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.