'Concentration camps' or not, history matters

'Concentration camps' or not, history matters
Comment: Looking back at history serves as the best guide we have to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
05 Jul, 2019
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez visits a Texas border patrol facility housing children [Getty]
Over the last few days, hundreds of activists have been taking to the streets across the United States in opposition to the Trump administration's treatment of migrants. 

Over 1,000 Jewish activists marched through the streets of Boston singing old partisan songs. Hymns that carry the history of Jews and gentiles who organised guerrilla groups and fought the Nazis throughout WWII. They also chanted 'Never Again' and 'Never Again is Now' in reference to the oath taken after the Holocaust to never let such an atrocity take place again.

Jewish activists also targeted migrant detention centres directly, blockading doors and refusing to allow business continue while people are being held in horrendous conditions, with children often having no access to basic sanitary conditions, and deported. Such actions took place most visibly in Southern California, Boston, and New Jersey.

Campaigners have also been working with Movimiento Cosecha, an alliance of immigrant rights and Dreamer organisers who have "watched politicians battle for our votes, only to stall legislation year after year".

In response, they have organised direct actions and protests across the United States. Their site points out that their name - "harvest" in Spanish - "honours the long tradition of farmworker organising and the present-day pain of the thousands of undocumented workers whose labour continues to feed the US".

Remembrance and the study of history are an active and involved practice

It is Cosecha and it's effective militant tactics that inspired the emergence of groups like Never Again Action.

Indeed, 36 activists were arrested at a Never Again Action outside the Elizabeth Detention Centre in New Jersey, which hundreds were blockading.

Stephanie Guedalia was arrested for taking part and, while in handcuffs,
she told a fellow protester filming her that her grandparents were partisans and that they would have been proud of her. They too fought racism and refused to give in to the face of oppression.

The return to history is striking across these actions.

From the references to the partisans and the repeated assertion that 'Never Again is Now', to the discussions of the history of slavery, the protesters have repeatedly focussed on reminding the world of how many people had to acquiesce in silence or actively support injustices and genocide in the past for it to take place. Their actions are designed to not repeat the pattern of indifference. 

They also draw directly on a growing national dispute over the description of migrant camps in the US as "concentration camps" and the possibility of drawing parallels between the Holocaust and the present day.

About a month ago, congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez found herself at the centre of a national furore after she retweeted an article that described the detention centres as concentration camps.

In response, she doubled down in a video in which she further developed her claims. "The United States is running concentration camps on our southern border and that is exactly what they are... I want to talk to the people that are concerned enough with humanity to say that 'never again' means something... The fact that concentration camps are now an institutionalised practice in the 'Home of the Free' is extraordinarily disturbing and we need to do something about it."

The response to her statement was highly polarised. While thousands upon thousands celebrated her courage and strength in speaking up against the inhumane treatment of migrants at the hands of the US state - children are held in cages, fed rotten food or even forced to drink out of toilet bowls, with no access to doctors or basic sanitary facilities, and treated so horrendously that in the last year seven have died - others have denounced the New York congresswoman for the analogy.

Leading national Jewish organisations also joined in the condemnation, causing thousands of Jewish activists to call on the world to realise that 'Never Again is Now'

The Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, for example, issued a statement stating that Ocasio-Cortez' "regrettable use of Holocaust terminology to describe these contemporary concerns diminishes the evil intent of the Nazis to eradicate the Jewish people."

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum expressed similar concerns in a statement that reads: "The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary.

"That position has repeatedly and unambiguously been made clear in the Museum's official statement on the matter - a statement that is reiterated and reaffirmed now."

Concentration camps were not the preserve of Nazi Germany but were in fact first used by Spanish and American colonial regimes

However, the rejection of this refusal to draw links between the Holocaust and contemporary political developments has been rejected by some Jewish activists and migrant solidarity organisers.

An open letter signed by hundreds of genocide and Holocaust scholars, described as a "who's who" of the field, similarly supported the congresswoman's approach.

It reads, "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".

Others also pointed out that concentration camps were not the preserve of Nazi Germany but were in fact first used by Spanish and American colonial regimes, before being developed further by the Brits and the Belgians in Africa.

The Nazi regime did not stop at the implementation of concentration camps, but coupled them with death camps, which industrially executed 6 million Jews, alongside Communists, trade unionists, LGBT and disabled people, and travellers.

It teaches us to organise to build a different, better world, right here, right now

What migrant rights campaigners, Jewish activists, and their allies are demonstrating across the United States is that remembrance and the study of history are an active and involved practice.

Looking back at history serves as the best guide we have to avoid repeating the mistakes of the generations that came before us, and learning from other peoples' best examples.

The history of the partisans, of the ghetto uprisings, of the resistance networks to the Third Reich teaches us today how to stand up to the re-emerging ghosts of the past.

It shows us that the Jewish tradition of resistance against injustice, much like all oppressed traditions from anti-slavery to anti-colonial insurgents, sets down a marker and a call to the present to refuse the 'banality of evil', to refuse to watch fascism rear its ugly head and look the other way, to refuse to hope that the current moment of racism, repression, and reaction will simply subside by itself.

It teaches us to organise to build a different, better world, right here, right now. Never Again is Now.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.