Holocaust terminology: inappropriate or acceptable?


Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Gabriel Satin

“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,” Tweeted Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (AOC), the New York Representative, after visiting a border detention center. 

Many leaders in the Jewish community were upset at the comparison of detention centers to concentration camps. Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League put out the statement, “People need to be extremely careful in drawing comparisons to the Holocaust and the Nazi regime in whatever context it is used…”

On the other hand,  there were people who understood where AOC was coming from, especially those who lean left of the political spectrum. According to Newsweek, Amy Simon, a chair in Holocaust Studies and European Jewish history at Michigan State University told the magazine that Ocasio-Cortez was “completely historically accurate” in her use of the phrase “concentration camp.” But she also said that the term was “loaded” and used to “purposefully to call up those particular images of inhumanity,” implying that politicians need to be more careful with the terminology that they use.

This all shows how AOC used provoking language to bring attention to both herself and the grave matter at hand. She knew that using the words concentration camp would set off a frenzy and get people talking. This language is really offensive to those with family that were in concentration camps and those who were in concentration camps themselves because of how inaccurate it is. The concentration camps of the Nazi regime are far worse than the current detention centers.

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, a concentration camp is a place where large numbers of people are detained under armed guard — commonly used especially in reference to camps created by the Nazis in World War II for the internment and persecution of Jews and other prisoners. 

In Nazi Germany, concentration camps were places where people were not only detained, but they were also forced into brutal labor and murdered. In fact, there were five “concentration camps” for the sole purpose of killing. During the Holocaust, six million Jews and 11 million people total were killed. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, there were 44,000 incarceration sites that were used to detain people thought to be enemies of the state.

Concentration camps could also be found in our country during WWII. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered that Japanese-Americans be sent to “internment camps.” From 1942 to 1945 approximately 110,000 to 120,000 stayed for varying amounts of time in ten different camps for varying amounts of time. Conditions in the camps were terrible, and over 1,800 people died from medical problems while they were there.

All of this leads to the question; do we, yet again, have concentration camps in the United States? Technically, yes, but the term “concentration camp” implies a strong similarity to those of the Nazi regime, and by that definition, we don’t have concentration camps. AOC used this stirring language to grab people’s attention about the detention centers and she knew that using controversial diction would create a conversation.

So is the comparison appropriate? No. Both of these incidents are shameful portions of our world’s history that should never be forgotten and leaders need to be cautious with language, especially when it refers to traumatic events in history. It’s always a sensitive topic and it’s hard to know where to draw the line. However, what really matters isn’t what we call these places, but what we do to put an end to this madness. •