Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s statement in mid-June that “the U.S. is running concentration camps on our southern border” has drawn widespread criticism from many people, including conservatives and Jews. Even the U.S. Holocaust Museum joined the fray, releasing a statement on Monday that it “unequivocally” rejects any “analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary.” But regardless of the pushback she's received, Ocasio-Cortez was 100% correct in her assessment.
First and foremost, it's crucial to note that the politician did not compare the U.S. immigration detention system to the Holocaust writ large, but to concentration camps specifically. Yet more importantly, the outrage over Ocasio-Cortez's wording ignores the main lesson from the Holocaust, which is to confront and eradicate systemic racism and violence carried out by any government against any group of people. It's not to stake claims about who has the right to the term “concentration camps."
And the fact of the matter is, Ocasio-Cortez's comparison wasn't inaccurate. As she stated on Twitter, her use of the term “concentration camps” fits “squarely within academic consensus and definition.” The term has, in fact, been used for over a century to describe detainment camps with inhumane conditions, as academics have pointed out, with the earliest known reference made to “reconcentration camps” set up in 1897 by the Spanish in Cuba. Even more, Ocasio-Cortez's comments are not the first time that the U.S. has been publicly condemned for creating racially targeted concentration camps. During World War II, for instance, America detained over 110,000 Japanese Americans in what are now often referred to as concentration camps.
Although columnist Richard Cohen responded to Ocasio-Cortez's comments by telling The Washington Post that no one in the detention centers "is being held for political, ideological, or religious reasons,” that's simply incorrect. Throughout his campaign and presidency, Donald Trump has repeatedly made plain that his immigration policy is linked to explicitly racist notions about Latinx individuals. Just as antisemitic progaganda was instinctually tied to the Nazi genocide of European Jews, Trump’s vitriolic statements labeling Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals” cannot be separated from inhumane internment conditions at the border.
Of the approximately 60,000 individuals held in immigrant detention by the U.S. government on any given day, 90 percent are from just four countries: Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, according to the American Immigration Council. The vast majority of these detainees have been classified by ICE itself as posing no danger to society. In light of this reality, the argument that immigrant detention centers are not ideologically targeted toward certain racial groups is simply ludicrous.
And the conditions in these camps, which house adults as well as thousands of children, are truly appalling. Last week, an extremely disturbing report about a children’s detention center in Texas revealed that 350 kids were being held in a facility meant for 100. Some of those children had been held for weeks, sleeping on the packed concrete floor and going without necessities like blankets, healthy food, and even medical care. Due to brutal conditions like these, several children have died in immigration custody in recent months.
With this crisis as our reality, it is disappointing that so many people are focused on superficial criticism of progressive champions like Ocasio-Cortez. Sadly, it's just another example of how conservatives emboldened by the Trump administration are weaponizing claims of antisemitism against people who they view as threats to their repressive agenda, when in actuality, the individuals who truly threaten the safety of Jews and other oppressed groups sit in the White House. Don't forget, our president has literally stated that some white nationalists are “very fine people" (and doubled down on the comment). Former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke has repeatedly voiced his support for Trump. Even Howard Lorber, the chairman of the Holocaust Museum, was appointed by Trump and is apparently a “longtime family friend” of the president.
Unfortunately, the backlash to Ocasio-Cortez's comments is not the only time recently that Jews have joined ranks with staunch conservatives to paint liberal politicians as antisemitic. In March, some Jewish representatives and constituents supported a resolution condemning antisemitism in response to anti-Israel remarks from Rep. Ilhan Omar, the first Black Muslim woman representative in Congress. The outpouring of malice against Omar — a staunch advocate for race and economic justice — stunk of racism and Islamophobia, and yet she consistently responded with humility and promises to do better by the Jewish community.
Like many Jews, I feel a very personal connection to the horrific genocide against our people that was the Holocaust. My grandfather was a German Jew who was lucky enough to escape when it was still possible, but like many, I have no surviving relatives in Europe. As other Jews have pointed out, the oppression of our ancestors should inspire us to combat systemic government violence today. Yet by allying themselves with the people currently forging U.S. immigration policies, some Jews are instead choosing to fan the flames of hatred, racism, and fear that gave rise to the Holocaust and to many other genocides across the globe.