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Concentration camps – at the US border and in Gaza

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Since last week, a media storm has been taking place over Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez use of the term “concentration camps” to refer to the detention camps for immigrant families on the country’s southern border.

Liz Cheney led the assault against AOC, tweeting:

Please @AOC do us all a favor and spend just a few minutes learning some actual history. 6 million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust. You demean their memory and disgrace yourself with comments like this.

MSNBC’s anchor Chris Hayes also called to moderate the tone:

Last comment on this: “concentration camp” is an extremely charged term and I get why many people are, in good faith, uncomfortable with its application for Godwin’s Law purposes among others. So let’s just call them “detention camps” and focus on what’s happening in them.  

AOC wasn’t introducing this rhetoric herself. She had in fact credited an article from Esquire, published a week earlier (June 13th), titled “An Expert on Concentration Camps Says That’s Exactly What the U.S. Is Running at the Border”. The article cites Andrea Pitzer, author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, who says that “We have what I would call a concentration camp system, and the definition of that in my book is, mass detention of civilians without trial.” 

Several days before that, Jonathan M. Katz had written in the LA Times a piece titled “Call immigrant detention centers what they really are: concentration camps”.

So this discussion has been going on for quite a while, but AOC brought it to the fore. It has fortunately brought a serious discussion concerning the virtue of language as a means of raising moral associations. Thus the suggestion that AOC is simply being callously anti-semitic is now openly challenged in her defense, both in the Forward as well as The Atlantic.

AOC is calling to attention the appalling situation in these camps. But, she isn’t the first person to make a similar claim.

A few years ago, Israeli Haaretz journalist Amira Hass, said at a talk in Duke University:

Let me be blunt: Gaza is a Huge Concentration Camp.  

At that event, Hass was asked whether that comparison was not taking it “too far”. She answered:

I was deliberately provocative. Usually I don’t use this term. I use “largest detention camp.” I did want to use it now. If you separate the term from the history then it is, it is a camp where people are concentrated. Of course it does not lead to extermination. It does not lead to Auschwitz. But I don’t often hear this remark because I usually don’t use the term “concentration camp.” But it is a huge camp, where people are concentrated and are not able to leave and are not allowed to have people coming in. And I think we also have to disassociate ourselves, to know to learn, to disassociate ourselves from the immediate associations that we have from The Holocaust — so as not to be under the dictatorship of our memory and of our history, The Holocaust, when we use terms. We have the right to shape the terms, the association to the history of Nazism and to adapt them to the content they reflect. I don’t say it’s Auschwitz. If I say it’s Auschwitz, if I said Gulags, it would have been wrong terminology. But it is a camp, a huge camp, where people are concentrated. We have to free also our metaphors from the yoke of the comparisons.

This is a very useful answer for the debate concerning AOC and the border detention camps.

Hass says she was being deliberately provocative – but that’s not a crime.  In fact, it can be a sound moral consideration, to use language which you know is loaded with historical associations – it is precisely that power which wakes people up from their complacency. At the same time, as Hass notes, it is also a question of being able to free our minds from that “yoke of the comparisons” – that is, to be able to make the comparison without it necessarily implying an equation, as for example to Nazis etc.

Gaza has become unlivable. One needs to soak in these terms and repeat them to oneself. Nearly two million people are living in an unlivable concentration camp. They have been herded there already in 1948 (over 70% of Gaza’s residents are refugees), and they are repeatedly targeted for protesting their incarceration – even when they protest it with absolutely no arms, they get shot with lethal ammunition.

We need this language, we need these comparisons to wake us. While some may be offended by the language, the reality it addresses is often far beyond the imagination.  

Jonathan Ofir

Israeli musician, conductor and blogger / writer based in Denmark.

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21 Responses

  1. LiberatePalestine on June 24, 2019, 10:48 am

    Attributed to Confucius: «If the terminology is not correct, the discourse will not cohere» (名不正則言不順).

    Concentration camp is precisely the correct term for the US’s «detention camps» near its incorrect «border» with Mexico (the true border lies at the southern edge of Idaho), its «internment» facilities for people of Japanese—but not German or Italian—ancestry during World War II, and its «strategic hamlets» in Vietnam. It is also correct to speak of Gaza as a concentration camp, particularly since most of the residents (or their recent ancestors) come from other places.

    The enemies are well aware of the power of terminology. That’s why they speak of «Arabs» rather than Palestinians and «the Viet Cong» rather than the National Liberation Front. That’s why they have introduced «scalawag» and «carpetbagger» as «standard» terminology in US history textbooks. That’s why they refer to the Zionist entity as «Israël», by way of equating all of Jewry with the settler-colonial régime occupying Palestine.

    It is altogether inappropriate to demand that we tone our language down. A tone that suits the parlour room may be much too subdued in more urgent contexts.

    • RoHa on June 24, 2019, 6:05 pm

      I wrote a short essay on the rectification of names. It might still be in the MW archives, but without a search engine I doubt I will be able to find it.

  2. Sulphurdunn on June 24, 2019, 10:55 am

    Those who control the definition of terms control the argument.

  3. Citizen on June 24, 2019, 11:18 am

    I don’t think the concentration camps along the US southern border have much to do with the ethnic origins of those kept there. And I think the treatment of those there, lacking basic sanitation & human needs, has much to do with anything except the Democrat leadership has chosen not to fund those basics, e.g., toothbrush, diapers, soap, tooth brush, other than a cement bed, a comfortable blanket, not an aluminum one. Am I being misled?

    • LiberatePalestine on June 24, 2019, 1:47 pm

      They do have something to do with ethnic origin. Notice who ends up in them. Rich Irish people who violate US immigration law—and there are thousands and thousands—don’t arrive at that so-called border; they fly into New York. If they’re caught working under the table, which is very unlikely, they are not sent to those concentration camps.

      The Nazi concentration camps had only a limited connection to ethnic origin. The first ones, starting with Dachau in March 1933, were built to oppress communists. It is true that they were later used to oppress Ashkenazi Jews generally, but other ethnic groups were targeted as well, including the Roma and the various Slavic nations.

      The term concentration camp entered the vocabulary because of the horrific concentration camps that Britain set up during the Anglo-Boer War. Boers and Africans alike were confined in them.

    • Mooser on June 24, 2019, 3:03 pm

      ” has much to do with anything except the Democrat leadership has chosen not to fund those basics”

      Yeah, you bet, just to make Trump look bad.

      • Citizen on June 25, 2019, 7:28 am


    • gamal on June 24, 2019, 4:02 pm

      “have much to do with the ethnic origins of those kept there…..Am I being misled?”

      I remember an old vox populi but still good, it opens with one of the most poignant of Lorde quotes whose day has come apparently, i always knew it as whitewash but no title comes up so who knows, enjoy

  4. gamal on June 24, 2019, 11:24 am

    “we need these comparisons to wake us”

    Faint hope

    Brief History of American Concentration Camps

    “Half a century before President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law in 1830, a young Virginia governor named Thomas Jefferson embraced genocide and ethnic cleansing as solutions to what would later be called the “Indian problem.” In 1780 Jefferson wrote that “if we are to wage a campaign against these Indians, the end proposed should be their extermination, or their removal beyond the lakes of the Illinois River.” However, it wasn’t until Jackson that “emigration depots” were introduced as an integral part of official US Indian removal policy”

    “While some may be offended by the language” which is kind of funny but as LP has brought up the rectification of names one can toy with Mencius vs Xun Zi, in the west we are circumlocuting ourselves to death, but all those ‘problem’ people what are we to do with them? What’s the precedent?

    • Marnie on June 25, 2019, 3:16 am

      the united states has a history of concentration camps (Fort Sill, where Native Americans were kept, now being used again). the term ‘concentration camp’ isn’t a trademark or brand, it’s something that horrible governments do from time to time. It would show some real maturity for the right to stop arguing about terms that weren’t used by AOC or Ilhan Omar – neither said death camps or holocaust. To continue carping on this subject is the desperate attempt to distract, deflect and dick around.

  5. CigarGod on June 24, 2019, 7:47 pm

    The similarities to death camps are overwhelming.
    Really, the only things missing are gas chambers and ovens.

    • Eva Smagacz on June 25, 2019, 5:57 am

      “The similarities to death camps are overwhelming”.

      You really do not need death camps on the industrial scale. Israel has one of the highest life expectancy rates in the world, and occupied Palestinians one of the lowest (and dropping precipitously).

      • CigarGod on July 3, 2019, 11:12 am

        Very true.
        There are many ways to commit genocide. Israel uses a lot of them.
        Unclean water, untreated sewage, poor nutrition, poor medical care, etc.
        Just checked my numbers.
        Average age of U.S. pop. is 38, for Gaza it is 18.

  6. Misterioso on June 25, 2019, 11:00 am

    @Eva, et al

    I just received these two very informative opposing audio interviews from my Canadian friend regarding concentration camps in the U.S. They were broadcast yesterday by CBC Radio’s “The Current.”

    “Lawyers representing migrant children at the southern U.S. border say the minors are being held without access to necessities like soap or toothpaste, and that many are falling ill in facilities where kids are left to care for kids. We speak to one of the lawyers, as well as a former judge who says the concerns are overblown.”

    • Mooser on June 25, 2019, 1:56 pm

      If you don’t find the separation of the children from their parents in the first place a crime against humanity, there isn’t a lot to discuss.

      • CigarGod on July 3, 2019, 11:06 am

        Right on, brother.

  7. marcos on July 5, 2019, 1:45 pm

    Hey, I’ve got an idea, why don’t we allow ourselves to get bogged down in semantic debates instead of paying attention to how the US imposes death squad dictatorships in Central America that drives refugees migrating in the first instance?

    Every time that the issues of economic justice for the electorate arises, we can count on the Democrats to shift the conversation to an issue that backgrounds the electorate in favor of some “most vulnerable” or “most marginalized” charity case.

    Given that most people willingly walk up to an asylum process that was telegraphed to be onerous and undesirable under Obama and that most people will walk out of these camps on their own power, the choice to use the loaded term “concentration camp” should be interrogated.

    • Mooser on July 6, 2019, 1:08 pm

      “Hey, I’ve got an idea, why don’t we allow ourselves to get bogged down in semantic debates instead of paying attention to how the US imposes death squad dictatorships in Central America that drives refugees migrating in the first instance?”

      Say, that’s a great idea, “marcos”. “The loaded term “concentration camp” should be interrogated.”! That ought to get the bog going.

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