Academics Rally Behind Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Over Concentration Camp Comments: 'She Is Completely Historically Accurate'

Freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez continued to spar with Republicans over her claim that U.S. migrant detention centers are "concentration camps" over the weekend.

Ocasio-Cortez blasted Iowa representative Steve King Sunday after he asked her to visit the site of Nazi death camp Auschwitz with a Holocaust memorial group. Declining his invite, she pointed out King had met with a far-right Austrian group during his own trip to the camp, as The Washington Post noted last October.

The last time you went on this trip it was reported that you also met w/ fringe Austrian neo-Nazi groups to talk shop.

So I’m going to have to decline your invite. But thank you for revealing to all how transparently the far-right manipulates these moments for political gain.

— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) June 23, 2019

Ocasio-Cortez described migrant detention facilities at the southern U.S. border as "concentration camps" during an Instagram live stream June 17. Following up on Twitter, she said the centers "brutalized" migrants with "dehumanizing conditions."

Ocasio-Cortez quickly came under fire from critics, including Republicans like Liz Cheney, for employing a term most commonly used to refer to the Nazi camps where millions of Jews lost their lives.

But Ocasio-Cortez continued to defend her use of the term, writing Wednesday: "These squarely in an academic consensus and definition." Noting the fact that several migrant children have died in U.S. custody in recent months, she added: "Kids are dying and I'm not here to make people feel comfortable about that."

The term "concentration camp" predates World War II by decades, and has been used to describe numerous detainment facilities. It was first used to describe "reconcentration camps" set up by Spanish general Valeriano Weyler in Cuba in 1897.

It is often used to describe the internment of more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent—many of whom were U.S. citizens— on American soil during World War II.

The term is also used, for example, to describe camps set up by the British in South Africa during the Boer Wars.

But it's most commonly used to refer to camps operated by the Nazi party, who held vast numbers of Jews and others in concentration, labor and death camps during World War II. The regime systematically killed some six million Jews between 1941 and 1945.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Concentration Camps
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) prepares to wait tables at the Queensboro Restaurant, May 31, 2019 in the Queens borough of New York City. Drew Angerer/Getty

Rachel Ida Buff, a professor of American studies who teaches history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, told Newsweek Ocasio-Cortez was "absolutely" correct to describe U.S. migrant detention centers as concentration camps.

Sociology professor Richard Lachmann at the University at Albany, SUNY, agreed, telling Newsweek: "Concentration camps are any place where large numbers of people are held in poor conditions because of their nationality, ethnicity, religion or other characteristics rather than as individuals convicted of crimes."

Noting the experiences of migrant children in U.S. detention centers—some of whom are set to be housed at Fort Sill, a site that held Japanese Americans and Native Americans before them, back in the 20th century—Buff said: "The trauma these children are suffering threatens to disable a generation."

"All asylum seekers crossing into the United States are placed in 'hileras,' cells chilled to 50-55 degrees. They are stripped of warm clothing. Many get sick; several have died. This is torture and life endangerment," she added.

Anika Walke, an associate professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis told Newsweek she understood the sensitivity surrounding the term "concentration camp."

"An initial reaction could easily be to say, 'no, the detention centers at the U.S. border are not the same as the Nazi camps,'" she said. But to say the term applies only to camps set up by the Nazi regime is incorrect and only signals "an ahistorical understanding of the Holocaust," she added.

The Nazis "radicalized" internment technologies developed decades before. As well as concentration camps, the Nazis created death camps and forced labor camps, Walke added.

Auschwitz, for example, is more correctly described as a "death camp" than a concentration camp, Lachmann said—a distinction Ocasio-Cortez made on social media. Death camps, Walke said, "were expressly designed to commit mass murder."

And for the shrieking Republicans who don’t know the difference: concentration camps are not the same as death camps.

Concentration camps are considered by experts as “the mass detention of civilians without trial.”

And that’s exactly what this administration is doing.

— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) June 18, 2019

Jay Geller, a history professor at Case Western Reserve University, said Ocasio-Cortez was deliberately using the term "concentration camp" because of its "powerful association" with the Nazis. "In the popular imagination, the expression... evokes images of Dachau and Buchenwald [concentration camps], if not Auschwitz," he told Newsweek.

"She and others want to invoke our moral indignation through reference to the Holocaust, not the Boer War," he said, adding he would personally use terms such as "internment camps" or "detention camps" instead.

The camps "can be an affront to our sensibilities without being just like something during the Holocaust." Geller added his suggested terms don't "make the camps any better or diminish their horribleness."

Amy Simon, Michigan State University's William and Audrey Farber family endowed chair in Holocaust studies and European Jewish history, told Newsweek Ocasio-Cortez was 'completely historically accurate' in her use of the phrase "concentration camp."

But she also argued the representative used the "loaded" term "purposefully to call up those particular images of inhumanity."

Although some may see this as "unnecessarily inflammatory," others may see it as a "necessary" way to show the "severity" of the situation at the southern border, Simon added.

While there were "important differences" between Nazi concentration camps and migrant detention centers—such as the historical context, the motivations and the sheer level of horror—"there are also important historical similarities that should give us pause," she said.

Images of concentration camps, however the term is defined, will "necessarily" be invoked "any time a government uses blanket categorizations to hold indefinitely, without trial, people who have not committed any crimes in some kind of enclosed area," Simon continued.

Lachmann accused politicians criticizing Ocasio-Cortez's use of the term of deploying "the memory of the six million" killed in the Holocaust "to score political points."

As well as "undermining" left-wing voices, they are reserving the Holocaust as "a bludgeon to attack those who disagree with their views on Israel, Iran, or other political issues," he said. "They are not trying to educate the public about the Holocaust."

Buff said such criticisms of Ocasio-Cortez are "part of a long-term, right wing campaign against the overwhelming success and popularity of progressive politicians like her, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib."

But Geller argued that the debate that has emerged since Ocasio-Cortez used the term has become a distraction from "the real issue" which is "not what these camps are called, but that they exist."

Simon added: "It's not the term that matters as much as the fact that tens of thousands of innocent people are being held in terrible conditions with little to no recourse."

"This is not the Holocaust, but it is a serious issue which will not improve without radical changes to the detention policies and treatment of those detained," she said. "It threatens not only those in captivity, but also the democratic ideals of this nation."