Immigration and the invocation of the Holocaust

Are comparisons between the current US policy of family separation at the border and concentration camps valid?

June 19, 2018 19:32
3 minute read.
THE PERIMETER fence of Auschwitz II-Birkenau is enveloped in a thick evening fog during the ceremoni

THE PERIMETER fence of Auschwitz II-Birkenau is enveloped in a thick evening fog during the ceremonies marking the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of the camp and International Holocaust Remembrance Day, near Oswiecim, Poland, January 2018. (photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)


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The photos are gut-wrenching and the audio is heartbreaking. For the past several weeks, the US government has been separating families arriving at the US-Mexican border, imprisoning the parents and detaining the traumatized and often bewildered children.

As the public debate over this issue reaches deafening levels, it is no surprise that comparisons to Nazi Germany are rampant.

Over the weekend, Gen. Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA, posted a photo of Auschwitz-Birkenau on Twitter, writing: “Other governments have separated mothers and children.”

Later that day, he posted the photo again, adding: “NO ONE who now walks through that portal on that siding can casually believe that civilized behavior is guaranteed.”

Asked about the tweet on Monday during a CNN TV interview, Hayden said he has visited the site of the concentration camp several times, and chose the photo as the specific location where families arriving were separated.

“I know we’re not Nazi Germany, alright,” he said on Monday. “But there is a commonality there, and a fear on my part – that we have standards we have to live up to.”

US Attorney-General Jeff Sessions – considered among those responsible for the policy – was asked about such comparisons during an appearance on Fox News on Monday.

“It’s a real exaggeration, of course,” Sessions said. “In Nazi Germany they were keeping the Jews from leaving the country.”

Sessions, clearly not a student of history, has been heavily criticized for that statement.

For years the Nazis worked to encourage and force emigration of German Jews.

It is not particularly shocking to hear Nazi imagery invoked in discussions of the highly controversial policy. Godwin’s Law dictates that just about any heated argument will end with a reference to Hitler.

But this isn’t just any argument. The United States government is deliberately wrenching apart families who arrive at the border, traumatizing young children and their parents. Many of the children are being kept behind chain-link fences in facilities in Texas, California, Florida and other locations.

While shouting “Hitler” at any political opponent is rarely an effective tool, many of the comparisons drawn here have a strong basis. Nazi officers did separate families, and did tear children away from their parents. Detaining children behind chainlink fences is dehumanizing and cruel way to treat anyone, and dehumanization was a key element in the Nazi campaign against the Jews.

And the majority of mainstream Jewish groups have not been silent on the issue, with most issuing a broad condemnation of the Trump administration policy. But almost none have invoked Holocaust imagery.

The Anti-Defamation League – and 25 other Jewish organizations – condemned the policy in a letter to Sessions last week, calling it “unconscionable.”

The Simon Weisenthal Center’s Rabbi Abraham Cooper said Tuesday that, “Outrage can be expressed at separating children of asylum seekers without misappropriating Auschwitz, gas chambers and the Nazi Holocaust when 1.5 million Jewish children were systematically and brutally murdered.”

And Commentary editor John Podhoretz also chimed in, tweeting on Monday: “Stop already with the Nazi and Hitler analogies.

Really. Stop. What’s happening is its own kind of bad and you court discrediting the seriousness of your complaints about it by overstating things so tastelessly and wrongly.”

But Jewish US Senator Dianne Feinstein, appearing on MSNBC on Monday, slammed the policy, saying, “This is the United States of America. It isn’t Nazi Germany, and there’s a difference. And we don’t take children from their parents – until now. And I think it’s such a sad day.”

The Nazis scapegoated, traumatized and dehumanized Jews and other groups. But they also methodically enslaved and murdered millions of people – including at least 1.5 million children. The White House is not – nor do I believe it is working toward – carrying out systematic extermination.

But by arguing over the validity of such comparisons, detractors of the policy are obfuscating the issue. The callous decision to tear apart families as means of a deterrent should be horrifying on its own, without any need to equate. And those who see echoes of 1930s Germany should be buoyed by one stark difference: public outrage.

While average Germans and Poles were at best indifferent to the treatment of Jews, the average American finds this policy immoral and outrageous. The national media and a slew of elected officials from both parties have been actively condemning the separation of families.

You don’t need Holocaust imagery to express horror and fury at a policy of deliberately separating children from their parents. In the year 2018, it is a uniquely heinous act.

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