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Farber: A battle of words over the use of the term ‘concentration camps’

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Wikimedia Commons photo - US House of Representatives/Wafflepancake34 - Public Domain)

Last month, American congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted a comment regarding U.S. policy towards migrants that seems to have stunned many: “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. This is not hyperbole. It is the conclusion of expert analysis.”

In fact, it is far from hyperbole.

Erika Guevara Rosas, Amnesty International’s Americas director, has spoken out strongly on the internment/concentration camp policy. “This is a spectacularly cruel policy, where frightened children are being ripped from their parent’s arms and taken to overflowing detention centres, which are effectively cages,” she stated. “This is nothing short of torture.”

Since the comments by Ocasio-Cortez and Amnesty International, many others have echoed the criticism of the brutal and shameful treatment of migrants, dozens of whom have died in U.S. custody. The reaction by many to these critiques was swift and fierce. Most opined that the term “concentration camps” should be linked only to Nazism. That is demonstrably incorrect.

I am the child of a Holocaust survivor. The Jews of my father’s entire village in eastern Poland were gassed to death, not in a concentration camp, but in a death camp called Treblinka.

To be sure, the Nazis ran a series of concentration camps across Germany and the face of Europe during the Second World War. They were brutal, horrible places where many thousands died of forced labour, disease, malnutrition and many were shot for just being Jews. But we Jews don’t own the term “concentration camp,” nor was it a Nazi invention.

The first usage of the term by a western democracy occurred during the Boer War, fought between the British and the South African Afrikaners from 1899 to 1903. Concentration camps, as the British referred to them, were established to forcibly detain individuals on a mass basis.

In roughly the same time period, in the Caribbean, the Spanish rounded up civilians and created similar camps to halt the spread of guerrilla warfare amongst the local populations. Many inmates of these first Caribbean concentration camps were women and children, thousands of whom died from malnutrition and lack of care. Sound familiar?


So why this battle over words? Well, some cynics, myself included, would suggest it’s a shameful pivot by Trump supporters and the hard right to take the focus off the horrible conditions under which children are dying from lack of even the most basic care.

But what of those in our own community who have condemned the use of the term “concentration camp” to describe the caging of infants, children and others? Indeed, even Yad Vashem has been critical for what they see as a misappropriation of the term. Thankfully, many others disagree. Jewish historian Anna Lind-Guzik speaks for many when she noted:

“It’s tragic that Yad Vashem, an institution I’ve venerated and visited, has opted to chasten a young woman for calling out crimes against humanity that mirror what Jews endured less than a century ago, at the same time that it embraces visitors like Viktor Orban, the anti-Semitic ethnonationalist Hungarian prime minister.”

I agree. I am dumbfounded that well-respected Jewish historians would allow misinterpretation of words and ascribe political motives to those who refuse to agree. Thankfully, many heroic and progressive Jews are now taking action. Large numbers of Jewish activists have demonstrated and some have been arrested in front of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities, imploring us to remember that “Never again” must have meaning today.

When asked what Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel might have said regarding the current situation, Michael Zank, director of Boston University’s Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies, said, “I can only say that Elie Wiesel has left us a mandate to speak truth to power, to be unafraid to call out injustice and human rights violations anywhere we see them.

“I am proud that BU alumna Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is doing exactly that.”

“Never again” must be for everyone.

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