To Compare U.S. Immigration Policy with the Holocaust Is to Appropriate the Latter’s Gravity for Political Effect

November 11, 2019 | Alvin Rosenfeld
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Last summer, the freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred to camps established by the American government in Texas to house asylum seekers and illegal immigrants as “concentration camps.” Lest there be any doubt about the connotations of the phrase, she also mentioned “fascism” and used the slogan “never again.” Public debate soon followed as to the appropriateness of these comparisons. Alvin Rosenfeld comments:

Representative Ilhan Omar, a close political ally of Ocasio-Cortez, purported to be baffled by the flap that her friend’s words created, [stating]: “This is very simple. . . . There are camps and people are being concentrated. . . . I don’t even know why this is a controversial thing to say.” Whether her inane formulation is naïve or calculated, the camps in all of their historical specificity disappear in the emptiness of Omar’s words.

Compelled to ask if the minimization of the Holocaust implicit in Ocasio-Cortez’s comparison was motivated by anti-Semitism—a question made even more pertinent by her association with Omar—Rosenfeld concludes that it was not. But her words should cause consternation:

In [Ocasio-Cortez’s] case, what seems to be involved is not active Jew-hatred but a careless disregard for the history of Jew-hatred at its most extreme. How well she knows this history is less important than her appropriation of its gravity to score political points about a contemporary matter that, for all of its urgent problems, is simply not comparable to the incalculable degradation and millionfold death that befell Jews during the Holocaust.

The importance and benefit of insights yielded by comparison and analogy require that attention be paid to the character, scale, and intention behind the events being compared. It is clear that America needs a more effective immigration policy and more humane ways of responding to people seeking asylum. But neither in character nor in scale are America’s overcrowded and poorly run migrant holding centers akin to the “concentration camps” as Ocasio-Cortez and countless other American politicians suggested. Then there is the aspect of intention: the Nazi camps invoked in such analogies served the goals of a state-sponsored, systematic program of genocide. El Paso is not Auschwitz and should not be confused with it.

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