The diminishing of the Holocaust

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s latest outburst on Trump’s migrant detention centres was classic Holocaust Relativism.

Brendan O'Neill
Topics Politics USA

If you ever need to explain to someone what the word ‘disingenuous’ means, you could do worse than point them towards the army of tweeters currently defending Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez against accusations that she diminished the memory of the Holocaust with recent comments she made.

Ocasio-Cortez, or AOC, as she’s known, caused a Twitter-stir when she posted a video in which she described the detention centres holding undocumented migrants on America’s southern border as ‘concentration camps’. Her critics say she is outrageously drawing a comparison between 21st-century America and 1930s Europe and in the process undermining the unique barbarism of the Holocaust. Her defenders, who of course are legion among the social-media set and the chattering classes, are saying: ‘Duh. These migrants have been concentrated into a camp. That means these are concentration camps. It isn’t a Nazi comparison.’

This is the definition of disingenuous. Because AOC was comparing these detention centres to Nazis camps, not merely to concentration camps, and she was doing so explicitly.

‘This administration has established concentration camps on the southern border of the United States for immigrants, where they are being brutalised with dehumanising conditions and dying’, she has tweeted since the controversy over her comments exploded. She and many others are linking to an essay on the ‘global history of concentration camps’, which points out that camps in which huge numbers of people are held without trial – that is, concentration camps – have existed throughout modern history. They were set up during the Boer War; Japanese people were held in such conditions in the US during the Second World War. ‘It wasn’t only the Nazis who set up concentration camps’, they say.

And this is true. A concentration camp is different to a death camp. In the public consciousness, the term concentration camp may now be intimately, and perhaps exclusively, associated with the camps set up by the Nazis, but the fact is that other governments and regimes have also set up concentration camps over the past century and more. A death camp is different. These are the Nazi camps that didn’t merely concentrate people together but did so with the express aim of exterminating them in order to satisfy a demented programme of racial murder and racial purification – in this case, to rid the entire Earth of the Jewish people.

However, this semantic defence, that it wasn’t only the Nazis who set up concentration camps, doesn’t work in the case of AOC for one simple reason: she didn’t only refer to the southern detention centres as concentration camps – she also evoked the phrase ‘Never Again’. She said: ‘The US is running concentration camps on our southern border, and that is exactly what they are. If that doesn’t bother you… well… I want to talk to the people that are concerned enough with humanity to say that “Never Again” means something.’

Never again. Everyone knows what this means. Everyone knows what this phrase refers to. It is a Holocaust phrase. It has been traced to an epic poem written in 1926 by the Hebrew poet Yitzhak Lamdan, but it came into more common usage on some of the secular kibbutzes in the new state of Israel in the 1940s. It has since, of course, gone global, becoming the rallying cry of Holocaust memorial campaigns and Holocaust education. Say ‘Never Again’ and the vast majority of people will presume you are talking about one thing and one thing only – the Holocaust, the worst crime in history, something we want to ensure never happens again.

When AOC said ‘Never Again’, that was the moment at which she did explicitly compare immigrant detention centres in the US with death camps in Europe. She was arguing that the existence of these immigration centres represents a failure of the ideal of ‘Never Again’ – in short, their existence carries on the kind of evil humanity witnessed during the years of the Holocaust. Those arguing that she only said ‘concentration camps’, and therefore wasn’t drawing a line with the Nazi death camps, are being disingenuous, or they are flat-out lying, and they know they are.

So many questions are raised by AOC’s use of the Holocaust phrase ‘Never Again’ in relation to the immigrant detention centres run by the Trump administration. Were similar camps set up by the Obama administration concentration camps, too? If so, why didn’t leftists say so loudly and frequently when he was in power? But the biggest problem with AOC’s comments, and with the disingenuous apologetics of her supporters, is that this kind of thing does diminish the memory of the Holocaust. Unquestionably. It defames 21st-century America by suggesting that its relatively routine detention of undocumented migrants is on a par with the Nazis’ factory-like concentration of people for the purpose of destroying them. And it renders the Holocaust mundane; it reduces it to a mere bad event, an unpleasant episode – like the current immigration problem on America’s southern border, say. It effectively says: ‘The Holocaust wasn’t such a big deal. It was just another act of bad government. Similar things are happening now.’

This is not Holocaust Denial, but it is its close cousin – Holocuast Relativism. This is an intellectual scourge of the modern era: the relativisation of the Holocaust through the constant comparison of quite ordinary conflicts and events in the here and now to the utterly unordinary events of the 1930s. This has led to a chipping away at the singular nature of the Holocaust. Witness Muslim organisations refusing to take part in Holocaust Memorial Day until it agrees to include other genocides too, or Trump being referred to as literally Hitler by people who clearly don’t understand what Hitler was or what he did. Such Holocaust Relativism is a key motor of the new anti-Semitism, which is built primarily on the idea that the Jews need to stop moaning about their past experiences and recognise that the Jewish State is now as wicked as the Nazis ever were.

Well done, AOC and your defenders – you have just unwittingly contributed to a new form of racism whose very motor is the idea that the Holocaust wasn’t all that distinctive and so perhaps ‘those people’ should shut up about it.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

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Masud Awan

22nd June 2019 at 7:29 pm

Brendan once debated in favour of the motion: This House Believes in the Right to Offend.

James Gatehouse

21st June 2019 at 10:04 am

Well Duh, our own UK government uses concentration camps all the time. I took our grandchild to school only today and the government has concentrated these children into a camp. Therefore it’s a concentration camp.

Such sophistry. Is this really the maximum depth of thinking these people can manage? I really do hope they are deliberately lying about this and actively attempting to smear the government while diminishing the Holocaust. At least then they could claim some artistry and intelligence, malign as it would be. As it stands, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, AOC and the Twitterati jumping to her defence simply look like dullards.

Jerry Owen

20th June 2019 at 9:36 am

Hopefully this new look will get rid of spam, however we have no option to uptick a comment and I see no method to edit a comment once posted.

Peter Anestos

19th June 2019 at 9:58 pm

Important to call this out, Brendan. The relativization of the Holocaust by the middle-class left is but one expression of the casual anti-Semitism noted by spiked!, and it reveals the gross hypocrisy of the woke establishment. Their contempt for and profound ignorance of history leaven their self-importance as they struggle mightily to gin up Trump derangement while letting the Democrats (and yes, Obama set up those “camps” Trump is filling today) off the hook. It’s one more installment of the comfy left’s fig leaf service to the US two-party system.

Amin Riadh

19th June 2019 at 9:19 pm

Talking about disingenuous, O’Neill… such comparisons are made all over the place. Look at how the word “crusade” is used. This is a complete non-story. And you are simply grinding a political axe. It is to divert attention away from the dear Orangutang in charge of US. I mean there are people in the world who probably cannot tell the difference between an Orangutang and Trump.

Andrew Mcguiness

22nd June 2019 at 7:59 am

Also, look at the way the word “nazi” is (over-)used. It;s a long bow to draw, to say that “Never again” in this context is anti-semitic.

Steve Gray

19th June 2019 at 7:31 pm

The inability of certain people to distinguish between the Israeli state and Jewish people in general, emboldens those individuals who wish to stoke racial tensions.

Jerry Owen

19th June 2019 at 4:27 pm

This is the same AOC that asked the question ‘ should we be having children’ ( ref climate change ) , the same AOC that wants to rebuild every building in America to great green new specifications, the same AOC that wants to ban plane travel and says we ( they ) should travel abroad by train .. I look forward to seeing the first floating cross Atlantic railway line !
Don’t forget that she also said the danger of climate change was worse than WW2.
Joined up thinking doesn’t come naturally to AOC. Trump has a second term in the bag already .

Danny Rees

19th June 2019 at 2:13 pm

” Her defenders, who of course are legion among the social-media set and the chattering classes.”

Take a drink every time Brendan says “chattering classes”.

On second thoughts don’t.

You will suffer serious damage to your health from the level of alcohol you will be consuming.

Jerry Owen

19th June 2019 at 4:29 pm

We know what BON means by chattering classes , its a generic term .
Do try to keep up !

Danny Rees

19th June 2019 at 10:20 pm

I know what it means.

But Brendan says it over and over again.

Jack Fourrier

20th June 2019 at 5:49 am

Are the “the chattering classes” in Britain similar to the French Bourgeois-Bohème (BoBo), the “progressive” Left.

gershwin gentile

19th June 2019 at 1:59 pm

“Were similar camps set up by the Obama administration concentration camps, too? If so, why didn’t leftists say so loudly and frequently when he was in power?”

Yes. Because the “leftists” rely on young people who don’t know or remember much history. It’s the same reason the leftists said jack all about Gitmo.

gershwin gentile

19th June 2019 at 2:33 pm

Also, they fail to engage with the debate, as they’d much rather make pointless comments based on their (ill informed) opinion.

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