To the editor,
I am writing in response to the letter by Paul Korda in the July 5th edition in regard to the use of the phrase concentration camp to describe the detention facilities in the US.
While this piece is not intended to resolve the dispute regarding terminology, as Jews concerned about racist persecution it is important to be aware that Central Americans do not have full autonomy over their fate. They are victims of decades of predatory US military interventions and are now exercising their right to seek asylum. This is not just a remnant of the Reagan era; as recently as 2009 the US government was complicit in a coup in Honduras, and helped ensure that the illegitimate dictator maintained power again in 2017.[i] These people are refugees, not coming to this country illegally. We Jews are well aware of the factors that drive people to migrate to far and foreign lands; no human being is illegal.
As we think about the abuses the US is currently perpetrating against peaceful people coming into our borders, it is important to realize that 24 people have been killed in the past two years due to the negligence of federal authorities, including five children.[ii] Efforts to forcibly separate Central-American families and put children up for adoption to US parents amounts to state-sanctioned terrorism, reminiscent of Native-American schools and family separations of the 20th century.[iii] Let me repeat; the US government is stealing children from their families, effectively violating international law.
So the question remains: Despite these abuses, do these detention centers constitute concentration camps? From an academic perspective, the answer is less clear-cut. As Paul pointed out, many considered the internment of Japanese residents in WWII to be concentration camps, something which caused much controversy in the Jewish community. A curator at the Japanese American National Museum suggested that “a concentration camp is a place where people are imprisoned not because of any crimes they committed but because of who they are.”[iv]
While the Japanese National museum made sure to emphasize that no concentration camp in the US came close to the horrors faced by Jews during the holocaust (indeed, many make the distinction between concentration camps that are more common throughout history, and the extermination camps faced in the Holocaust). The fact that Central Americans are fleeing the most dangerous countries on earth at the hands of policies perpetrated by our own government should give us pause as to whether they have a choice to come or not. If returning home means certain death, then migrants have no choice but to cross the border, and our government is committing abuses merely because of their status as refugees.
Nobody is comparing the US government to Nazi Germany, much less claiming that ICE is as abusive as the Gestapo, but if any lessons should be wrought from our historical experience as Jews, it is that the comparison is not unwarranted. ICE is a new and unnecessary branch of the government that came into existence for xenophobic political reasons following 9/11, and currently violates the US constitution in its pursuit and persecution of law-abiding residents simply because of who they are.[v] Just this past week an activist was arrested by border officials and placed into deportation proceedings for the sole reason of reciting a poem denouncing ICE.[vi]
This should be concerning and echoes the beginnings of a fascist state. Few people are claiming this will be another Holocaust, but it has concerning parallels. I do not intend to resolve the dispute about whether concentration camp terminology is appropriate or not, but us Jews do not carry a monopoly over the term. I tend to believe that popular usage in language is more important than academic opinion, but I do not believe that those using the term concentration camps intend to belittle the Jewish experience. All of us Jews should understand the historical imperative and duty we have to ensure that this egregious abuse of power is stopped, with nonviolent-direct action if needed, before it is too late.