The case for calling them ‘concentration camps’

Homestead Detention Center, Florida (D. Dina Friedman, facebook, public domain)
Homestead Detention Center, Florida (D. Dina Friedman, facebook, public domain)

Before you decide that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is violating the memory of the Holocaust by calling the extra-legal prisons holding immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers “concentration camps” — please read this.

I too had a visceral feeling that this language was wrong when I first heard it, some weeks ago (well before AOC’s June 17 video). After a few minutes of research, it became clear that it is a completely relevant description of what the US is doing. I collected some of the definitions I found, along with links to relevant articles, so you can see why, and form your own opinion.

First of all, AOC was not the first person to call the detention centers concentration camps. Read this June 9 article in the LA Times, by Jonathan Katz: “Call immigrant detention centers what they really are: concentration camps”

It was after I read Katz’s article that I first looked up the definition of concentration camp, as well as the history of the term and the phenomenon. It doesn’t start or end with Nazi Germany. Here is a textbook definition from the Holocaust encyclopedia on the United States Holocaust museum website:

“What distinguishes a concentration camp from a prison (in the modern sense) is that it functions outside of a judicial system. The prisoners are not indicted or convicted of any crime by a court.”

The immigrant detention camps seem to fall within that definition. They are under an alternative judicial system, where inmates are deprived of most rights, like habeus corpus. That’s happening even though many of them are here legally — because it is legal to come to the U.S. to claim asylum no matter how you get in. And the inmates are subject to arbitrary and cruel conditions, like separating parents from children, not having beds to sleep in, not having soap, and they are vulnerable to criminal harms, like sexual abuse, that violate basic human rights.

Here’s another definition of concentration camp, even more apt, from the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “a place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard.”

Hannah Arendt also emphasizes the function of concentration camps “for getting undesirable elements of all sorts – refugees, stateless persons, the asocial, and the unemployed – out of the way; for persons who have become superfluous and bothersome.” She is quoted in this next article, which also includes the broader history of the phenomenon of concentration camps, before and after the Nazis, may they be blotted out:

“AOC Wasn’t Wrong About Concentration Camps” (Bloomberg)

The use of the term “concentration camp” is a punch to the gut, and that’s why it may be something we need. We need the wind knocked out of us in order to stop business as usual and face more directly the horror that the United States is inflicting. These camps are not directly a horror for most of us, but atrocities are being committed every single day against people who are brown, who are from the South, many of whom are legally seeking asylum or who have a legal right to claim refugee status or asylum, and who are treated worse than criminals. We are most outraged when this happens to children, rachmana litslan (God help us), but these atrocities are also committed against adults, and we shouldn’t forget their suffering either.

One big problem Jews keep having is that people mix up the terminology of “death camp” and “concentration camp.” Another source of confusion is that the Nazis established concentration camps long before they came up with a policy of extermination for Jews and Gypsies.

In fact, there were many types of camps instituted by the Nazis, and we need to be able to distinguish them if we want to figure out how historical references apply to current conditions. Check out this pdf from Yad Vashem that enumerates all the types of camps. You’ll see that what is happening now is somewhat similar to camps that were set up in 1933.

There are other examples of concentration camps in history, like the Japanese internment camps in the U.S. Around 2% of the people there died because of overcrowded conditions and insufficient medical care, not because of any policy to kill.

What do Holocaust historians have to say? There’s no unanimity, but here’s one article, whose title is self-explanatory:

“An Expert on Concentration Camps Says That’s Exactly What the U.S. Is Running at the Border” (Esquire)

You can follow this link to read a thought-provoking facebook post on the detention centers and the Shoah from Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes, who worked for the Shoah Foundation and whose father was a camp survivor.

And here are a few other thoughtful articles to look at:

“I’m a Jewish historian. Yes, we should call border detention centers ‘concentration camps’.” (Vox)

“They Are Concentration Camps — and They Are Also Prisons” (Truthout)

“The Non-Jews are Using Us Again” (Pop Chassid)

Also, this June 7 article, “US opens new mass facility in Texas for migrant children”, includes a crucial fact: the US government considers the detention centers “temporary emergency shelters, so they won’t be subject to state child welfare licensing requirements” — that’s why for-profit companies running these centers get away with perpetrating the depraved, abysmal conditions that we have been hearing about all week. That fits the definition of concentration camp we saw above — a center that isolates an unwanted population under conditions that would be illegal if normal laws were being followed.

The definition given by the U.S. Holocaust museum fits (even though the museum itself doesn’t admit to that). Though there are experts on both sides of the question, when you read these sources, it’s clear there’s good enough reason to call the detention centers “concentration camps.” We also must not forget that much worse examples of concentration camps exist in the world today, such as the “re-education” centers where over a million Muslim Uyghurs are being imprisoned by China.

Of course, that doesn’t answer the question of whether it is effective or wise to call the immigrant detention centers “concentration camps.”

What I’ve seen personally is that AOC’s comment has done some good on the left. It has led people to think more deeply about these issues, about history and the validity of comparisons, about the diverse circumstances in which concentration camps have been used as a tool of control and dehumanization, and more. That may be good for mobilizing Jewish power and creating more solidarity between Jews and other activists for immigrant rights.

That does not mean you personally have to use this language, but it does mean that AOC’s tweet makes sense. But one thing you can surely agree with is this — when a Jewish journalist wrote about the same thing on June 9, few people paid attention. AOC got us to pay attention.

On the right, however, AOC’s comment has done little except elicit paroxysms of blame and shock (mostly real shock from Jews, mostly feigned shock from politicians, who are trying to manipulate or pander to us — and one might argue that Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Dov Hikind are more allied with the manipulators than the Jews). Perhaps AOC’s comment did more harm than good among these people — but another way to look at it is that the trollers of humanity are now more fully on record for posterity and history to judge them. (I imagine that God will also judge them, but God doesn’t need a paper/electron trail.)

These are not just people disagreeing about political issues. So many thought leaders on the right (excluding the sliver of anti-Trumpians) appear to be morally bankrupt. When you learn a little history, they look like the ones manipulating the memory of the Holocaust for political purposes, not AOC.

If and when they bother to use evidentiary arguments, sometimes they try to refute the use of “concentration camp” by quoting the second part of the Merriam-Webster definition, which goes like this: “– used especially in reference to camps created by the Nazis.” But in this context, “especially” obviously implies “not only.” It’s a small hook to hang their very small hats on.

The more pertinent question is not whether the term “concentration camps” is accurate, but how we deal with the trauma and grief that it evokes. Perhaps its invocation will help us mobilize not just our anger, but also our grief, over what the United States has come to.

We are approaching Tisha B’Av, when the Jewish people became refugees. The continuing catastrophe of human civilization seems so great that it is not so much a holiday of remembrance as it is a direct warning. I pray that we see some light, that we can turn away from hating and harming each other long enough to pay attention to the biggest atrocity, which is the sixth mass extinction that humanity is perpetrating against this planet. Rachmana litslan.

About the Author
Rabbi David Seidenberg is the creator of neohasid.org, author of Kabbalah and Ecology (Cambridge U. Press, 2015), and a liturgist well-known for pieces like the prayer for voting. David is also an avid dancer.
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