Commentary: ‘Never again’ means nothing if Holocaust analogies are always off limits

FILE - In this June 17, 2018 file photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, people who've been taken into custody related to cases of illegal entry into the United States, sit in one of the cages at a facility in McAllen, Texas. A complaint expected to be filed Thursday, Aug. 23 with the Department of Homeland Security alleges that immigration authorities coerced dozens of parents separated from their children at the border to sign documents they didn't understand. In some of those cases, parents gave away rights to be reunited with their kids. The complaint will be filed by the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the American Immigration Council.(U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Rio Grande Valley Sector via AP, File)

The Holocaust was suddenly in the center of U.S. political discourse early this week. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., referred to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detention centers as concentration camps on social media, which provoked a backlash from conservatives and then a flood of support from progressives. And #Kristallnacht trended on Twitter on Monday night after President Donald Trump tweeted that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will soon step up its work "removing the millions" of undocumented immigrants, seemingly signaling an escalation of his administration's tactics aimed at migrants.

Are these analogies just? Is it really reasonable to compare what's happening with immigrants under Trump to the Third Reich? Or should the Holocaust be off-limits for comparisons to today's events?

If done with caution, those analogies can be useful. Looking at Holocaust history — thoughtfully, carefully — can help us to see the parallels between then and now. It can also help us to understand when those parallels are not apt, and what that does and doesn’t mean about news as it breaks. Of course, analogies are imperfect, and every situation has its own nuances and context, but looking at monstrous events of the past can help us understand where we are in ways that can be difficult to see in the day-to-day.

Some who criticize drawing parallels between the United States today and Germany of the 1930s suggest that doing so demeans the memories of the Jews, political dissidents, LGBT, disabled and Romani people and others targeted by the Nazis — that not every instance of oppression is genocide, and using this kind of language diminishes the suffering under Hitler.

But the Holocaust didn’t begin with gas chambers, and it’s not business as usual in America right now. We already know that the path to atrocity can be a process, and that the Holocaust began with dehumanizing propaganda, with discriminatory laws, with roundups and deportations, and with internment. Those things are happening in our country today, and they’re known as some of the stages of genocide first articulated by Genocide Watch in 1996.

Having a historical reference point can help us understand our own moral obligations in this story and to make sense of it as it unfolds. Whether it has or ever will reach the stage of ultimate atrocity is not the question. What we should be asking is how articulating parallels can help us to see where we are, with clarity, now.

Is CBP running concentration camps? Several recent articles have made the case that they are, using a definition from Andrea Pitzer, author of "One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps": "mass detention of civilians without trial."

But it is important to note that Nazi concentration camps — which, in Germany, began in 1933 — and the Holocaust’s death (or “extermination”) camps, which began in 1941, are not the same thing, though they’re often conflated in American discourse. And what we currently know of the CBP camps does not include many of the hallmarks often associated with Nazi camps — forced labor, for example, or the detention of U.S. citizens. But it’s also true that the earliest camps — known as “wild camps” — were makeshift centers that did not have the infrastructure of later state camps.

Concentration camps have a history beyond just the Nazis, too. Pitzer’s definition also puts CBP centers in the context of other such camps in France, South Africa, Cuba, the Soviet Union and, of course, here in the United States during World War II, targeting Japanese Americans. (Those who quibble that “internment camps” are not “concentration camps” might note that both President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harold Ickes, his secretary of the interior, referred to U.S. camps as the latter.)

And the Holocaust isn't the only analogy that can or should be in play now; it's a chaotic, complicated time, and we need a lot of lenses to make sense of it. As the writer Kelly Hayes argues, "The U.S. doesn't need foreign models for manufactured conditions that dehumanize and bring about premature death. From slavery to death marches, Native reservations and the prison system, this is all very American."

Still, Tornillo doesn’t have to be Auschwitz — a death camp — for it to be a concentration camp. Analogies don’t have to be perfect to be instructive. Here, they help us to see how grave and urgent the situation is.

Most of the time, we only start making references to the Holocaust when a conflict has already escalated to full-on genocide — Rwanda, Kosovo, Darfur, the recent massacre of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. But now we’re not reacting as we watch authoritarianism escalate halfway around the world, but rather feeling the water heat up while we’re sitting in the pot.

That still doesn't mean that every analogy is equally fitting. Was "the next Kristallnacht" really announced on Twitter? Probably not. Among other things, reporting this week indicates that it's unlikely that operations as large-scale as Trump suggested are ready to launch in the coming weeks, or that ICE has the staff or budget to carry out what he indicated.

But even if we — God willing — never get anywhere near the later states of genocide, never reach the monstrosity of the Third Reich, these analogies can and should serve as our moral compass. We have long asked the question about why good Germans didn’t intervene earlier, when it was “just” about discriminatory laws, detention, boycotts. Before things got murderous.

Now we have to ask ourselves: Why aren't we?

There was massive public outcry against the Department of Homeland Security's family separation policy last summer, but the policy has nonetheless continued. There have been some protests against the detention camps, but they haven't been loud or sustained.

We know that some Border Patrol agents refer to immigrants as “tonks” — defined in court documents as “the sound heard when a ‘wetback’ is hit over the head with a flashlight,” and “that it is part of the [Tuscon Border Patrol’s] agency’s culture.” We know immigrants are being held in " dog pounds " and " freezers‚" that detainees are being held in facilities meant for one-fifth the number of people, in soiled clothing and with limited access to showers.

We know that at least 24 people have died in ICE custody under Trump so far, and at least six children under the care of other agencies have died since September. We know that ICE has quietly stopped updating its official “List of Deaths in ICE Custody” page, and we know of at least one child death that wasn’t reported to the public at the time it happened.

Every situation is different. But thinking about the Holocaust now can remind us of the urgency of this situation, fuel us to protest, to donate money to organizations on the front lines, to call our members of Congress and demand they slash the budget for ICE and CBP, to center this as the human rights emergency that it is.

Recalling the terrible lessons of the Holocaust does not disgrace the memory of that atrocity, does not harm the victims of it decades later. Quite the opposite: One of the best ways to honor the memories of those murdered by the Nazis is to take profoundly to heart the Jewish community's long-held mantra: Never again.

Many survivors know the analogy is apt. Never again means never again. And never again also means now.

Danya Ruttenberg

Danya Ruttenberg is rabbi-in-residence at Avodah and author of “Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting.”