Holocaust memory is dying in America. A recent poll discovered that 22% of American millennials don’t know what the Holocaust is, and an astounding two-thirds couldn’t identify the word “Auschwitz.”
Then there is the issue of our own communal belittling of the Holocaust. At a recent city council hearing in the city of Englewood, New Jersey where I live, I personally heard Orthodox rabbis invoke the Holocaust to help sell a commercial assisted-living project, being developed by a donor to both shuls, to the city council. I live directly across the street from the project and was there to assess its impact.
Rabbi Menachem Genack, who last year traveled to Qatar under suspicious circumstances to meet the Hamas-funding emir, almost spoke publicly in favor. One of the councilmen listening was Michael Cohen, the East Coast director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a world-renowned institution named after one of the most famous Holocaust survivors and dedicated to honoring its victims. Cohen sat silently as the Holocaust was invoked in support of a commercial real estate project that the rabbis said would aid the Orthodox community.
Last week, though, Holocaust memory in America hit a whole new low.
During a live-stream event on Instagram, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York demeaned and debased the Holocaust by comparing the annihilation of six million Jews in Hitler’s European concentration camps to detention centers run by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on the US-Mexico border. “The US is running concentration camps on our southern border, and that is exactly what they are,” she said, decrying a “fascist” administration and invoking the sacred Holocaust mantra against genocide, “Never Again.”
My organization, The World Values Network – which defends and promotes Holocaust memory, the State of Israel, and Jewish values in the American media – responded to Ocasio-Cortez’s vulgar trivialization of the six million with a full-page ad in Section A of The New York Times.
Amazingly, AOC (as she is known) won’t use the Holocaust as a reason to condemn Iran, even as they promise a genocide, nor to condemn Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has murdered hundreds of thousands of innocent Muslims. More importantly, even after scores of Jewish groups asked that she rescind the comparison that caused so much pain, AOC not only refused to apologize but chose to double down.
“This is not hyperbole. It is the conclusion of expert analysis,” she tweeted last Tuesday, citing the works of Andrea Pitzer, who in her recent book took the liberty of defining concentration camps as “the mass detention of civilians without trial.” Of course, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the Cambridge Dictionary, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum all disagree with her oversimplified definition of the triggering term.
But Pitzer herself has been more hesitant than Ocasio-Cortez, even as she first offered the term to describe Southern Border detention centers. Speaking to Chris Hayes on MSNBC, the scholar offered the clear disclaimer that the Holocaust was “a singular moment in history,” adding: “For the people who want to respect that, I think that’s fine and that’s important.” She even proposed using more sensitive terminology, such as “irregular detention” or “extrajudicial detention.” Hayes himself agreed: “Let’s just call them ‘detention camps,’” he tweeted, “and focus on what’s happening in them.”
Conveniently, Ocasio-Cortez opted to ignore the disclaimer provided by her own source.
THIS IS not the first time Ocasio-Cortez has trivialized the greatest crime in human history to advance a political agenda.
In April, she shared a photograph from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington in order to defend fellow Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, whose contempt for Jewish sensitivities is well established.
Ocasio-Cortez’s trivialization of the greatest mass murder in human history is particularly obscene.
The Holocaust entailed the murder of six million Jews between 1941 and 1945, at an average pace of approximately 6,000 per day – the equivalent of two 9/11 massacres every single day for four years. The Jews were hunted from their homes and herded into squalid, disease-infested ghettos, where hundreds of thousands died of illness and starvation, their decomposing carcasses left to rot on the streets of cities like Warsaw and Lodz. Those who survived were forced into cattle cars for journeys lasting days with almost no food or water, with a single bucket into which to defecate. The “lucky” ones who somehow survived were brought to Nazi concentration camps, like Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek, where they were subject to selection by the SS. Most were gassed to death immediately upon arrival. The rest were subject to slave labor where they were to be worked to death – amid regularly being shot, hanged, tortured, and subjected to live medical experiments, their bodies crawling with lice and surrounded by the stench of death and ash from the ever-burning crematoria.
That Ocasio-Cortez could compare the Third Reich to the United States, which liberated many of the camps, is positively vile. The Jewish community ought to feel violated and recommit itself to defending the memory of the six million who cannot speak for themselves.
Responding to those she called “shrieking Republicans” – apparently, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which condemned her remarks as “an insult to the victims of the Shoah” – Ocasio-Cortez offered a boorish defense of her revolting remarks, that “concentration camps are not the same as death camps.” This was countered by Yad Vashem who tweeted to her directly: “Concentration camps assured a slave labor supply to help in the Nazi war effort, even as the brutality of life inside the camps helped assure the ultimate goal of ‘extermination through labor.’” The Museum, which serves as an international guardian for Holocaust memory, pleaded with the congresswoman to “learn about concentration camps.”
EARLIER THIS month, I traveled to Normandy for the 75th anniversary of D-Day, where thousands of Americans gave their lives to save the world from the abomination of Nazism. The American effort to liberate Europe saw the deaths of 185,000 American servicemen sacrificed in the campaign to expunge the Nazi evil. The comparison of the SS and Gestapo to American border patrol agents, coming especially from an American lawmaker, is obscene.
This does not mean that there isn’t a genuine humanitarian crisis on America’s southern border. To the contrary, it’s clear that our immigration agencies, courts and border agents are overwhelmed and struggling to meet the needs of migrants. I believe firmly in an American immigration policy of openness to those fleeing persecution, along with a commitment to never separating parents from children. America should always be a sanctuary for the oppressed: “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But Ocasio-Cortez seemed far more interested in drawing attention to herself than solving the crisis. As a media black belt, she was well aware that her offensive use of “concentration camps” and desecration of the Holocaust would put the spotlight firmly on her rather than the immigration issue, which is exactly what it has done.
But Americans are not Nazis, and belittling the extermination of European Jewry for political gain is abhorrent.
The righteous citizens of the Bronx and Queens, who form New York’s 14th Congressional District, should make it clear to their congresswoman that they will prevent her from desecrating or politicizing genocide and the Holocaust. “Never Again” is not a political slogan but a sacred commitment to forever combat and never ignore genocide.
AOC’s trivialization of Hitler’s camps, where 1.5 million Jewish children were gassed to death, should sicken the heart of every person of conscience. If we don’t confront and defeat growing Holocaust denial, we may soon confront a reality where young Americans more quickly associate the term “concentration camp” with Texas and Arizona than the killing fields of Europe – and come to see Auschwitz as just another place where some bad things happened.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is the international bestselling author of 30 books. He will shortly publish Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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