What’s a ‘Concentration Camp’? Of Definitions, Immigration, Politics and The Holocaust

What’s a ‘Concentration Camp’? Of Definitions, Immigration, Politics and The Holocaust


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Janet Ybarra
Former Washington Journalist
Contributor on The Bipartisan Press

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For most Americans, the term “concentration camp” conjures names like Auschwitz, Dachau and others which dotted the European countryside during World War II: places where millions of Jews, gays and others targeted by Adolf Hitler and his Nazis were sent to their horrific exterminations.

When it comes to “concentration camps,” they were hellish places liberated by American forces and their allies. In other words, when most Americans think about the US role related to concentration camps, they think, “We were the good guys.”

So perhaps the political firestorm Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) created when she called the caged detention facilities used to hold mass numbers of detained immigrants “concentration camps” should have been expected.

For the remark, the freshman congresswoman has faced criticism from a variety of quarters–even receiving a scolding from Chuck Todd, the nonpartisan MSNBC host.

“If you want to criticize the shameful treatment of people at our southern border, fine. You will have plenty of company, but be careful comparing them to Nazi concentration camps because they’re not at all comparable, in the slightest,” Todd said, in on-air remarks. “But here’s what is as upsetting as her comments. Some Democrats have been reluctant to condemn her remarks. They don’t want to get criticized on Twitter. Fellow New York congressman Jerry Nadler tweeted in response, ‘One of the lessons from the Holocaust is ‘Never again.’ We fail to learn that lesson when we don’t call out such inhumanity right in front of us.’ Jerry Nadler surely knows that migrant detainment camps are not the same as concentration camps. So why didn’t he just say that? Why are we so sheepish calling out people we agree with politically these days?

“Obviously this isn’t a Democratic Party thing. It’s an even bigger problem on the Republican side of the aisle when it comes to President Trump and the reluctance there. Are we really so ensconced in our political bubbles, liberal versus conservative,that we cannot talk about right versus wrong anymore? Some things are bigger than partisanship. At least they used to be. And in the interim, the crux of what is truly at stake is lost. What is this country going to do about what’s happening at the border in this humanitarian crisis? We will get to that at some point, I guess, after we have this debate.

“I have no doubt Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez cares deeply about what’s happening at the border,” Todd concluded. “But she just did the people there a tremendous disservice by distracting from their plight. She said she didn’t use those words lightly. Well, neither did I.”

However, given a chance to clarify her remarks, Ocasio-Cortez made clear that–despite colloquial understanding–she wasn’t bringing up “concentration camps” in the context of the Holocaust.

“There is a very clear academic consensus on what constitutes a concentration camp, and that is the mass detention of a community of people without a trial or due process,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “I think it’s pretty universally noncontroversial to say that the administration is doing exactly that and meets the academic requirement for what a concentration camp is.”

Asked specifically if she was comparing current US immigration detention to what happened in World War II, Ocasio-Cortez replied, “No, no.”

As a matter of definition, Ocasio-Cortez is not alone. Wikipedia, the worldwide and community-driven online encyclopedia and network of knowledge websites, last year added US immigration facilities to its own definition page for “concentration camps.”

And the debate opens old wounds for Japanese-Americans who, during World War II, were rounded up from their homes and sent to mass camps in the US interior. No, they were not subject to extermination, but they were held forcibly in substandard conditions. Decades later, the US government was forced to apologize for this internment.

“Part of what the toll of the Holocaust did was to reset the bar [for atrocity] so that anything short of that wasn’t even in the same universe,” Andrea Pitzer, author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, told The Washington Post. But, she added, “what I can tell you is, across history, every single camp system has said, ‘We are not like those other camps. Also, these people are dangerous,’ or ‘these people deserve it.’ Since the Nazi camps, since World War II, people don’t want to use ‘concentration camps’ because they don’t want to be associated with [Nazis.]”

While Ocasio-Cortez steered clear of a Holocaust analogy, others embraced the comparison.

“In 1933, there were concentration camps. In 1941, they were death camps, and that is where we are going if our consciouses are not quickly pierced,” said Angela Rye, attorney and CEO of IMPACT Strategies, a political advocacy organization based in Washington DC. “It is a problem. Do not laugh it off. Do not laugh it off.”

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  • comment-avatar

    According to Google nGram viewer, the term “concentration camp” has been around at least since 1890. AOC can use it as she wishes without referring to the Holocaust. It is, however, a fact that a right-wing billionaire has already founded a special PAC just to attack her, and the responses can at least be partially attributed to extremist propaganda. Unfortunately, the attacks distract to the reality of the horror of the U.S. camps on the border.

  • comment-avatar

    The idea that these temporary detention centers for people illegally residing here are “concentration camps” is nothing short of idiotic. These detentions are authorized by longstanding laws that predated President Trump by several decades. Ms. Ybarra apparently has no problem with people coming here en masse with the intent of taking advantage of our system of public benefits. Well…I do. And does any sensible American.

    Let us not forget that the real child abusers are the excuses for parents south of the border who either dragged their kids up here or left them behind to fend for themselves. Either way, that’s abuse. Don’t hang this one Trump.