Last month, U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a left-wing progressive who was first elected in her New York district in 2018, came under attack when she referred to the detention centres used by the United States government to warehouse Central American migrants – including children needlessly separated from their parents – as “concentration camps.”
As horrible as the conditions are at those detention centres – and from all credible reports the conditions are truly horrible – Ocasio-Cortez quickly came under sharp attack from political opponents, scholars, and several American Jewish organizations for her use of a term that conjures comparisons to the camps used by Germany’s Nazi regime in its perpetration of the Holocaust, a genocide in which six million Jews were murdered in an attempt to eradicate European Jewry.
“Concentration camps assured a slave labour supply to help in the Nazi war effort, even as the brutality of life inside the camps helped assure the ultimate goal of ‘extermination through labour.’ Learn about concentration camps,” Yad Vashem – The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, in Jerusalem, tweeted to Ocasio-Cortez.
Even U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, a candidate for the Democratic Party’s 2020 U.S. presidential nomination usually seen as an ally of Ocasio-Cortez, distanced himself from the comparison. While saying, “locking up children and keeping them in deplorable conditions for weeks in places that are not meant for kids … is absolutely unacceptable,” Sanders stressed that he didn’t and wouldn’t “use that terminology.”
We have learned not to trivialize the Holocaust – the worst genocide and the ultimate manifestation of antisemitism in history – with comparisons that do not rise to that horrible standard. That is why objections were raised to Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the term “concentration camps” and why we bristle when Israel is fallaciously accused of behaving like Nazis toward the Palestinians.
And yet, perhaps the most trivial of comparisons to the Holocaust in recent memory came from no less a figure than Rafi Peretz, Israel’s minister of education.
Peretz, who served as chief military rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces from 2010 to 2016, was elected leader of the Jewish Home Party in advance of the last Israeli election after former leader and former education minister Naftali Bennett, and former justice minister Ayelet Shaked, left Jewish Home. In a deal brokered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), a Kahanist successor to the banned Kach Party, stood together in the April election as the United Right, winning five seats in the short-lived 21st Knesset. A new election is scheduled for September 17 after Netanyahu failed to build a governing coalition.
On July 1, during an Israeli cabinet meeting, Peretz compared intermarriage – when a Jew marries a non-Jew – to “a second Holocaust” and rhetorically said that six million Jews have been lost to intermarriage over the past 70 years.
The comment came after a cabinet briefing on trends in Jewish communities around the world from Dennis Ross, chair of the Jewish People policy Institute.
As Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League tweeted in response to Peretz, “It’s inconceivable to use the term ‘Holocaust’ to describe Jews choosing to marry non-Jews. It trivializes the Shoah. It alienates so many members of our community. This kind of baseless comparison does little other than inflame and offend.”
Surely, the minister of education of the State of Israel should have known better.
Addendum: This column was written on July 12. On July 16, Peretz acknowledged that referring to intermarriage as “a second Holocaust” was “probably not an appropriate term to use.”