Central American migrants sleeping outside the “El Chaparral” port of entry to the US while waiting to be received by US authorities (Image Source: Yahoo News)
Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sparked controversy after comparing the US Government’s immigration detention facilities along the US-Mexico border to “concentration camps” during an Instagram Live video just over two weeks ago.
“The United States is running concentration camps, and that is exactly what they are,” Ms Ocasio-Cortez said.
“A presidency that creates concentration camps is fascist.
“I don’t use those words lightly; I don’t use those words to just throw bombs. I use that word because that is what an administration that creates concentration camps is.”
Ms Ocasio-Cortez has been no stranger to controversy since she became the youngest woman ever to be elected to Congress.
She has been repeatedly criticised by her Republican counterparts, the right-wing press, and even President Donald Trump for her radically progressive stances on climate change, the affordable housing crisis and the American economy.
Her recent claims about camps along America’s southern border have been no different.
Most notably, Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney tweeted that Ms Ocasio-Cortez should “spend just a few minutes learning some actual history” and that her comments “demean” the memory of the six million Jewish people who were killed in the Holocaust.
Ed Mosberg, a 93-year-old who was imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps in Poland and Austria, said in an interview with the New York Post that he would like to nominate Ms Ocasio-Cortez “for the Nobel Prize in stupidity”.
“Her statement is evil. It hurts a lot of people. At the concentration camp, we were not free. We were forced there by the Germans who executed and murdered people – there’s no way you can compare.”
Several academics have considered Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s comments and weighed up the debate.
“Invoking the word does not demean the memory of the Holocaust”: Academics speak out in support of Ocasio-Cortez
Anna Lind-Guzik is a legal historian, specialising in the research areas of genocide and crimes against humanity. Her father, aunt and grandmother were also World War II Jewish survivors after the Nazi Invasion of the Soviet Union.
Ms Lind-Guzik wrote a Vox article about the issue, and said it was appropriate to term the migrant camps as concentration camps.
“Invoking the word does not demean the memory of the Holocaust,” Ms Lind-Guzik said.
“Instead, the lessons of the Holocaust will be lost if we refuse to engage with them.”
Ms Lind-Guzik references Hannah Arendt’s report ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ and the necessity of acknowledging red flags.
Hannah Arendt was a German-American philosopher and political theorist known for her works The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and The Human Condition (1958).
Ms Arendt’s report ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ (1963) also gained fame, where she attended and commentated on the trial of Adolf Eichmann—one of the principal organisers of the Holocaust.
Ms Arendt questioned whether evil is radical, or whether ordinary people tend to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without critically evaluating their actions.
“Perpetrators depend on us being desensitised to the victims’ suffering,” Ms Lind-Guzik said.
“Authoritarians require enemies to blame for their inadequacies, and to distract their base from their diminishing quality of life.”
Roger Berkowitz, director of the Hannah Arendt Centre for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, also supported the use of the term concentration camp to describe what is happening at the US-Mexico border.
“My own view is that the camps are designed to some degree to isolate, disempower, and dehumanise their inhabitants. Part of the intent is to deter future refugees,” Mr Berkowitz said in an interview with The Independent.
“This is a humanitarian crisis, and to that extent, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is right to sound the alarm about the camps as inconsistent with the ideals of the United States as a refuge for oppressed and poor people looking for a better life.
“Deeply problematic”: Critics of Ocasio-Cortez’s language
Lee Kersten, a research fellow in German studies at the University of Adelaide, said she believes Ms Ocasio-Cortez may simply be using the term as a rhetorical device to generate an emotional response from the public.
Ms Kersten, who has written many articles on modern German history including on concentration camps, said she does not think Ms Ocasio-Cortez knows what camps like those run by the Nazis were really like.
“You’ve got an awful lot of people who don’t know anything about the Germans; they’ve more or less forgotten it,” Ms Kersten said.
“The German concentration camps were terrible; there is no way that you could convince yourself by reading about them that they were nice places.”
Ms Kersten said that while comparing the two is “very stylish”, it is also “overstated”.
Professor Peter Monteath is a historian who currently teaches courses on modern European history and the Holocaust at Flinders University.
Like Ms Kersten, Prof Monteath said it is risky to make the comparison between modern immigration camps and historical examples of concentration camps.
“It’s always deeply problematic to refer everything to German history,” Prof Monteath said.
“Just about all regimes and governments in history have facilities to isolate segments of the population that may be regarded as ‘dangerous’ in some way.”
Prof Monteath also said that Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s comparison “doesn’t really lead the debate in any kind of useful direction” and only causes greater polarisation between the pro- and anti-immigration segments of society.
“Intervening in that way doesn’t offer any kind of advancement on the debate except to harden the two sides and means that it is less likely to lead to any kind of fruitful outcome.
“The two sides remain at such a distance that it doesn’t offer any prospect of common ground on which any progress might be made.”
Regardless of whether Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s concentration camp comparison was appropriate or not, the debate around her statement may overshadow the coverage of the conditions in the border camps.
According to a report from the Office of the Inspector General, US-Mexico border camps regularly suffer from overcrowding; some detainees live without access to showers, clean clothes and hot meals.
“Sometimes the use of language in that way stands in the way of closer investigation, rather than promoting it,” Prof Monteath said.
Some members of the Jewish community have supported this sentiment, claiming the humanitarian crisis on the border is being overlooked in favour of a semantics debate.
“The controversy over her language has sidelined the conversation over what is really happening,” Florida-based rabbi Jeff Salkin said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.
“Children don’t have soap. Children are going to die. That’s bad enough. You don’t have to drag Dachau into this.
“But because some people are deaf, sometimes you have to scream.”