As critics of the Trump administration’s U.S. border policy invoke Holocaust-era imagery to express their horror at the practice of tearing parents and children apart, American Jews are fighting over whether such analogies should be off-limits.
Family separation and the resulting childhood trauma suffered by Jews during the Holocaust is clearly relevant to the discussion over the controversial policy of warehousing children whose parents are being detained for illegal entry under Trump’s new “zero-tolerance” tactic.
At the same time, there is discomfort and anger over parallels being drawn between the U.S. detention centers where the illegal immigrants and asylum seekers are being held, and the death camps where millions of Jews and others were murdered by the Nazis in World War II.
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Images of children being held at “tender age” shelters behind wire fences and in cage-like enclosures, far from their parents, and recordings of them crying and wailing, have led many to make such comparisons.
It hasn’t helped that, while defending his policies, President Donald Trump warned in a tweet that illegal immigrants threatened to “infest” the United States – using a loaded term that was frequently invoked by the Nazis in their efforts to demonize and dehumanize Jews.
Trump loyalist Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, lashed out Tuesday at former CIA Director Michael Hayden for equating Trump’s policies with those of the Nazis. In a tweet attacking the administration’s detention policy, Hayden posted an image of the entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau with railroad tracks leading up to it, commenting, “Other governments have separated mothers and children.”
Klein said the ZOA was “deeply offended and appalled” by Hayden’s “disgracefully absurd tweet” invoking the death camp, and called for an apology and retraction from the former CIA chief.
“It is repugnant, ridiculous, morally bankrupt, and even borders on denying the Holocaust to analogize U.S. border policy to the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust,” charged Klein, who is the son of Auschwitz survivors and was born in a displaced person’s camp. “The US is not massacring, and burying in open graves people at the US border. They are not going into Mexico or El Salvador and murdering as many Mexicans and El Salvadorans as possible. The US is not proclaiming genocide against these or any people,” he stated.
“If that were happening in any way, shape or form, these people would be running away from the US border – not attempting to cross the border into the US,” he added.
Klein’s criticism echoed the protest of Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday, who decried Hayden’s tweet in a Fox News interview.
Sessions called the parallel “a real exaggeration” because “in Nazi Germany, they were keeping the Jews from leaving the country,” not expelling them.
Sessions’ statement was actually historically inaccurate. Before implementing the Final Solution, Nazi Germany did forcibly expel thousands of Jews holding Polish citizenship from Germany, in October 1938.
Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League made a direct comparison to the Holocaust on Tuesday: It released a powerful video testimonial attacking Trump’s border policy, with Holocaust survivors who were “hidden children” speaking out against the practice of separating children from their parents.
“Separation of the family, for us, is probably the worst thing that ever happened to us,” says Hidden Child Foundation Co-Director Rachelle Goldstein in the ADL video, noting that when children were in hiding during the Holocaust, they were often hiding in a separate location from their parents and siblings, on their own. Even if they are treated kindly and humanely, children who are taken away from their parents “are never the same,” she warns. Even though survivors are now senior citizens, she adds, “they still think about it. And it still hurts, it still aches.”
She called for the children being held in U.S. detention centers to be reunited with their families as soon as possible, “because the longer they are away from their families, the greater the harm.”
It was important for her to speak out against the administration policy, she said, because “when we see evil we must call it out.”
Interestingly, on the same day the video was released by the ADL, its CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, issued a warning over exploiting the Holocaust in the political debate: “People need to be extremely careful in drawing comparisons to the Holocaust and the Nazi regime in whatever context it is used,” he said in a statement.
At the same time, he said that “the lesson we should learn from that dark time is that all good people need to speak out clearly and quickly when morally abhorrent actions are taken by those in power against any group.”An expert on the term “concentration camp” noted in an interview with Quartz website that the phrase was, in fact, appropriate to invoke in regard to the U.S. immigrant detention facilities.
Andrea Pitzer, author of “One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps,” said that while the term is now closely associated with Nazi death camps and genocide, she pointed out that the expression “concentration camp” predated Nazism and has been used to describe similar practices in locations as far-flung as Cuba and South Africa.
A concentration camp, she explained, is “a place for mass detention of civilians without trial, usually on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, citizenship, or political affiliation.”
The U.S. detention centers for children fit that description, she said, noting that “in addition to the harm that we as a country are choosing to inflict on the most vulnerable children we can reach, we are institutionalizing dangerous practices that typically serve as the basis and legal authority for much worse camps later.”