Concentration camps are in the news this week. The term, which was first used in the context of Jews in the Holocaust, is being invoked by opponents of the U.S. government’s detention of migrants from Latin America. Appallingly, those detained include hundreds of children who have been separated from their parents. These current child detainees are among the at least few thousand children who have been separated from their families over the last two years.
The use of “concentration camps” and phrases like “Never again” has been criticized by some high-profile Jewish activists and others as diminishing the meaning and seriousness of the Holocaust. Some see the use of these terms as a cheapening of the Jewish experience or a form of Jew-baiting. In contrast, it is not heartening that Republicans who sanctimoniously condemn the use of these terms have a crass political motivation for defending the sanctity of Jewish historical memory.
There is no question that the words are used for their shock value. And, at a time when short attention spans intersect with what is genuinely a grotesque affront to humanity, there is little wrong with shocking a complacent population.
Reports from the facilities tell of sickening conditions.
A group of lawyers who toured one of the facilities and spent days interviewing child-inmates said that the most basic standards demanded under international law around the treatment of children in custody are being ignored. Children are not supposed to be held for longer than 72 hours, but many have been incarcerated for weeks. They are crammed into windowless warehouses, unwashed for days, in mucous-stained clothing, without the most rudimentary necessities like soap or toothbrushes, sleeping on cold concrete floors, suffering lice-infestations and untreated influenza outbreaks. Guards bring diaperless 2- and 3-year-old children to the facility and ask older children to care for the younger ones. Teenagers serve as unofficial guards in exchange for extra food. Parents are being held separately in unknown locations and some experts have said it is likely some families will never be reunited.
The situation for adults is not to be ignored either. At one facility, about 900 migrants are incarcerated at a facility intended for 125. Cells intended for 35 people are jammed with more than 150.
In an unfathomable breach of what public relations folks call “optics,” there are plans to accommodate the ever-growing number of child detainees by repurposing Fort Sill, Okla., a site where Japanese-Americans were interned during the Second World War.
To be charitable, the argument over language reflects a struggle to find words for what is happening. The situation for these children (and adults) is intolerable in any country, least of all, perhaps, in the land that once welcomed the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free.
Still, concerns over the desecration of the memory of the Holocaust are legitimate. We have witnessed too many instances where minor affronts are equated with Nazism and other massively inappropriate comparisons. But the Holocaust did not begin with crematoria. It began with dehumanization and othering and, as the will of the world to tolerate increasingly hostile acts against Jews was tested and found to be elastic, the perpetrators progressed into successive stages leading to genocide.
There is no way to predict the future and there is little point in making unnecessarily combustible assertions about impending genocide. But, when human beings are treated as they are in this circumstance and the trajectory is toward more of the same, people must militate against this inhumanity.
A consensus has developed among Holocaust educators and human rights activists that the term “Never again” does not apply solely to attempts to reprise anti-Jewish ideas and actions, but that the lesson of the Shoah is that we must be vigilant when any people are targeted.
It is unfortunate that the people who seem most inclined to use Holocaust-associated language in the context of current events are also people whose record on issues of concern to Jewish people are highly problematic, drawing reasonable suspicions to their motives. Terminology is important. But, the more we learn about what is happening to children and others in American detention facilities, the more hair-splitting over nomenclature seems to compound the inhumanity we are witnessing.
We are correct to be defensive about any perceived disrespect to the memory of the Holocaust and its victims. However, we might ask ourselves, when judging the appropriateness of such usage: If not now, when?