The Holocaust Museum's Dreadful Intervention In the Concentration Camp Debate


As the debate over Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s characterization of American migrant detention facilities as “concentration camps” enters its second, aneurysm-inducing week, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has entered the fray to urge people not to learn any sort of lessons the Holocaust may have to teach future generations.

In a press release posted to its website on Monday, the museum wrote that it “unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary,” and directed readers to a six-month-old essay that cautions against “careless Holocaust analogies [which] may demonize, demean, and intimidate their targets” and “distract from the real issues challenging our society, because they shut down productive, thoughtful discourse.”

While the museum’s statement doesn’t mention AOC directly—instead it claims to be in response to comments “ascribed to a Museum staff historian regarding recent attempts to analogize the situation on the United States southern border to concentration camps in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s”—the timing of the release leaves little to the imagination as to who, and what, it’s talking about.

However, in its attempt to portray itself as eminently neutral and above the political discourse of the day, the Holocaust Museum has instead managed to wholly undercut its ostensible reason for existing: Educating the public about the horrors experienced by European Jewry and other marginalized communities, in the hopes of preventing similar atrocities from taking place in the future. But if, as the museum claims, “efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events” are to be unequivocally rejected, then what’s the point of learning about the Holocaust in the first place? As rabbi Danya Ruttenberg succinctly put it last week in the Washington Post: “‘Never Again’ means nothing if Holocaust analogies are always off limits”

But the Holocaust Museum’s latest objections reveal an even deeper level of willfully craven pearl-clutching. As Ocasio-Cortez herself explained, concentration camps are not the sole province of Nazis. It’s the museum itself (along with plenty of bad-faith Republicans) that made the leap from “concentration camps” to “Holocaust analogy” without for a moment recognizing—or at least admitting—the term’s well-established historical independence from the Nazi’s treatment of European Jewry. And by doing so, they’ve essentially demanded the world abide by their interpretation of her words solely for the purpose of publicly rejecting them.

Thankfully, there are plenty of people who aren’t so blinkered by political point-scoring or self-serving interests that they can’t see the plain facts laid out in front of them. Concentration camp experts, internment camp survivors like actor George Takei, and even the last surviving prosecutor from the Nuremberg trials have all gone on the record to decry the Trump administration’s treatment of migrants as being eminently comparable to Nazi Germany’s treatment of marginalized communities in the ramp-up to World War Two.

But the Holocaust Museum’s obstinance remains particularly troubling. Why bother learning about the Holocaust at all, if the goal is simply to ossify its horrors as something that offers no contemporary roadmap for action? If the past isn’t prologue, but simply an antique to be analyzed from afar, then what do we need museums for at all?

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