The Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez concentration camp debate, explained

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is interviewed at the SXSW Conference and Festival at the Austin Convention Center in Texas, March 9, 2019. (Jim Bennett/WireImage/Getty Images)

NEW YORK (JTA) — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez raised a ruckus when she said detention centers holding undocumented immigrants on the southern border are “concentration camps.”

“The U.S. is running concentration camps on our southern border, and that is exactly what they are,” the freshman New York Democrat said Monday night in an Instagram Live video. “If that doesn’t bother you … I want to talk to the people that are concerned enough with humanity to say that ‘never again’ means something.”

She tweeted the same message on Tuesday.

“This administration has established concentration camps on the southern border of the United States for immigrants, where they are being brutalized with dehumanizing conditions and dying,” she wrote. “This is not hyperbole. It is the conclusion of expert analysis.”

Ocasio-Cortez then 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 congresswoman’s critics, mostly but not exclusively on the right, said Ocasio-Cortez has to know that using the term “concentration camp” invariably invites comparisons to the Nazis. And by doing so, they insist, she belittles the ways Jews suffered when the Nazis turned the camps into death camps.

“Six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. It is disgraceful for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to compare our nation’s immigration policies to the horrors carried out by the Nazis,” the Republican Jewish Coalition said in a statement. “We would hope that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez knows better, but sadly she does not.”

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., joined the condemnation, tweeting at Ocasio-Cortez, “do us all a favor and spend just a few minutes learning some actual history. 6 million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust. You demean their memory and disgrace yourself with comments like this.”

The Democrat fired back.

“Hey Rep. Cheney, since you’re so eager to ‘educate me,’ I’m curious: What do YOU call building mass camps of people being detained without a trial?” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “How would you dress up DHS’s mass separation of thousands children at the border from their parents?”

The liberal Jewish group Bend the Arc: Jewish Action also came to Ocasio-Cortez’s defense.

“Whether we call them concentration camps, mass detention centers, or cages for children, they are a moral abomination,” its CEO, Stosh Cotler, said in a statement. “The real question is not what we call these mass detention sites growing all over the country, the question is: what is every government official and citizen doing to stop this evil? Our government is scapegoating, demonizing, and terrorizing immigrants. These policies echo the worst of Jewish history and the worst of American history. Anyone distracting from these clear facts with manufactured outrage is subverting Jewish history and trauma, and that is shameful.”

According to a Department of Homeland Security fact sheet, migrant children and parents may be separated when “individuals who are believed to have committed any crime, including illegal entry,” are “referred to the Department of Justice.” DHS then transfers children to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, where they are held in a “temporary shelter” until a sponsor can be found for the child.

Reports suggest these shelters include large centers with dormitory-like accommodations. Meanwhile, the adults are held in what the government calls “detention facilities” pending hearings.

The debate has been clouded by the conflation of the phenomenon of concentration camps, which predate the Holocaust, and the death camps run by the Nazis. Scholars draw a distinction between temporary measures instituted by authoritarian regimes and the permanent dehumanization and extermination of classes of people under the totalitarian Nazis.

Pitzer also told JTA last year that the term concentration camp is valid if Trump officials have described the detention policy as a deterrent, as opposed to an emergency measure to deal with a new problem or a massive influx of migrants.

“We have indications dating back to August that the separation policy was being looked at as a punitive measure — in the hopes that it would deter entry,” she wrote in an email.

Holocaust scholars, meanwhile, urge caution when making Holocaust comparisons or using terminology most commonly associated with the Nazi era. Edna Friedberg, a historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, made the point in a December essay.

“Careless Holocaust analogies may demonize, demean, and intimidate their targets. But there is a cost for all of us because they distract from the real issues challenging our society, because they shut down productive, thoughtful discourse,” she wrote.

“At a time when our country needs dialogue more than ever, it is especially dangerous to exploit the memory of the Holocaust as a rhetorical cudgel. We owe the survivors more than that. And we owe ourselves more than that.”