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OPINION: Understanding History 

While we debate the differences between concentration camps and migrant detention centers, the similarities demand action.

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Recently, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described America's migrant detention centers as concentration camps. While she was not the first to draw this comparison, her position and celebrity made the analogy impossible to ignore, igniting a passionate debate across the political spectrum.

In a literal sense, there is no denying that these detention centers meet the textbook definition of a concentration camp. According to the dictionary, a concentration camp is "a place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard."

One might argue, of course, that this definition could also apply to a run-of-the-mill prison. The difference between a concentration camp and a prison, according to the United States Holocaust Museum, is that the former functions outside of a judicial system. A prison houses inmates who have been indicted or convicted of crimes. Inmates of concentration camps generally have not even been charged with misdemeanors and will never stand trial.

Additionally, concentration camps are notoriously inhumane, even in comparison to typical prisons. Concentration camp inmates are routinely denied suitable living conditions, sufficient food and water, and necessary medical care. Our current migrant detention camps mostly fall within those definitions and descriptions.

But the fight over the use of the term concentration camp is not about whether it is the most accurate term to use according to the dictionary. Rather, it is about whether our understanding of history permits or forbids us from using that term in this context.

While modern history is littered with ignominious instances of tyrannical governments imprisoning civilians in concentration camps, including our own on numerous occasions, most folks — and especially those of us in the Jewish community — likely associate the term with the Holocaust. It is hard to know whether that was the historical analogy Ocasio-Cortez meant to make, but it was clearly the way people — her supporters and detractors — understood her. Thus, at issue in this debate is whether it is fair to compare America's migrant detention system today with Germany's concentration camp system in the 1930s and 1940s. And if it is, what does that demand of us in this moment?

First, we must all acknowledge that analogies are inherently imperfect. So, our country's current practices with respect to detaining migrants are not by any means the literal equivalent of the systematic imprisonment, torture, and, ultimately, murder of millions of European Jews and others targeted by the Nazi regime and its collaborators during the Holocaust. As a Jew and as a rabbi, I am cognizant of the horrors my people and other minorities faced during that extremely dark period.

And yet I also believe that no honest observer could argue that, both in intent and application, our country's immigration enforcement apparatus, especially its detention network, is thoroughly unlike the tyrannical system employed by the Nazi regime and its collaborators.

In her nonfiction book "The Origins of Totalitarianism," 20th century political philosopher Hannah Arendt argues that regimes use concentration camps to get "undesirable elements of all sorts ... out of the way," removing groups of people they deem "superfluous and bothersome." Such an understanding applies as much to America's migrant detention camps as it did to Germany's concentration camps. The Donald Trump administration's belligerence toward migrants, and people in general, from the global South — the dehumanizing language, the callous policies — may not be as overt or as histrionic as the Nazis' hatred of Jews and other minorities, but it is nevertheless routine and well-documented.

And historian Anna Lind-Guzik notes that today's camps feature "indefinite detention without trial of thousands of civilians in inhumane conditions — under armed guard and without adequate provisions or medical care," just like those of the Nazi era. It has also been widely reported that even child detainees, including infants and toddlers, are experiencing intentionally subhuman treatment in America's migrant detention centers, just as children were not spared unthinkable cruelties in the Nazi camps.

Whether one invokes the term concentration camps or not, an honest observer must admit that the atrocities currently being perpetrated against Central American migrants by the United States government bear undeniable and uncanny resemblance to those perpetrated against Jews and other targeted groups in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.

Are they the same thing? No. Of course not. But the most relevant and pressing question is not "How is what's happening now different from what happened during the years of the Nazi terror?" Obviously, there are many important differences. But one must acknowledge that there are many disturbing similarities. Thus the most important question is, "How is what's happening now like what happened then?" Until we can truthfully say our system bears absolutely no resemblance to the Nazi regime's, we have urgent work to do.

After the Holocaust, the Jewish community and people of goodwill everywhere adopted the slogan "never again." But "never again" means nothing if we believe the magnitude of the Holocaust makes any comparison impossible. Indeed, the very point of studying the Holocaust -- the point of all of those museums, all of those monuments and all of those educational resources -- is that yesterday's tyranny always threatens to emerge today. What happens in our time will never be identical to what happened in an earlier era, but it will be similar enough that, if we are wise enough to recognize it, we can be courageous enough to do everything in our power to oppose it.

Terms are imprecise, and historical analogies are imperfect. But while we're debating these abstract concepts, tens of thousands of human beings, including many children, are being torn from their families, indefinitely locked in cages and denied basic human necessities. Whatever we choose to call it, and to whatever we choose to compare it, what will we do to resist it?

Note: There will be a nationwide protest Friday, July 12, with a Richmond event, Lights for Liberty: a Vigil to End Human Detention Camps, at Capitol Square from 8 to 9:30 p.m.

Michael Knopf is the rabbi of Temple Beth-El. He was named one of America's most inspiring rabbis by the Forward and one of Richmond's Top 40 Under 40 by Style. Knopf is an American Jewish World Service Global Justice fellow, a board member of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and participates in several interfaith roundtables and human rights organizations.

Opinions on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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