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July 3, 2019 by

Thank You, AOC, for Inspiring Jews to Stand Up for Immigrants

 Let me just put it out there: As a Jew, I think Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s now-notorious Instagram post on June 17 comparing the border detention centers to concentration camps was brave and magnificent.

Her use of this phrase, which some Jews seem to believe belongs to them and them alone, keeps pushing the debate forward and forces us to look squarely at what is happening as the result of Trump’s unconscionable policies: crying children being snatched out of their parents arms at the Texas border, for the “crime” of trying to cross over into a better life, and held in squalid conditions in mass detention centers. 

Having to look at it makes us ashamed, and impels us to react. And the story just keeps getting bigger: today (July 3) the NYT front page headline blared: SQUALOR PERVASIVE IN DETENTION CENTERS. 

Predictably, the policy’s defenders, eager to distract us from the sordid facts, jumped on AOC within hours after her post. Her use of the term “concentration camp,” they argued, is an insult to the memory of the Jews who died in the Holocaust, and she should apologize for it. Their implication, of course, was that AOC is an anti-Semite—despite the fact that plenty of experts on the history of such camps felt she was justified in using the phrase. 

Jewish voices from both the right and the left jumped into the debate, which now continues, and has taken a distinctly intra-tribal-turn. So AOC’s choice of words has turned the detention centers into a red-hot topic among Jews, and we are writing, tweeting, and press-releasing about it like mad, to each other and the world at large. In fact, this debate is healthy and necessary, both for the Jews and for democracy.

Jews, in fact, do not own the term “concentration camp;” it was probably coined in the early 20th century during the Boer War. And while it is true that concentration camps are most closely associated with the Holocaust, how could anybody with a conscience possibly argue that using this powerful expression now, in the context of this hideously immoral policy now being perpetrated by the Trump administration, against children, no less, is inappropriate? On the contrary: it is exactly what the situation calls for, before it escalates into something worse.

AOC, with her big mouth—a trait I particularly admire because my mother always berated my “big pisk,” by which she really meant, “Don’t shout out to the world truths that make me uncomfortable”–has thrown a grenade into the center of everybody’s living room, and in particular, Jewish living rooms. 

And some Jews are doing more than just talking: Last Sunday, hundreds of Jews, most of them young people, gathered at an immigrant detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to protest conditions there that were recently documented by a human rights group. Thirty-six of these protesters were arrested when they blocked the center’s entrance. Never Again Action, the group that organized the protest, said on Twitter that this was only the first of many such actions and indeed, protests have followed in cities around the country.

“#NeverAgainMeans we are going to put our hearts and souls and bodies on the line,” the organization tweeted during the Elizabeth protest. “Because if we don’t fight to #CloseTheCamps and end the current dehumanizing war on immigrants and refugees, it can absolutely happen again.”

These young people are taking the lessons of their own history so seriously they are risking arrest. So thank you. You are doing your immigrant Jewish forebears proud. And you are honoring the victims of the Shoah. And thank you, Alexandria Ocasio-Ortez, for helping keep this issue front and center with your powerful language.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.