As the number of U.S.-bound migrants from Central America continues to overwhelm the ICE officials tasked with detaining them, many Americans — Jewish and non-Jewish alike — have invoked the Holocaust. They’ve described holding facilities as “concentration camps,” used “never again” as a cry of protest against them, and even juxtaposed pictures of the top Nazi brass at a concentration camp with a photo of Mike Pence visiting a migrant detention center. A new organization, “Never Again Action,” has formed to protest the treatment of migrants in American detention facilities, with many across the country getting themselves arrested for illegally protesting outside ICE buildings.
As with most emotionally charged issues, the most vocal tend to be the most radical. There will never be an organization formed, or a mass movement generated, to politely object to the use of a phrase. But I object. The abuse of the phrases “concentration camp” and “never again” are deeply inappropriate, revealing an ignorance of history, the deleterious effects of concept creep on our discourse, and a total lack of argumentative restraint. This toxic mix shamefully belittles the horrors of the Holocaust and amounts to a slander against American border agents facing an impossible situation.
Start with the “concentration camp” charge. Yes, all Americans should agree that conditions for migrants, particularly those seeking asylum at the border, are unacceptable by the high standard to which we hold our country. At least seven children have died in ICE custody this year, and there are credible allegations of sub-standard medical care.
But the term “concentration camps” connotes something far worse, especially when it comes amid a slew of Holocaust analogies. Using it downplays what people such as my grandfather, Moshe, dealt with. Here is an excerpt from a letter he and his brother wrote to American relatives in 1946 from a displaced-person camp in Paris, describing the wartime fates of their immediate family members:
The Jews from [Lukov Ghetto] were the first to be destroyed. Among them was our Bobbe [grandmother] Hena, and Faiga with her child. They had been killed and burned in the well-known concentration camp Treblinka. In November 1942, it was our ghetto’s turn. They expelled us in cattle cars to Auschwitz. There they took away our parents and our only sister Hinda to the gas chamber and burned them. My brother and I were sent to a concentration camp. What happened to us from the years 1942–1945 in the concentration camp of Buchenwald-Auschwitz can only be described in a separate book.
Moshe and David (my great uncle, of blessed memory) were starving slave laborers for more than two years in one of Auschwitz’s satellite concentration camps, after which they were forced on a death march (the same one on which Elie Wiesel based part of Night). When he finally escaped the Nazis by jumping off a transport train and running through the forest several weeks before the end of the war, my grandfather, at 21 years of age, weighed roughly 100 pounds. That is what an actual concentration camp does to a person — and to millions of people.
There is scarcely anything more contemptible to be found in our public life than the habit of treating the history of the Holocaust so unseriously. The insistence that Americans are running concentration camps on our southern border, unacceptable and inadequate as the facilities may be, is both a category error and a spectacular insult to those murdered, vivisected, tortured, and starved in the real ones.
And this insistence by activists (and, unfortunately, members of Congress) on using Nazi analogies bleeds into our discourse in another, more subtle way, as ICE agents themselves are now likened to war criminals. The New York Times prints op-eds calling for public shaming of individual officers. Antifa fanatics are incited to bomb ICE premises. Not everyone takes the phrase “abolish ICE” so figuratively.
I do not wish to recount all of the sadisms and cruelties that rank-and-file Nazi officers inflicted on my grandfather. But it is beyond doubt that no concentration camp could function without its low-level soldiers. We are now expected to believe that members of ICE, our fellow citizens, are thugs like the Nazis rather than normal Americans facing a deluge of new migrants and struggling to deal with the population flow. We are expected to believe that ICE agents enjoy hurting Hispanic babies, and withholding medical care. This is a slander, and should be rejected by people of any charitable disposition.
Americans can and should protest bad conditions on the border. But activists should leave the Holocaust-appropriating rhetoric out of it. If we are to describe the problem we face, much less solve it, we need to maintain the integrity of our language. It is impossible not to notice that the circle of people being called Nazis these days is getting larger and larger. And if we do not get a handle on our vocabulary, then when the time comes, distant as it may seem, we will have no words left to describe the real thing.