One topic that has been repeatedly broached by our students and appears ever-present recently on social media is the brouhaha surrounding the appropriateness of using Holocaust terminology to describe current events. It appears to me that this started with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calling the detention centers at the US border “concentration camps”. This caused a world of Jews, Holocaust experts and even the Simon Weisenthal Center to condemn her statement. The mere suggestion, they argue, of comparing the horrors of the Holocaust with anything the US government perpetrates is sheer non-sense, inflammatory and a desecration of the those that perished in real concentration camps. Instead of apologizing or redacting her statement, AOC doubled down and went on to define “concentration camps” on Twitter, noting that “according to concentration camp experts, people begin to die due to overcrowding, neglect and shortage of resources. We saw all three of those signs on our trip yesterday.” Indeed, a plethora of holocaust scholars and others subsequently went on to agree with AOC.
Instead of taking a side on this matter, I found that this debate is a great springboard for educating our students about the right way for a debate to take place, and how to understand Holocaust nomenclature today. Yehuda Kurtzer from the Shalom Hartman Institute sets the stage for understanding this issue. He explains that there is an internal debate currently being waged within the Jewish community over the meaning of the Holocaust. On the one hand, some Jews see the primary legacy of the Holocaust as that of need for Jewish self-preservation. The Holocaust teaches us that Jews cannot rely on non-Jews to protect us; we must have our own State, our own army, and even our own economy. That is the only sure-fire way to ensure the future of the Jewish people.
A second meaning of the Holocaust for the Jewish community is that we must be cautious as to how we exert power over minorities and weaker groups. As we recognize that the Nazis felt no bounds on their abilities to punish and eventually murder Jews, we must be sensitive to minorities today, protect them and be sensitive to their struggles. For this second group, overwhelmingly, they do not see anti-Semitism or anti-Israelism as a true threat today. They overwhelmingly feel that Jews for all practical purposes have the same privilege as other white, majority groups.
The third group, which can be seen as a mix of the first two, claim the primary meaning of the Holocaust for people today is that of specifically fighting genocide. The Jewish people endured a genocide and other peoples have as well. Only if we “never forget” our own victimhood can we ensure that a genocide is not again perpetrated against a people.
Given these three categories, it is quite simple to understand why the first category of Jewish groups were infuriated by the usage of phases like “concentration camps” and “never again” in reference to US detention facilities. Those Jews believe the primary meaning of the Holocaust can be found in the need for Jews to protect themselves from non-Jews. Accordingly, any appropriation of Holocaust specific terminology to combat contemporaneous social justice concerns is nothing less than a travesty and sacrilege.
On the other hand, for AOC and other progressive liberals, the primary meaning of the Holocaust can be found in the moral obligation to fight bigotry and racism. For those who fall into the second category, the best way to keep the Holocaust meaningful is to employ lessons and terminology from the Holocaust. They persistently argue: what is the point of remembering the Holocaust unless we can employ its lessons on contemporaneous issues.
Two distinct perspectives appeared on this topic on social media, and nothing less than the memory of the Holocaust was at stake. Given that more than 70% of US Jews, according to the Pew Study, consider the Holocaust a critical part of Jewish identity, it was key that Hillel offer perspective on the debate, enabling students to understand both camps, and their own identity better. My hope was that our students can now help educate their family and friends regarding this debate and help others understand the import of the debate.