The “concentration camp” language debate is the wrong fight

Migrant children walk single file at a detention facility in Texas.
Migrant children walk single file at a detention facility in Texas.
Image: Reuters
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You know a nation’s in bad way when citizens are debating the definition of the term “concentration camps.” Yet this is where Americans find themselves today.

The reason for the unsavory debate is the Trump administration’s handling of the influx of migrants and asylum seekers from Latin America. About 144,000 people arrived at the border with Mexico in May and were detained. In June, the number fell to 104,000 but was still more than double the number at the same time last year. Every day, new stories emerge about the horrifying conditions in detention centers where they are held.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet criticized the detentions on July 8, particularly of children, noting the terrible conditions in which they are kept. “I am deeply shocked that children are forced to sleep on the floor in overcrowded facilities, without access to adequate healthcare or food, and with poor sanitation conditions,” Bachelet said in a statement. “Detaining a child even for short periods under good conditions can have a serious impact on their health and development—consider the damage being done every day by allowing this alarming situation to continue.”

People are being caged, sleeping on the ground, freezing, contained in crowded spaces. They are denied basic needs, like adequate food, water, and sanitation. The unhygienic conditions cause illness, which spreads and sometimes leads to death. Children have died. Parents and kids are being separated. Young migrants say they are being sexually abused. Pregnant women are miscarrying. And Border Patrol agents are being driven to the edge too, killing themselves at unprecedented rates, depressed, stressed, and sick

“We made this journey because we feared for our lives,” Yazmin Juarez, who fled Guatemala in 2018, told the House Oversight and Reform subcommittee on civil rights on July 10. “Instead, I watched my baby girl die slowly and painfully before her second birthday.” Her 19-month-old daughter developed a viral respiratory infection during three weeks of detention and didn’t survive despite being hospitalized after released.

So are these concentration camps? 

Some find the very question outrageous, incensed by use of a term they reserve for discussions of the Holocaust. New York Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been widely criticized for calling detention centers “concentration camps,” though she cited an article in Esquire entitled “An expert on concentration camps says that’s exactly what the US is running at the border.”

The debate has raged all year. Vice president Mike Pence on July 8 said at a Christians United For Israel summit that Democrats “cheapened” the memory of Holocaust victims by comparing their conditions to those of migrants at detention centers.

Critics of the “concentration camp” terminology argue that it’s disrespectful to the millions of victims of Nazi Germany’s campaign to round up Jews, Romani, Jehovah’s Witnesses, people with disabilities, homosexuals, so-called “asocials,” political opponents, and civilians—displacing them, forcing labor, torturing, starving, and murdering them over a period of years. Records show that six million Jews alone were killed by the Nazis. That was a genocide incomparable to the US border crisis.

This much is true. There are countless important distinctions between the two horrors, which are not exactly comparable, thank goodness.

The US is not transporting people in cattle cars around a continent. It isn’t gassing humans en masse and building ovens to burn victims, or plying gold fillings from the mouths of corpses, or conducting tortuous medical experiments. There are many differences between the situations. Even if one believes the president’s policies are discriminatory and violate human rights, the administration isn’t orchestrating a genocide.

However, the Holocaust and other atrocities before and after World War II have shown that human rights abuses reflect poorly on all of humanity and bode ill for everyone. Injustices are a shared universal tragedy. They are our common failures. Prior nightmares do not indicate that all facts must exactly match in atrociousness before they move us to react on behalf of human rights. Or, as Waitman Wade Beorn, a Holocaust and genocide studies historian at the University of Virginia, told Esquire:

Things can be concentration camps without being Dachau or Auschwitz. Concentration camps in general have always been designed—at the most basic level—to separate one group of people from another group. Usually, because the majority group, or the creators of the camp, deem the people they’re putting in it to be dangerous or undesirable in some way.

So, are the American detention centers concentration camps? The answer seems to be “yes.” Technically, the US is concentrating people in camps. Yet there’s strong resistance to use of the term, which took on a particular emotional meaning after the Holocaust.

History of the term

The British brought us the term “concentration camps” while interning South Africans in the second Boer war of 1899-1902. Those centers for South Africans, Afrikaners or Boers, of Dutch and German origin, and for black South Africans weren’t as bad as, say, the Nazi death camps during World War II, where people likened to vermin were gassed and tossed into ovens and the smell of burning flesh hung in the air for years. But they were bad.

The 115,000 imprisoned South Africans lived in terrible conditions. People slept on the ground, froze in the cold, sweated in the heat, didn’t have enough to eat, couldn’t keep clean, and became infested with disease. At least 25,000 South Africans died in the camps, amounting to more civilian victims than soldiers who fought in the territorial war.

You Will Be Safe Here, a new novel by Damian Barr, gives the account of one woman in such a camp. It’s fiction. But in the context of the current debate, it’s especially illuminating. As I read it this past weekend, recoiling at the Boers’ treatment of blacks and the British treatment of both Boers and blacks, I found myself comparing injustices, ranking horrors as if they could be listed like hit pop songs.

Again, the differences between the Boer war horror and the US and the Nazis’ offenses abound. Still, it’s all offensive to humanity. The concentration of people in camps in brutal conditions is the same across these situations. The indifference to human dignity evident everywhere.

Plus, once you start ranking injustices, you’re already in dangerous territory. How bad do US practices have to get to merit a place on this list? I’d hope that we’d all be more opposed to inhumane treatment of migrants than to uses of a loaded term to describe the current particular flavor of terrible American behavior. 

Notably, this isn’t the first time that American policies have prompted use of the controversial formulation. During World War II, while the Nazis were in power, the US interned Japanese-Americans. In Korematsu v. US, a 1944 Supreme Court case about the internment, dissenting justice Owen Roberts referred to the American detention centers as “concentration camps.”

History proved the three dissenting justices in Korematsu right. American culture didn’t require Japanese internment to be as atrocious as Nazism to ultimately condemn its own treatment of the Japanese. The US government apologized in 1988, survivors received reparations, and the camps remain a stain on US history.

So, even though—yet again—there are distinctions between the historically interned Japanese, forced to leave their homes in the US, and migrants seeking entrance at the border today, that doesn’t mean contemporary detention centers are not concentration camps or that we’re not now complicit in a historical shame in the making. 

Who’s to say?

Perhaps it’s audacious to make such a claim. Who am I to say what constitutes a concentration camp? I’m not a Holocaust survivor, after all, just someone born in a controversial Jewish state created in the shadow of that horror and raised on Holocaust novels.

I read Elie Wiesel’s Night as a child. It’s a slender autobiographical novella about a Jewish teen in Romania sent to the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps, from which he emerges practically a corpse. In it, Wiesel wrote:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed… Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.

Reading taught me that atrocities happen even as we imagine things can’t be that bad. It revealed that the realization life has turned into a nightmare can sneak up slowly, sometimes only when it’s too late.

So who is the proper authority on this subject? Is there someone who can say what language to use? 

If it’s Holocaust survivor Ruth Bloch—who was 17 years old in 1942 when she was separated from her family and eventually transported to Auschwitz—she says the concentration camp language isn’t offensive, but the mass migrant internment is. Bloch recently told the Daily Beast: “I feel because I have been in a concentration camp, I do understand that this is beyond human behavior. It’s because I know from my own experience what it means. It means you are not allowed to think, and you’re always under the thumb of the authorities, the ones in power.”  

If it’s historians who can opine, Andrea Pfitzer, author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, told Esquire that “mass detention of civilians without trial,” as in the US, amounts to a “concentration camp system.” 

Some Jews feel especially inclined to use precisely this language because they interpret the post-Holocaust mantra “Never Again” as a demand that they fight for human rights. As Hallie Berkson-Gold wrote in Haaretz on July 7, “What is the point of saying ‘Never Again’ if we don’t push to abolish our present-day American concentration camps?”

The wrong fight

When I first heard the “concentration camp” formulation used to describe the American immigration situation, I was torn between my emotional understanding of the term, wanting to point out all the distinctions between Nazi Germany and the US today, and my instinctual understanding that its use is technically correct. But one lesson the Holocaust should have taught is that we can’t hesitate to name the inhumane.

Consider what the late Elie Wiesel might say about the debate. Would a man who survived the Holocaust and won the Nobel Peace Prize argue about definitions and distinctions or advocate for human rights? Would Wiesel, a Romanian refugee who became American, be expansive about human dignity or stingy? I’d argue that the guy called “a messenger to mankind” wouldn’t be quibbling over language but fighting for change. 

What about Anne Frank? Would the writer of that famed journal, a Dutch Jewish girl who lived in hiding and died in the Holocaust, be more offended by cruelty than by use of a term? I suspect she’d be ok with Ocasio-Cortez’s weighted language to describe a dangerous situation and would not want sole claim on concentration camps.     

Likewise for Primo Levi, an Italian Jewish chemist, writer, and Holocaust survivor who documented his experience in Auschwitz. Levi died in a fall in 1987 ruled a suicide, but he spent more than four decades after his release from Nazi custody guarding the memory of the atrocity, commemorating it to ensure history wouldn’t repeat. That he ultimately killed himself indicates that the overwhelming pain, the trauma, was not survivable. My sense is that Levi wouldn’t have been as attached to the words “concentration camps” as to the need to minimize suffering rather than inflict it, to shelter people in safety rather than putting lives and psychologies in danger.  

Maybe that is just what I wish Wiesel, Frank, and Levi would say. Certainly, not all those who keep the memory of the Holocaust alive today would agree with me, as evidenced by the fact that some have spoken out against conflation of situations and terms. In June, for example, the US Holocaust Museum denounced “efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events” in response to Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the words “concentration camps” again that month.

However, 140 scholars who specialize in genocide chided the museum for its response in an open letter in the New York Review of Books, writing:

The Museum’s decision to completely reject drawing any possible analogies to the Holocaust, or to the events leading up to it, is fundamentally ahistorical. It has the potential to inflict severe damage on the Museum’s ability to continue its role as a credible, leading global institution dedicated to Holocaust memory, Holocaust education, and research in the field of Holocaust and genocide studies. The very core of Holocaust education is to alert the public to dangerous developments that facilitate human rights violations and pain and suffering; pointing to similarities across time and space is essential for this task.

Certainly, the lesson of the Holocaust I was taught is that it’s possible for atrocities to happen right under the noses of decent people, and that we must be vigilant at all times lest we find ourselves complicit even if only by our silences. So, though I don’t think that the US detention centers are precisely the same as those run by the Nazis, or camps in South Africa, or previous American concentration camps—nor are any of these situations the same in their details—I do believe the debate over the disputed term only shows our sorry state.

In stark contrast to Pence, I think it dishonors victims of previous injustices to say migrants in detention now are somehow less worthy of our concern because the specifics of their situations are different from victims of yore. Many, if not most, of those who were interned in camps throughout history, like Bloch, might see people fleeing their homes all around the globe today and beg those of us who are safe and comfortably sheltered to at least speak for their wellbeing when they’re held in terrible conditions. They’d surely urge us to use the strongest possible language in the name of human dignity and rights.