How terminology can blind us

One thing that can be really frustrating to watch play out is how on the internet, and specifically the ever increasingly paced social media, there seems to be an intense lack of ability to hold multiple truths at the same time. The internet is a world of absolutes in a world that is not absolute. 

Last week, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez began to refer to the American migrant detention facilities as “concentration camps” via an Instagram video, saying that “the United States is running concentration camps on our southern border.” These comments consequently set the world ablaze. Well, not actually. But it has sparked a heated and mostly uncompromising debate that has made me think. 

First and foremost, what is happening on the border, especially to the children, is horrendous. If that is not the first thing that drives you to anger or sadness, or any combination of the two, than that says a lot about the kind of person you are. The detention “facilities are overcrowded,” as their capacity of 4,000 has now ballooned to 15,000. These people, these kids, that have made an immeasurably arduous trek to our country in the hopes that they would be able to start a better life for themselves here and pursue the American dream are enduring this. As Isaac Chotiner describes in a devastating New Yorker piece, “flu and lice outbreaks were going untreated, and children were filthy, sleeping on cold floors, and taking care of one another because of the lack of attention from guards. Some of them had been in the facility for weeks.” Within 5 minutes of reading up on or hearing about the conditions of these hellish camps, one should be able to notice that, at the very least, this is clearly antithetical to our country’s supposed exceptional values. 

And to me, that is the most important aspect of what is going on: whatever you call it, it is clearly horrifyingly disturbing and awful (and is all of this even legal? Someone smarter than me no doubt has the answer). 

Moving onto semantics, I have a couple of thoughts. Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez no doubt knew that her words would have power. She never once said “Nazis” in her initial comments, but she knows that, inevitably, “concentration camp” would beget the parallel comparison that the Trump administration are Nazis, or at the very least fascistic. This was by no means, meant to, as she so claims, be a tempered and academic conversation on the definition of what exactly a “concentration camp” really is. It was meant to spark a heated conversation. And that it did. The media has an addiction to her. It was one of the biggest stories (sometimes headache inducing to see happen over Twitter) last week and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Ocasio-Cortez and her team (maybe rightfully?) wanted to get to a point where they could be in a position to make quick bite size remarks that would go viral and scathe Republicans, such as when asked by a reporter to respond to Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s call for her to apologize for the term, she responded that “he should apologize for the conditions that he’s supporting on the border.”

And maybe this was all fine. Her phrasing vaulted this issue back on the national spotlight. I have seen consistent coverage of the tragedy that is happening at the border by every news publication, a lot of my more liberal-minded friends have taken to social media to post about the situation and how to help (RAICES and HIAS are good places to start), the congressional office where I work has gotten flooded with calls and emails stressing concern about the grisly conditions that these migrants are forced to face, and our office and the hill have been abuzz with the conditions and what to do. Her comments have objectively brought the issue back to the front. And what had been a tragedy happening in the background, an issue that people were not paying attention to, is now in the eyes of many a national emergency. 

This whole ordeal, as tragic as it is, also feels uncommonly human. Many have no doubt pondered as to why the focus on the semantics of the issue rather than the issue itself. After some thinking about this in particular, this phenomenon is because people are uncomfortable in talking about the horrifics that their country is right now inflicting upon others. It is an uncomfortable and an unsettling thought. Talking about the semantics of the issue has the benefit of talking about the issue while actually skirting around the heart of the issue. Talking semantics instead of substance allows one to feel a part of the conversation without feeling as though they are a part of the problem. 

As a Jewish person, I kind of feel uncomfortable with the concentration camp phrase being thrown around. Broadly speaking, there seems to be a lack of understanding on the veracity of the Holocaust. Not from AOC, but from the broader public. As a Jew, that angers me to my core. But you know what else angers me to my core? Seeing supposed defenders of the Jewish people (because I guess we are incapable of speaking for ourselves) shirk any discussion of the horrific treatment that kids are getting because these people don’t like the phrasing that is being used. The people who are so quick to tweet #NeverAgain are looking a tragedy right in their eyes, right in their backyard, and are unrelenting in their refusal to admit that the way these migrants are being treated is disgusting, and are of course unwilling to lift even a finger to ameliorate these conditions. Is this the Holocaust? No. Is this what the beginning of the Holocaust looked like? No. Is this clearly a tragedy, a tragedy which we can fix? Yes. 

One can easily make the argument that what is happening right now is sickening without gripping onto Holocaust terminology.  Deborah Lipstadt, the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University is one of the foremost Holocaust and anti-Semitism scholars alive today (give her a Google). She said that “debating if separation of children is akin to the Holocaust, allows those who are forcibly separating parents and children off the hook. Be horrified by the policy. Don’t be engaged in a useless debate about inaccurate, false, and deceptive comparisons.” The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was unequivocal, saying that they “reject efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary.” Haaretz and Economist reporter Anshel Pfeffer pointedly said that “Jews don’t own the words ‘concentration camps’. Right now, 100s of 1000s of Uighurs in China and millions of North Koreans in Kim’s gulag are being held in concentration camps. If you compare Trump’s awful camps to these you have a serious problem.” And he is right. Maybe I shouldn’t be getting so uncomfortable about others using this phrase. And maybe this feeling that Diaspora Jews have, that they own the phrase, is tied up in a broader problem: that Diaspora Jews focus too much attention on the Holocaust and not nearly enough on everyday Jewish life, and that is in part the reason why so many Jews (like myself) feel uncomfortable with “concentration camps” term being thrown around. 

On the other hand, I am comfortable with my slight uncomfort with the use of “concentration camps” if it ultimately leads to more people buying in, and caring about this issue. If it ultimately leads to positive change, I am ok with the phrasing. But at the same time, Anshel Pfeffer makes a good point, that “yes, concentration camps was originally a term used by the British in the Boer War. And yes, Liz Cheney is a hypocrite. And yes, the administration’s border policy is inhumane and cruel. So what? To many of us, concentration camps mean the numbers on our grandparent’s arms.” 

I strive to be a Jewish pragmatist (which means I can just never have a definitive position on anything), and ending this disgusting treatment of people is right now the most important thing. We should end the silly and mostly partisan debate about the semantics. We were once strangers in Egypt, and we must strive to make sure that no one else is a stranger in our country. We have a profound ethical tradition to do better, as Americans and as Jews.

About the Author
Brett L. Kleiman is currently a student at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, where he studies political science and international relations. He is a research intern at the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel and is also the president of the Emory Democrats. Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Brett attended The Robert M Beren Academy for 12 years. From September 2015 to June 2016 Brett lived in Israel through Young Judaea's gap year program, Year Course. Brett is interested in Israel, America, diplomacy, podcasts, Game of Thrones, The Wire, politics, reading, sports, and peace.
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