Monday, January 20, 2020

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I am responding to the article entitled “Detention Centers on Southern Border Are Most Definitively Not Concentration Camps,” which appeared in the most recent issue of the Jewish Link (July 18, 2019). Dr. Alex Grobman is mistaken when he accuses people of trivializing the Holocaust. Those who object to detention centers on the U.S. southern border and call them concentration camps are neither trivializing the Holocaust nor are they committing an outrageous and contemptible defamation, as he goes on to say. They are simply attempting to learn a lesson from the Holocaust, no different than Elie Wiesel, a”h, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for his attempts to use his Holocaust experience to discourage the world from allowing it to be repeated.

No one would claim that the current policies of the United States are equal to those of Nazi Germany. The Holocaust was a unique event, the extermination by a modern state with top technology of a religious minority through the most brutal and horrible of methods. But Hitler did not invent concentration camps, nor was he the first or last to use them. Long before Hitler came to power, concentration camps had been used in South Africa and Cuba (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/concentration-camps-existed-long-before-Auschwitz-180967049/), and even in the United States such camps were used in the 1830s to round up Cherokees before shipping them off on the “Trail of Tears” to Oklahoma, and during World War II to house Japanese Americans. And just as Americans with sympathy for the oppressed voiced their objections in all these cases, many do now regarding the handling of illegal immigrants to the United States.

As Dr. Grobman fairly points out, there is an important difference between all of the historical cases and the present one, namely that in the current case the inmates of these camps were not taken from their homes and forced into them. This is an important difference, and might indeed allow the United States government greater leeway in handling them. But that has nothing to do with a claim that those who object to this policy are trivializing the Holocaust.

Quite the opposite. Those who use a term that evokes the Holocaust are simply pointing out that our government is engaged in a policy that bears too many similarities to that of Nazi Germany, and are encouraging like-minded Americans to protest. Consider the similarities: As in historical concentration camps, the ones on our southern border contain an ethnic minority denigrated by its captors. In both cases the treatment of the inmates is far poorer than that of prisons where people guilty of violent crime are housed. In both cases the inmates have not been convicted of any crime. In both cases the inmates include children. In both cases there have been deaths as a result of mistreatment.

As a teacher of history, I believe it is our job to constantly be looking around, thinking carefully about our world and comparing it to the events we study. When we see policies that remind us of events we are proud of, we should support them. But when we see policies that remind us of the worst in human history, we would be failing to learn the lessons of history if we ignore them.

Murray Sragow, teacher, United States History
Yeshiva University High School for Boys