna Lind-Guzik. Nor has he attacked a declaration of “Never again!” from the Conservative movement. And when Boteach did refer in his column to scholar Andrea Pitzer, who in fact substantiated Ocasio-Cortez’s use of “concentration camps,” he deceitfully misrepresented her position.

Boteach’s outrage about Holocaust desecration, vast though it may be, also didn’t extend to the Republican state senator who compared himself to Oskar Schindler because of his efforts to protect businees owners from LGBT anti-discrimination laws. Nor did he publish a denunciation of Israel’s Education Minister Rabbi Rafi Peretz, who called intermarriage a “second Holocaust.”

When you add it up, Boteach’s rhetorical venom doesn’t seem like the outpouring of a rabbi or Jew defending Holocaust memory. He’s more like any other right-wing pundit, trying to attack AOC in order to score party points. (Given Rabbi Boteach’s love of fame, perhaps he also hopes to burnish his own celebrity by rubbing against hers.)

But if we want to respect the memory of the Shoah, if we want all citizens to learn that each one of us is responsible, we must learn the actual history of how the Shoah unfolded. Most importantly, if the German population had risen up against the concentration camps in 1933 or even 1936, if the world had risen up against them, there almost certainly would have been no “final solution,” no extermination of millions.

Not everyone has to agree with calling the detention centers “concentration camps.” But no person of conscience, no person who intends “Never again!” to be something more than agitprop or a fundraising slogan, can turn away from this conversation that we should be having.

Rabbi Boteach is the one blurring Holocaust memory, not Ocasio-Cortez. If he wants to crusade for Holocaust memory, he should join humanity in stopping the Trump crusade against immigrants from Latin America. There’s a detention center near him in New Jersey—whatever you want to call it—that needs shutting down.

  • Addendum: Many Jews are observing Tisha B’Av this year by holding vigils outside ICE detention centers. (In MA’s Pioneer Valley we also did that last year.) After all, Tisha B’Av is about a whole nation becoming refugees. Here’s a free translation of Lamentations that would be invaluable for use at such vigils.
  • About the Author
    Rabbi David Seidenberg is the creator of neohasid.org, author of Kabbalah and Ecology (Cambridge U. Press, 2015), and a scholar of Jewish thought. He teaches around the world and also leads astronomy programs. As a liturgist, David is well-known for pieces like the prayer for voting and the translation of Laments. David also teaches nigunim and is an avid dancer. He was ordained by both JTS and Reb Zalman.
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