On Tuesday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez set off a firestorm of bullshit when she tweeted a simple fact: the U.S. government is keeping asylum-seekers and migrants in concentration camps on the southern border.
Linked in her tweet was an article from Esquire that compared ICE detention centers to their historical precedents.
“What’s required is a little bit of demystification of [the term],” Waitman Wade Beorn, a Holocaust and genocide studies scholar at University of Virginia, told Esquire. “Things can be concentration camps without being Dachau or Auschwitz. Concentration camps in general have always been designed—at the most basic level—to separate one group of people from another group. Usually, because the majority group, or the creators of the camp, deem the people they’re putting in it to be dangerous or undesirable in some way.”
Republicans, including Rep. Liz Cheney—completely ignoring the content of the article—immediately derided the tweet as offensive to Jews and the memory of the Holocaust. Ocasio-Cortez came back strong against those criticisms.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of the news cycle.
Most of the backlash came from conservative commentators (you know, those famous defenders of the oppressed). But later in the day, Jewish groups including the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York released statements condemning Ocasio-Cortez’s comparison.
Others backed up Ocasio-Cortez, including Jewish organizations like J Street and Rep. Jerry Nadler, who is Jewish.
In his tweet, Nadler brought up the catchphrase “Never Again,” a slogan meant to remind us to remain vigilant of any oppression so we never repeat the horrors of the Holocaust.
“I want to talk to the people that are concerned enough with humanity to say that ‘Never Again’ means something,” Ocasio-Cortez said in an Instagram Live video later in the night. “The fact that concentration camps are now an institutionalized practice in the home of the free is extraordinarily disturbing and we need to do something about it.
“I don’t use those words lightly,” she added. “I don’t use those words to just throw bombs. I use that word because that is what an administration that creates concentration camps is. A presidency that creates concentration camps is fascist.”
The conservatives (and they were almost all conservatives) who were responding to Ocasio-Cortez’s use of “concentration camps” clearly don’t know what “Never Again” means, or they just don’t care. If we wait to call out abuses until people are dying by the millions, respecting the memory of the Holocaust is useless.
When they weren’t calling her comment offensive, commentators downplayed the severity of migrant detention on the U.S.-Mexico border. But all the evidence we have shows that things really are that bad. People, many of them children, are dying, and being held in horrific conditions, often for weeks or months at a time. Children are being abused, and many have been exposed to irreparable psychological harm. Just last week, it was announced that some unaccompanied migrant children would be held in a location that was formerly used as a Japanese internment camp.
It’s also worth remembering that the term “ethnic cleansing” doesn’t just mean gas chambers. On Monday, Donald Trump threatened to round up “millions” of immigrants and deport them. That is, in itself, a form of ethnic cleansing. Just like keeping people in camps, without trial, for undefined periods of time, makes those places concentration camps. That’s all there is to it. Those who refuse to see this reality and do something about it may feel good about themselves now, but they sure aren’t going to be judged kindly in the hindsight of history.