Sensationalist ICE analogies are insensitive but defensible
I spent a number of days this summer at protests — often branded “actions” — led often, but not always, by Jewish people, in response to the human rights abuses currently being committed by ICE and Customs and Border Patrol against immigrants and asylum seekers in detention facilities along our nation’s southern border. All of these demonstrations involved analogies to the Holocaust — usually centered around the expression “Never Again.” There’s been much discussion in Jewish circles about this analogy ever since it was seized on by the activist collective #NeverAgainAction earlier this year. I think it’s worth sorting through it.
The controversy began when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) referred to the facilities in which migrants are being kept at “concentration camps,” and then demanded action “if,” in her words, “‘never again’ means anything.” Immediately, Yad VaShem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, condemned the comments. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum repeated its categorial rejection of comparisons between “the Holocaust and other events.” And the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York — which represents a broad ideological coalition, including many solidly left congregations — said it was “deeply disturbed.”
As is always the case when Jewish community organizations condemn an offensive statement, an army of progressives decried the criticism as being in bad faith. And, as is also the pattern when the Jewish community asserts the right to control how its trauma is talked about, young Jews demanded that the “Jewish establishment” stand down as they stamp their approval on what some see as a problematic statement. Then the birth of “Never Again Action” followed, which explicitly uses the Holocaust’s memory to mobilize Jews against ICE.
There are issues with this approach: as the title of a popular Facebook group I’m in insists, “not everything bad is literally the Holocaust.” And if Yad VaShem and the Holocaust Memorial Museum have no say over this invocation, who does? What’s more, the ICE issue is clearly being used as a wedge issue within the Jewish community: the same groups that consistently antagonize mainstream institutions over Israel/Palestine are similarly antagonizing them on the issue of Holocaust rhetoric, and they’re mobilizing the same people, soliticing approval from political figures who seem to be chosen specifically because they are controversial within the Jewish community.
But it’s hard to blame those making this analogy for trying whatever they can to draw attention. We’re looking at the same photos: immigrants stuffed in overcrowded cells, correctly called “cages,” wearing the same clothes in which they were apprehended. More importantly, we’ve seen the clip of a government lawyer, representing the American people, arguing in court that these children are not entitled to soap, toothpaste, blankets or beds. We know that six children have died in our custody in the last year, after a total of zero deaths in the last decade prior, and we know that three of those children died in part from the flu.
Now, with flu season approaching, the Trump administration has announced it will not provide flu shots to the detained. One is tempted to dismiss this as tragic incompetence, but all the administration would have to do to alleviate this suffering is return to the policies of its predecessors. Detention is unnecessary when you have access to ankle bracelets.
It is cheaper, financially and politically, to pass children on to capable relatives than it is to lock them up. Does anyone doubt that our government can afford a batch of flu shots for the particularly young, vulnerable and exposed?
A reasonable assessment of the evidence suggests that America is not failing to provide these children what they need: rather, the administration is succeeding, as a matter of policy, in depriving them of it. And this is where the activists’ analogy, though dangerous, may be useful: not to compare the suffering of the victims, but to acknowledge that our neighbors are perfectly capable of victimizing people intentionally.
This summer, a white nationalist terrorist opened fire on Hispanics in El Paso, Texas. He referred to immigration as an “invasion,” recalling not only the sort of fermented racism that exists online, but also the mainstream discourse pushed on legacy media of which the president is a reliable viewer.
There are enormous differences between what’s happening on our border and what happened in Europe. But Americans are no less capable of taking this step than they are the next step the next step or the one after that.
Recall the administration’s travel ban in early 2017: activists and politicans proudly recall how, when President Trump signed an executive order banning all refugees as well as foreign nationals from several mostly Muslim-majority countries, citizens poured to the airports with signs and songs demanding that those being held be let go. It has since been reported that Steve Bannon, a propagandist above all else, specifically chose to push the executive order on a Friday, because he wanted us to do just that.
We ought to consider that the photos pouring out of these detention centers function not only as an exposé for those of us who see human rights abuses as a bad thing, but also as red meat for those among us who think they’re a good thing.
We should consider the fact that there is a radicalized segment of our government for whom migrant children dying in our custody is a good thing; that this is the force we have to contend with, not the masses of well-intentioned conservatives who, while complicit, and necessary, are nevertheless a distraction. In “Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate: How the Alt-Right is Warping the American Imagination,” Alexandra Minna Stern writes that the Trump administration’s immigration policy, while far from that of creating a white ethnostate, is exactly what an ethnostatist who is playing the long game wants to see. We cannot afford to ignore their end game when they are working diligently towards it and exploiting our naiveté.
Now, none of this suggests that the protest tactics used by #NeverAgain are useful, nor does it mitigate the very real pain caused by reckless use of collective (and often intergenerational) trauma.
But historical atrocities shouldn’t be removed from the discussion of current events: the question is not whether two things are the same but whether they exist in the same, in-case-of-emergency-break-glass category; whether the rules we generally apply to contentious but good faith politics do not apply here; and whether, moving forward, we remember this as just another regrettable decision by an incompetent administration, or, rather, a crime done in our name, whose victims are entitled to restitution, whose perpetrators are liable for prosecution, and which demands a soul-searching on the part of the nation that allowed it to happen.
I don’t know what tactics are useful in this moment, and I’m deeply uncomfortable with the options I’ve been given: in Boston, #NeverAgain has a tendency to stage events at the Holocaust memorial, as though collective memory were the target, rather than just the stage, of the demonstration.
Additionally, the whole thing feels awfully performative, a balm for one’s conscience, rather than actual change. But sometimes an alarm needs to be sounded; between a fraught analogy and a dangerous understatement, I understand why many choose the former, even if I’m skeptical that those are our only two options.