A Jewish Trademark on ‘Concentration Camps’?

On June 18th, the Jewish Community Council of Greater New York (JCRC) addressed an open letter of complaint to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for calling detention centers for unauthorized border crossers, “concentration camps.”  In her defense, she referred to a recent book about non-Holocaust uses of the term, and also tweeted that she was not talking about “death camps.” 

According to the JTA report:  

Ocasio-Cortez … linked to an Esquire article quoting Andrea Pitzer, author of “One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps.” Pitzer asserts, as she did in an interview with JTA last year, that what the government calls federal migrant shelters or detainment facilities fit her definition of concentration camps: “mass detention of civilians without trial.”

The JCRC officers (its outgoing and incoming presidents, and the executive vice president) began by laying out their grievance:

We are deeply disturbed by the language used in your recent Instagram live video which seeks to equate the detention centers on America’s southern border with Nazi-era Concentration Camps.

The terms “Concentration Camp” and “Never Again” are synonymous with and evocative of the atrocities committed by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, in which 6 million European Jews were systematically denied civil and human rights due to their race and ultimately murdered in a state-sponsored genocide. As concerned as we are about the conditions experienced by migrants seeking asylum in the United States, including family separation, unusable facilities, and lack of food, water, and medical resources, the regrettable use of Holocaust terminology to describe these contemporary concerns diminishes the evil intent of the Nazis to eradicate the Jewish people.

Toward the letter’s close, its tone became patronizing, worded as if this educated and articulate member of Congress doesn’t know what the Holocaust was: 

. . .  [W]e would be pleased to work with you to arrange a visit to a concentration camp, a local Holocaust museum, hear the stories of local survivors, or participate in other educational opportunities in the hopes of better understanding the horrors of the Holocaust.  . . .

All who expressed themselves in a TTN email discussion on the subject were either appalled or dismissive at the way the JCRC assumed Jewish ownership over what constitutes a “concentration camp.”  One of our number, Kenneth S. Stern, currently director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, worked for many years for the American Jewish Committee (AJC) on antisemitism, hate studies and extremism.  In that capacity in 1998, he helped write mutually acceptable language to go with an exhibit on the forced relocation and imprisonment of Japanese Americans by the United States government during World War II. 

Unlike the possible community relations disaster precipitated by the New York JCRC, the AJC’s amicable work with Japanese Americans over 20 years ago addressed both understandable Jewish sensibilities regarding the memory of the Holocaust and the right of other Americans to commemorate the injustice they endured during those very same years.  The following press release shows how this matter of “concentration camps” was resolved, including a brief discussion of how this term was used before the Holocaust and in other crises for human rights since that time:   

The Japanese American National Museum and the American Jewish Committee released the following joint statement today:

An exhibit—entitled America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese American Experience—chronicling the shameful treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II, will soon open at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. Thousands have already seen the exhibit, which was created by and, in 1994, shown at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. Today, our sights are trained on the importance of such an exhibit in teaching about episodes of intolerance. We strongly urge all who have the opportunity to see the exhibit to do so and to learn its critical lessons.

A recent meeting between Japanese American and American Jewish leaders in the American Jewish Committee’s New York City offices led to an agreement that the exhibit’s written materials and publicity include the following explanatory text:

“A concentration camp is a place where people are imprisoned not because of any crimes they have committed, but simply because of who they are. Although many groups have been singled out for such persecution throughout history, the term ‘concentration camp’ was first used at the turn of the century in the Spanish-American and Boer Wars.

“During World War II, America’s concentration camps were clearly distinguishable from Nazi Germany’s. Nazi camps were places of torture, barbarous medical experiments, and summary executions; some were extermination centers with gas chambers. Six million Jews were slaughtered in the Holocaust. Many others, including Gypsies, Poles, homosexuals, and political dissidents were also victims of the Nazi concentration camps.

“In recent years, concentration camps have existed in the former Soviet Union, Cambodia, and Bosnia.

“Despite differences, all had one thing in common: the people in power removed a minority group from the general population and the rest of society let it happen.”

The meeting and the agreement about the text also reinforced the close and constructive relationship that has long existed between the Japanese American and American Jewish communities. Jewish community groups, especially the American Jewish Committee, were among the first and most vocal outside the Japanese American community calling for the U.S. government to offer an apology and monetary redress for its treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

In 1988, Congress and President Reagan passed legislation that formally granted the redress and apology to Japanese Americans who were incarcerated. Both communities have been among America’s leading voices advocating for strong civil rights, anti-discrimination and hate crimes laws. The meeting’s participants were encouraged to continue the work of preserving the memories of our communities’ experiences and helping other learn from them.

The exhibit represents a precious opportunity for those who must tell its story—Japanese Americans and other victims of tragic intolerance—and for those who must hear it. The story is one of betrayal; betrayal of Japanese Americans, who were deprived of protections that all Americans deserve; and betrayal of the American soul, which is defined by its unique commitment to human rights. The best insurance that we will never again commit such acts of betrayal is to use history of this sort as an object lesson for Americans today and in the future.

Postscript: Although the New York JCRC letter may be regarded as community-relations malpractice, it should be appreciated that the “concentration camp” term is more emotionally freighted for Jews than (almost) anyone else.  This is what prompted the AJC’s successful engagement with Japanese Americans in 1998.  Among the many worthwhile contributions to our TTN discussion are the following:  

After mentioning the mostly non-Jewish inmates of Nazi Germany’s pre-Holocaust concentration camps in the 1930s, and the hellish POW camps for captives of the Japanese, Hank Greenspan of the University of Michigan adds “that in pop Holocaust memory, ‘concentration camps’ carries an iconic load, . . . .   It is hard not to imagine AOC wasn’t drawing on some of that iconic power.”  

And Zachary Braiterman, a professor of religion at Syracuse University, wrote a deep reflection entitled “Bad Faith & Concentration Camps” at his “Jewish philosophy place” blog.