When Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently used the term “concentration camps” and the expression “Never Again” to refer to the detention centers on the U.S.-Mexico border, I found myself torn. The pain and urgency of America’s immigration and asylum crisis are immense. At the same time – and although my position is unpopular with some – I cannot ignore Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s continued politically-motivated marginalization and diminishment of the tragedies that define Jewish identity and concerns today. As President of the American Jewish Congress, one of America’s oldest and most visible organizations dedicated to defending the Jewish people and promoting their values, it is my duty to speak out on both matters.
All Americans have a duty to speak out against the situation on the U.S.-Mexico border, which is deplorable. Our treatment of these migrants who seek better lives in America, and especially the children, defiles our core values as a nation. It also goes against the Jewish traditions of compassion and empathy for others, the pursuit of social justice, and tikkun olam – healing the world and making it better. The American Jewish Congress condemns these human rights abuses in the strongest possible terms and call for their immediate end.
Because our values are at stake, the politics needed to resolve the crisis must transcend party and creed. Sadly, the politics on both sides of the aisle remains divisive and counterproductive. I was born in 1945 in a displaced persons camp in Germany, immediately after my parents survived the systematic murder of six million Jews by the Nazis. For me, the term “concentration camps” means something very specific and personal, and it pains me to hear it used lightly or improperly. This is the reason I will continue to vehemently call out Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – or anybody else, for that matter – for abusing the collective memories and intergenerational scars of the Jewish people for cheap political gains.
Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s theatrics are unacceptable. Her use of words and phrases which conjure painful emotional triggers for the Jewish people displays obliviousness to the feelings and history of Jews, and demeans her own cause by rendering these words elastic and adaptable for political purposes. Scholars and pundits now weighing in on the technical definition of a concentration camp are similarly misguided. “Never” and “Again,” likewise, are two words that can be found in dictionaries, and there they will appear devoid of any larger meaning at first glance; nonetheless, taken together, these words carry existential meaning and purpose for the Jewish people. These words and phrases are vessels of pain and identity bearing great significance to Jewish Americans, and our elected representatives should be cognizant of this.
The situation on the border is brutal and countermands America’s deepest-held values. But connecting it to the Holocaust in order to get attention and score political points is lazy and divisive; what we need is real effort and solidarity among people of goodwill to confront the problem.
American Jewish Congress