As a Jew who lost distant relatives in the Holocaust, I used to cringe whenever anyone compared a modern-day event to the murder of six million Jews and five million others. But I’m not cringing now, given these times, for we need to warn the world what can happen when malice runs amok.
This long-seething debate was reignited when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez likened the Trump administration’s detention centers for undocumented immigrants to “concentration camps.” In response, the United State Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington – the foremost chronicler of the world’s dark past – reiterated its opposition to such analogies. “At a time when our country needs dialogue more than ever,” historian Edna Friedberg wrote on the museum website, “it is especially dangerous to exploit the memory of the Holocaust as a rhetorical cudgel.” The counter to that came in an open letter to the museum from 430 scholars who study the Holocaust and genocides: “The very core of Holocaust education is to alert the public to dangerous developments that facilitate human rights violations and pain and suffering; pointing to similarities across time and space is essential for this task.”
We can all agree that comparisons have been taken to ludicrous extremes. The animal rights group PETA years ago launched a Holocaust On Your Plate campaign to protest how animals get from slaughterhouses to kitchen tables. After the Parkland (Fla.) school shootings, teens lobbying aggressively for tighter gun control – God bless them – were likened to Nazi Youth by a few zealots. There are cheap analogies, and jerks, on both the left and the right.
But it’s time those of us with a conscience seize the higher ground and keep the lessons of the Holocaust alive – so long as it’s applied legitimately, and with restraint. Raleigh’s Michael Abramson, who chairs the N.C. Council on the Holocaust, is correct when he says no one is being gassed at the camps along our Southern border. But many of us believe prejudice spawned these camps and its inhumane conditions, and that inherent racism drives some support for the President’s immigration policies. Indeed, the President responded to criticism of the camps from Ocasio-Cortez and three other Congresswomen of color by tweeting, “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.” Three of the women were born in the United States. The fourth is a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Somalia.
Whether in deeds or tweets, 75 years ago or today, hatred is hatred. Drawing a parallel doesn’t cheapen the past. It honors the past, and the memory of Holocaust victims whose voice must resonate through us.
A decade ago, I profiled nine Holocaust survivors who found a home and made a life in Charlotte. One was Irving Bienstock.
In 1938, he was 12 years old, living in Dortmund, Germany, when the systematic murder, arson and herding of Jews into camps began. It was Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, the start of the genocide to come. In 2019, he is 93 years old, living in Charlotte, N.C., watching news reports from the migrant camps, hearing the contemptuous rhetoric in our public discourse, fretting over the FBI-reported rise in hate crimes in America.
“It’s scaring me,” this child of the Holocaust says. “I don’t quite understand why we’re allowing it.”
Neither do I. And so we bring up the past.