Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Defends Concentration Camp Comments: 'History Will Be Kind to Those Who Stood up to This Injustice'

In a tweet Wednesday, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defended the academic integrity of her claim that migrant detention facilities are "concentration camps."

The congresswoman came under fire for using the term in an Instagram Live video on Monday. Some commentators, including Republican Liz Cheney, criticized Ocasio-Cortez for comparing border detention centers to the Nazi camps where millions of Jews were killed.

But others defended her comments, citing the broader history of a term that dates back decades before World War II.

On Monday, Ocasio-Cortez accused the government of "running concentration camps on our southern border," adding: "that is exactly what they are." She expanded on Twitter, criticizing the separation of families at the border, and the conditions migrants face in "brutalizing" and "dehumanizing" detention centers.

The congresswoman defended her comments again on Twitter Wednesday, writing: "We are calling these camps what they are because they fit squarely in an academic consensus and definition.

"History will be kind to those who stood up to this injustice. So say what you will. Kids are dying and I'm not here to make people feel comfortable about that."

Some social media users criticized her tweet. Sportscaster Mark Sturgis wrote: "People are trying to illegally enter our country. That's a defense, not a concentration camp. It may not be perfect, but how dare you compare what the Jewish people went through to illegal entry. Visit Dachau one time, you will be embarrassed with what you said."

Dachau was the first Nazi concentration camp set up for "political prisoners." Of more than 188,000 people incarcerated at the site, at least 28,000 were killed, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The true number of deaths will probably never be known.

Some Twitter users came to the congresswoman's defense, emphasizing the pre-World War II history of the term.

User Amanda Stiltz wrote: "Concentration camps have been around long before WWII. They were used (and named as such) in Cuba in the 1890s, and by the British in the Boer War at the turn of the century."

Merriam-Webster defines "concentration camp" as a place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard.

The dictionary notes it is used "especially in reference to camps created by the Nazis in World War II for the internment and persecution of Jews and other prisoners"

Its first known use, the dictionary adds, was in 1897—the year Spanish general Valeriano Weyler opened "reconcentration camps" in Cuba. The term is often used to describe confinement facilities set up in South Africa by the British during the Boer War (1892-1902).

It has also been to refer to centers that held Japanese Americans during World War II and camps that housed indigenous populations, and later political prisoners, in Chile, for example.

But the term is most commonly used to describe the camps that held Jewish people and others deemed "undesirable" by the Nazis before and during World War II.

Over the course of the conflict, millions of Jews were sent to concentration camps and death camps in Germany and beyond. Forced to live and work in overcrowded facilities, many perished from malnutrition and disease within weeks. Millions of Jews were also killed by Nazi officers using toxic gas and gunfire.

Ocasio-Cortez' use of the term has divided commentators. Writing for CNN, Yale University historian Timothy Snyder argued: "The Holocaust cannot be a taboo to be invoked against critics of the status quo."

But he also questioned the accuracy of calling U.S. detention centers "concentration camps." "They are not excluded, in principle, from the rule of law. But I do see some risks and a good deal of injustice," he explained.

Andrea Pitzer, author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, said U.S. detention centers are "the heirs" of camps like those set up during the Boer War and those built in Myanmar in 2012 to hold more than 100,000 Rohingya Muslims.

Pitzer wrote: "Putting people in similar conditions will unleash illness and death. The more people who are detained, the larger these crises will become."

Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt told Haaretz on Wednesday that Ocasio-Cortez had made a "strategic mistake" with her use of the term. She told the Israeli newspaper: "Instead of talking about the horrors of the policy, we are debating whether it's akin to the Holocaust."

Newsweek has reached out to several historians for comment.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Concentration Camps
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) listens during a House Financial Services Committee hearing on April 10, 2019 in Washington, DC. Alex Wroblewski/Getty