More Than 400 Holocaust, Genocide Experts Think Ocasio-Cortez Should Be Allowed to Call Migrant Detention Centers 'Concentration Camps'

Update 07/02/2019 1:21 p.m.: More than 430 scholars who research the Holocaust and genocides have now signed an open letter to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum voicing their concern after the organization condemned the use of Holocaust analogies – such as the term "concentration camps" – when talking about any other event.

Anika Walke, an associate professor of History and International and Area Studies, at Washington University in St. Louis and Andrea Orzoff, an associate professor of History and Honors at New Mexico State University were the original drafters of the letter.

Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York drew significant criticism, as well as support, last month after she said that the detention centers used by the administration of President Donald Trump to house undocumented migrants are "concentration camps." Right wing critics and some Jewish groups came out strongly against the term, arguing that the congresswoman was politicizing Holocaust imagery and mischaracterizing the situation.

But many others disagreed, rallying behind Ocasio-Cortez's use of the term. Now, more than 140 historians who specialize in researching the Holocaust and other genocides have criticized the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for opposing Ocasio-Cortez's characterization of the detention centers.

"We are deeply concerned about the Museum's recent 'Statement Regarding the Museum's Position on Holocaust Analogies.' We write this public letter to urge its retraction," the scholars wrote in an open letter published by the New York Review of Books and dated July 1.

"By 'unequivocally rejecting efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary,' the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is taking a radical position that is far removed from mainstream scholarship on the Holocaust and genocide," the letter continued. "And it makes learning from the past almost impossible."

The scholars argued that the museum's "decision to completely reject drawing any possible analogies to the Holocaust, or to the events leading up to it, is fundamentally ahistorical."

"The very core of Holocaust education is to alert the public to dangerous developments that facilitate human rights violations and pain and suffering; pointing to similarities across time and space is essential for this task," they wrote.

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

Many of the scholars who signed the letter are strong supporters of the Holocaust Memorial, pointing out in the letter that they have used its library and other resources in their teaching and research. They hail from prestigious institutions of higher education from across the U.S. and around the world.

"Proud to be a signatory. This is a hugely powerful statement. The list of signatories contains a literal 'Who's who?' of Holocaust and Genocide Studies," Dr. Waitman Wade Beorn, a lecturer at the Corcoran Department Of History at the University of Virginia wrote on Twitter, sharing the open letter. "While there are certainly scholars who disagree, this statement makes the analogy a widely-held view."

On June 24, the museum released the following statement on its website: "The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary. That position has repeatedly and unambiguously been made clear in the Museum's official statement on the matter – a statement that is reiterated and reaffirmed now."

Migrant children in detention center
Migrant children who have been separated from their families can be seen in tents at a detention center in Homestead, Florida on June 28 RHONA WISE/AFP

That statement came just a few days after Ocasio-Cortez said in an Instagram live video that "The United States is running concentration camps on our southern border and that is exactly what they are." Continuing, the congresswoman said: "I want to talk to the people that are concerned enough with humanity to say that 'never again' means something," she added. "The fact that concentration camps are now an institutionalized practice in the 'Home of the Free' is extraordinarily disturbing and we need to do something about it."

Since Ocasio-Cortez made the comments, several reports have come out shedding light on the subpar conditions migrants are forced to endure in the facilities. In some instances, detention centers for migrant children were not providing adequate food, proper beds, medicine and hygiene products.

Dolly Lucio Sevier, a physician who toured several facilities, told ABC News that what she saw "felt worse than jail."

"The conditions within which they are held could be compared to torture facilities," the doctor wrote in a medical declaration.

More Than 400 Holocaust, Genocide Experts Think Ocasio-Cortez Should Be Allowed to Call Migrant Detention Centers 'Concentration Camps' | U.S.